In the wake of tragedy, we work to "unfreeze" and better ourselves

Editor's Note: The following article by Street Survival instructors Dave Smith and Betsy Brantner Smith touches on Kurt Lewin's theory of "unfreezing, moving to a new level, and refreezing" the behaviors of individuals and organizations. Lewin recognized the role of habit in thoughts and actions. "Unfreezing" is a method of making it possible for people to let go of an old pattern that was counterproductive. "Moving to a new level," says Lewin, involves a process of change in thoughts, feelings, behavior (or all three), that is in some way more poductive. "Refreezing" establishes the change as a new habit, so it becomes "standard operating procedure." Unfortunately, tragedy is a universal unfreezing event—we present this article in an effort to aid in the process Lewin describes, and we encourage you to share your comments below. 

By Dave Smith and Betsy Brantner Smith
Street Survival Instructors

As the law enforcement community continues to deal with the deaths of our three brothers in Pittsburgh, we have now learned that one of the dispatchers involved did not relay the information that cop-killer Richard Poplawski’s mother, who made the initial 911 call, told the call-taker that her son had weapons. There was immediate outrage on both sides of the dispatch console as cops and dispatchers weighed in on this issue on virtually every online police forum and undoubtedly in most squad rooms.

It is human nature to want to blame someone when tragedy strikes, and as everyone in law enforcement knows, there has always been a love/hate relationship between cops and their dispatchers. But we owe it to the fallen to learn, not to blame, and to grow and improve not regress behind anger or bitterness. Officer safety has to be a conspiracy starting from the initial call-taker and ending at the top administrator, and everyone in between must be involved.

• If your agency doesn’t already do it, cross training should begin immediately with dispatchers riding along with patrol on a regular basis. Dispatchers should be allowed and encouraged to attend officer survival training like the Street Survival Seminar Officers (and their supervisors) need to spend time in the communications center as well, learning what call takers and dispatchers deal with on every shift.
• Patrol should learn to communicate to dispatch any needs or concerns without fear of reprisal and the converse should be true as well. In other words, we have to talk to each other! Officers need to understand the chaotic atmosphere of the communications center, and if the dispatcher hasn’t given you all the information you’d like to have before arriving at the call, ask. Dispatchers need to be taught to anticipate what an officer needs to know in order to make good officer safety decisions. This can all be done with training.
• Policy and procedures as well as training for officers and dispatchers should create a complementary system, not a competitive system pitting one division or unit against the other. An emergency communications center cannot be viewed as a separate entity; we are a team and we must act like it and train like it! Incident debriefings should include dispatch and call takers as well as the officers involved in any critical incident.
• Training is an ongoing process not just done in the classroom, on the mat or at the dispatch console, but constantly reinforced by the “coaches” of the law enforcement profession, the supervisors and sergeants! Organizational silos must be torn down and dispatch should be part of the police function. Cops and dispatchers, as well as their supervisors and managers, must work in an atmosphere of cooperation and back-and-forth communication
• Finally, it is time to break down the politics of our law enforcement bureaucracy. In his excellent book “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars ” author Patrick Lencioni uses the analogy of normal issues involved with hospital processes as compared to highly functional, status neutral, goal oriented Emergency Room. It should be mandatory reading starting at the supervisor level and above and its exercises followed to assure our processes are focused and effective!

The dispatcher involved in the deadly Pittsburgh shooting is on leave and receiving counseling. As we mourn our fallen and continue to process this terrible tragedy, we must fight the urge to blame. Instead, we need to grow, to learn, and to support one another. It’s the best way we can honor those who have paid the ultimate price in our daily battle against evil.

Like the Newhall tragedy, the Columbine assault, and heartbreaking Oakland shootings, we should look at the Pittsburgh sacrifice and loss as unfreezing events in our rigid procedures and bureaucracies to make critical analysis, gain insight, and make the proper changes to make our organizations, our procedures, our training, and ourselves better.

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