Why cop mythology may kill us

As viewers watch a Tenn. deputy appear to lose control of his fear, yet another facet of our humanness comes to light

During the first 30 years of my law enforcement career the police community was invested in assuring the public that cops were super human and could handle anything. The last five years have been filled with fervent efforts to show our humanity. Viral videos abound showing police officers dancing and playing basketball with the kids. “See, we’re human!” say cops in unison.

But with ubiquitous bodycams we’re also going to show cops throwing up, swearing wildly, screaming in shrill voices and struggling to get one more breath before they die. None of this makes critics any more enlightened or less vicious.

Now, as nearly half a million viewers have watched bodycam footage of Tenn. Deputy Justin Johnson appear to lose control of his fear after he opened fire in a mobile home park and then suffered a panic attack four minutes later – leading to him being disarmed by a paramedic – yet another facet of our humanness comes to light.

A still image taken from Tenn. Deputy Justin Johnson's bodycam footage.
A still image taken from Tenn. Deputy Justin Johnson's bodycam footage. (Photo/Sevier County Sheriff’s Office)

human after all

The call Johnson was handling was within our realm of normal as far as calls go. But Johnson’s panic attack was an anomaly, a rarity and another dent in our collective armor. As peers, we are tempted to move to one of two extremes: an angry reaction with a denial that such a thing could ever happen to a real warrior cop, or having another fear embedded in our brain that this could really happen to me. Neither is healthy.

One of the things that drove me to retirement (politics aside) was my increasing realization that I could no longer sustain my own mythology. I grew up in the lone ranger era where you went to whatever call you had whether you had back up or not. So I told my 21-year-old rookie self that, by God, I’m the only cop this bar fight needs. Walking in to any place of business I still scan and assure myself I can take anybody in the room if I had to. That gets less and less realistic with each passing year, but I’m still standing.

This attitude might be what we call a survival mindset, and it works. But it doesn’t come without a cost. The price we pay is the denial of fear, the shoving of anxiety under the rug, the silencing of the temptation to say anything that might indicate we are a normal person. We silence that voice not only to our community, our family and our peers, but also to ourselves. We can build up a mythical persona that becomes sustainable only by pure luck, and when we draw the wrong card, we can fold faster than we expect, and harder than we ever thought possible.

I never intend for anyone to hear me speak on stress, anxiety and PTSD to get the slightest notion that this is a softening of the warrior spirit. I do not tell officers to get in touch with anything, or to feel something they don’t want to feel, or to have a good cry. I tell them what their body is doing when lives are at stake. I’ve driven a car until the engine breaks apart. The engine wasn’t weak, and it wasn’t having a bad day. It was a combination of not enough oil, a harsh external environment and a driver that kept his foot on the accelerator ignoring smoke and shudder and clanging noises.

What Deputy Johnson experienced was not common, but it was not outside of the range of normal human limits when the brain is exposed to a million simultaneous threatening stimuli.

We will to try to resolve this problem by running first to our likeliest suspect: we need more training. That may be, but we need more education first before we attempt to introduce more artificial stress inoculation into our agenda.

If you are experiencing panic attacks, stop hiding that from those who can help. Get a good trauma therapist to explore the possible root causes. Learn from your most potentially overwhelming experiences what the edge of your fear control feels like. Knowing you are headed to a potential anxiety attack can give you time to use preventive measures. Learn to recognize and intervene as paramedic Michael O’Connor did.

And don’t beat up on Deputy Johnson yet. We don’t know what he saw, felt or was experiencing in the days and weeks before he felt the world swallowing him up.

What to do when someone has a panic attack

A person feels that they have lost control during an anxiety attack. Re-engaging them (or yourself if you feel one coming on) with their senses can help:

  • If it is safe give a comforting touch, make eye contact and tell them they are safe now (if that's not an obvious lie).
  • Direct them to take a deep breath.
  • Ask them to feel themselves in contact with the ground.

These steps can help a person regain self-control.

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