Book excerpt: Stay Ready

A veteran LEO's guide to complacency and developing behavioral awareness in high-risk environments


The following is excerpted from "Stay Ready: A Veteran Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Complacency and Behavioral Awareness in High-Risk Environments," designed to help LEOs better understand the behavior of others. Written by veteran officer Beau Cisco, this book combines his 20+ years of experience and knowledge of forensic psychology to offer a new way of protecting yourself on duty. Click here to order.

Complacency: Understanding the silent killer

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines complacency as marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.

I spoke to a traffic officer with over 20 years of experience and asked him how many traffic stops he performed throughout his career; his response was around 10,000. I marveled at the number and asked him how many shootings, fights, or critical incidents had he been involved in? His response was only a handful. I wondered to myself if I could do the same thing 10,000 times and still be mentally alert and focused every single time.

I think we have all heard warnings throughout our training and career to avoid complacency at all costs. I do not fault this logic in any way, but it does not take into account that we are all human. While being complacent in a high-risk profession such as law enforcement or corrections, can have its risks, we still need to look at it practically.

I consider myself an alert professional who puts an extraordinary amount of effort into doing my job well. That being said, I have come to work with two hours’ sleep because of young children, argued with my wife and thought about it all shift, been upset when others whom I felt undeserving were promoted ahead of me, felt burned out and frustrated with my career, or just plain tired and did not want to be there. Pretty much everyone experiences all these things throughout their life to some degree. We try and put our best foot forward when life takes its toll.

I feel complacency is very misunderstood in our profession, we’re constantly reminded to never be complacent, yet it is part of a natural cycle of human behavior. We simply cannot expect to be completely focused for every second of our careers. How does complacency not become part of my behavior profile, at least occasionally? We all know it only takes one time, so is it just luck that we’re all still here?

I want you to understand that complacency is a natural part of this job and that you will be complacent more times than you will care to admit to anyone. This does not mean you are doomed to be one of those videos shown in training of some officer getting seriously injured because of a mistake of not noticing the behavior of another. The average officer’s understanding of complacency stems from the belief that you “were just not paying attention” and that “you have become careless in your actions.” The actions associated with these examples can be disregarding basic safety principles to include lazy or ineffective searches, poor vehicle placement on calls, the distance in which you interact with potential adversaries and many other ways that can be seen as “cutting corners.”

Training has to incorporate complacency; you have to understand and train in a manner where you understand behaviors and force yourself through repetition to be observant so that even on the days where your mind is elsewhere you still understood your surroundings and became alert when it was necessary. I cannot imagine myself at peak alertness every day of my career for 30 years. I do however expect myself to train to understand behaviors so that even on days that I am not at my best, I will notice what’s going on around me, assess the dangers and be able to act accordingly and with purpose.

Cognitive biases are part of human psychology and it is important not to just assume and view them as a negative. We must accept that they are part of our psyche and learn to work with them and not shut them out. We may discuss biases as a negative in this part of the book, but these psychological functions are part of our framework in the way we think act and perceive the outside world. They are based on our experiences, our training, our education and also our comforts and discomforts in nearly every situation we encounter. I feel that understanding that biases exist and showing you their effects will give you a better understanding on how to incorporate them into your decision-making.

NORMALCY BIAS

Let’s take in the account more psychological aspect of the concept of complacency. On June 14, 2019, Republican members of the US Congress are playing in a charity baseball game in Alexandria, Virginia. A man with an assault rifle walked into the stadium and began shooting at congressional representatives and bystanders. A reporter and photographer named Marty LaVor, who covered the event was later quoted as saying:

"He picked up the rifle, and so I saw the rifle, and the thought that ran through my mind ... because it was so out of context, why would anybody have a rifle there? And, what ran through my mind was, 'Why would anybody be trying to shoot birds at six o'clock in the morning?” (Chappell, 2017)

While this may not make much sense, this is an example of the normalcy bias. The normalcy bias is a part of your conscience that takes things that don’t make sense and change the reality for them to make sense. It is highly unusual to see a man walk into a baseball stadium with a rifle. Many in the law-enforcement field would automatically jump to the conclusion that he is there to kill people, but the civilian world isn’t as prepared for that possibility. This photographer believed the man was there to shoot for birds because that is what made sense in his mind. This belief stems from a person’s background, experiences, and the general nature of the individual. Shooting nuisance birds at a sporting arena may have made sense to this person based on experiences and so the normalcy bias took an event that we would find irregular or alarming and made it normal.

Let us think now about the traffic officer who made 10,000 traffic stops with virtually no critical incidents over the course of 20 years. It is conceivable to believe that this officer while knowing there is a risk, has the mindset of there is nothing out of the ordinary with this traffic stop. In that case, the normalcy bias may confirm that by changing suspect observations, to what we would consider being normal.

On June 25, 2009, Sergeant Mark Chesnut made a traffic stop outside Nashville, Tennessee for a seatbelt violation. As he addressed the occupants, it was clear when watching the dashcam video that there were several inconsistencies in the passenger’s stories ranging from where the car was rented, their destinations, the purpose of travel, and where they had come from. Sgt. Chesnut even observed a pair of handcuffs in the backseat of a car. Despite all this, Sgt. Chesnut went back to his vehicle to make a phone call leaving one of the occupants unattended in their vehicle. The amount of suspicious body language, deception, and pre-violence indicators are staggering. Sergeant Chesnut was a 15-year officer specializing in highway interdiction and traffic enforcement. Minutes later, he was shot six times on this traffic stop and nearly died. I don’t relay that story to shed any dishonor on Sgt. Chesnut or his unfortunate circumstances, but we must ask ourselves why these things happen in order to train a new generation ensuring this happens less frequently.

On December 14, 2009, Police1.com published an interview titled “Shot 5 times. A sergeant reflects on lessons learned,” that mentioned many of the indicators that I just listed, but when he saw the handcuffs, “I thought these guys must be a couple of rogue bounty hunters as well as drug mules.” He may have believed this was the case due to past experiences with similar circumstances. He felt safe because he had survived those encounters with little or no negative events. Therefore, this case seemed normal and he felt in control, despite evidence to the contrary. Sergeant Chesnut felt the actions and behaviors of these individuals were consistent with “rogue bounty hunters running dope” and failed to look further. The situation felt normal and therefore, he felt comfortable and in control. I’m not making Excuses for Sgt. Chesnut or other officers that have acted in similar manners. I am, however, showing you that there are reasons for behaviors, and they are completely avoidable with a positive mindset and a little training.

This event also is an excellent example of what I like to call investigative blindness, which is the unfortunate mindset of officers to think that once they have identified the type of case/crime they are working, it is difficult for them to conceive that there are other things happening also. After all, when everything seems normal and comfortable, why would you look further?

Change blindness

Another psychological factor that plays a role in our situational awareness is called “change blindness,” a highly studied aspect of human psychology where the brain focuses more on the overall situation rather than the small events.

Several university studies have conducted experiments, or a man asks somebody for directions on the street, as they are receiving directions confederates in the experiment work by carrying a large signboard or mirror and therefore, temporarily separating the person asking and the person giving directions. During this time, one of the people carrying the board will still fully replace themselves with the person asking for directions. In some cases, 40 to 60% of the time, the switch goes unnoticed. In several cases, they have switched sexes, races, clothing, and other physical attributes that also went unnoticed. The reasoning for such a phenomenon is largely a factor of attention. This occurs when an individual becomes so focused on an event or situation that they failed to notice the small details.

A famous experiment dealing with change blindness involved a video where several students dressed in black shirts and several students dressed in white shirts were passing a basketball to each other in a group. Participants in this experiment were asked to count the number of passes by those wearing a white shirt and while a large number reported the correct number of passes, they failed to see a man in a gorilla suit walk through the crowd of people. (Christopher Chabris, 2010)

While we are likely to see a man and a gorilla walk through one of our calls and or scenes, we frequently miss or overlook small details such as body language, deception cues, and pre-attack indicators on a regular basis. While they may seem much unrelated, I assure you that that is not the case. We tend to miss small facts and details because we are focused on the big picture. In many cases, this is because of high stress, exhaustion, confusion, or overconfidence.

In the pursuit of striving to avoid complacency in our daily work environment, we must also understand the physical and psychological limitations our brain has. Understanding these things is the first step in this training and by continuing this book, you will learn over time to overcome these limitations and greatly diminish your chances of complacency.

Training and operations

When we think about complacency in the context of behavioral awareness, we must take into account our training and socialization. Most people feel they have an acceptable level of situational awareness yet in many casual conversations most people could not answer simple questions about what’s going on around them. While I am not interested in the common situational awareness belief that you should be memorizing how many chairs are in a room or license plate in a parking lot, those are for the TV spy. I am interested in enabling you to become more aware of the behaviors around you. Throughout this book, I will stress that a training and socialization philosophy must be adopted in order to be able to use the items in this book. Chiefly, we are looking to erase the behaviors that build with complacency and replace them with more effective habits and understanding your behavior.

When people fear they are in danger their situational and behavioral awareness peaks due to a survival instinct that we all have. The problem is, countless times you will read about victims repeatedly stating “I never saw it coming” or “I was not expecting it, it came out of nowhere” and other statements similar to these. One of the biggest obstacles in developing behavioral awareness is that it needs to be constantly active. I do not feel that people should or even can be in a constant state of alert every waking moment, this is a recipe for disaster and burning out. Yet, it would seem the necessity is real. This is where our training comes into play, or lack thereof. The average officer will engage in thousands of hours of training throughout the course of his career. This will stem from academy, additional training classes, in-service training, professional development courses, online and video training and training each day at the beginning of a shift. In this section, we will discuss the aspects of training law enforcement and how we correctly and incorrectly implement that training in the field.

During our agency's yearly training, I was watching three instructors show seasoned officers how to tactically enter a room during a building search. The training was significantly different from the training in previous years for tactically entering rooms. As I sat there watching the class, I was distracted by a group of newer officers sitting next to me. I could hear them grumbling over the fact that the instructors had admonished them for questioning why the training was different this year. One of the officers was sharing his plan to just finish the training and go back to how he's always done it. The other officers nodded in agreeance and had made up their mind that this training was just the training division's way of justifying their existence. I addressed the officers and asked them, “Have you ever thought that they are not replacing existing training, but teaching a new method to show that we have more options in the field?” Sadly, none of the officers had thought that because the instructors had not presented it that way.

When we contemplate that last example, we can take a guess that this particular training will have very little impact on the officers' performance. It is also safe to assume that any positive benefits that were intended with the training are probably lost given the officers' mindset. We will now explore how mindset impacts our learning and training in both law enforcement training as well as the behavioral awareness training that will come later in this book.

Colonel David Grossman has written several books where he discusses mindset in law enforcement and military training and operations. He speaks about how in stressful situations we will fall back on our training. For the most part, this is a true statement and one of the main reasons the military and law enforcement train so stringently with tactics, weapons and fighting because it is the training we hope to fall back on when we are at our most stressed. However, one of the fallacies in this thinking is that in reality, we are only likely to fall back on the training that we gave our “heart and soul” to.

I recall a class in the police academy when we were learning defensive tactics. During one of our lessons, the instructors had set up several punching bags, each designed for a different punch or kick. As we rotated through the stations we would punch or kick as we were instructed to for a set time and then move to the next station. The instructor repeated over again for us to “take it seriously” as we punched and kicked the bags. He asked us to imagine a scenario where we were fighting for our lives as we punched and kicked at each station. In spite of these instructions, I would look around the room at the other recruits and see that many of them we're not taking this instruction seriously and that they were just going through the motions of punching and kicking the bags with little or no ferocity. When it comes time to use these skills in a real-life and high-stress environment will those who failed to apply the proper mindset in training be as successful as those who did? The short, answer is no. The use of proper mindset during training is as important as the technique when you are hoping to have the ability to recall under stress.

This is one of the building blocks of the complacency mindset. Were the recruits were not taking the training seriously because they felt they did not need the extra training, did they feel “it won’t happen to me” or did they simply not understand the dangers of the job?

I recall several “after school special” tv shows while growing up where a bully had challenged a weaker kid to a fight after school. The weaker kid agonized the whole day how to avoid the fight. It would stand to reason the weaker kid never put any effort into fighting or simply never thought he would ever need it.

When we examine complacency, we need to understand how the mind works. In this case, it is important to take into account what we take seriously and how we make decisions based on that. We all have a lifetime of lessons learned, teachings, mistakes, successes and failures that guide our decision-making process. We call this experience and we let it guide the way we navigate through life. Psychology would label this type of experience as cognitive biases. (Tversky, 1974) These are shortcuts in decision-making processes based on our “experiences”. In some cases, they increase our efficiency by allowing us to make a quick decision without deliberation, which can be a positive outcome form some decisions. On the negative side, cognitive biases can distort our thinking and allow us to “jump to conclusions,” make “snap decisions” and fall into lazy thought processes.

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