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What makes a cop brave?

The brave don’t lack fear. They just don’t succumb to it. But can it be learned or is it innate?

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Many (if not all) of you will recognize that as John 15:13. Like many civilians, I wonder about folks who choose work that could require them to show “the greatest love” on any given day. Cops stand ready to show this love for strangers.

What makes you run toward danger while the rest of us flee? How are you able to overcome fear and survival instincts to intentionally put yourself in harm’s way to protect people you don’t know?

Scientists have wondered the same thing. In fact, science has a pretty solid picture of the brain on fear (see the sidebar item). But what makes people brave?

Heroes Among Us
Some civilians who — because of circumstances forced on them — become incident-driven rescuers rather than bystanders. Then there are the special few like law enforcement officers who choose to daily put themselves in harm’s way to protect others.

How do you do it? How do you overcome the brain’s mechanisms for self-preservation? Can bravery — facing danger or enduring pain for the sake of others — be learned or is it a trait you’re born with? Scientists are discovering that bravery is more nuanced and complex than fear. Bravery taps the mind and heart.

The brave don’t lack fear. They just don’t succumb to it. They can be strengthened by muscle memory that comes from intense training. Police understand this better than I do.

When you practice something over and over, the task gets switched from the outer cortex of the brain, where it is done consciously, to the basal ganglia where the reaction is automatic and unaffected by fear.

Police academies and military boot camps ingrain certain tactics into recruits’ brains by persistent repetition so they can function on autopilot when intense fear shuts down their rational brain.

That’s what flight attendant Lee Yoon-Hye described after she helped hundreds of passengers escape the wreck of Asiana Airlines flight 214 when it crashed short of the runway. Her multi-tasking under extreme stress included helping to deal with a deployed emergency slide trapping panicked passengers and an erupting fire.

“We followed our training,” she told reporters. “I wasn’t really thinking … my body just started carrying out the steps needed.”

Fear can fuel bravery. Short of panic, fear can facilitate heroic acts because it triggers the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. These compounds can focus attention, slow down time, dull pain, and mobilize the body’s energy for extraordinary speed and strength.

When teacher Rhonda Crosswhite shielded six students with her body as 200 mph winds turned her Oklahoma school building into splinters, she learned she was injured only after her adrenaline subsided.

“I had cuts everywhere that I didn’t even realize I had,” Crosswhite said.

Knowledge and Belief
Humans are naturally afraid of the unknown. Fear diminishes when we think we understand a threat. Brain-scanning machines show that when people are shown unfamiliar faces their amygdala light up – not so when shown familiar faces.

Self-efficacy is the belief that you can do what needs to be done. Experience — real or scenario-based — can provide knowledge and self-efficacy.

I carry. I strive to maintain gun handling competence with regular range work and various Gunsite Academy and other training. I hope I could measure up if faced with a deadly use of force incident but, having never been tested, I’m not certain. I’ve asked countless cops across the nation if they were certain. They’ve universally answered, with conviction, “Yes.” They’re who I want answering such calls — men and women who know and believe they can do what is necessary.

Military psychologists say that love for fellow soldiers is one of the most powerful forces behind bravery in combat. Brain science supports this.

Oxytocin is the hormone that cements social ties. Experiments indicate it also reduces fear. Subjects in a brain-scanner who were given whiffs of oxytocin while viewing frightening images showed significantly less amygdala activity. The effect was so substantial that experts are researching how to harness this hormone of fraternal love into a “bravery pill.”

What kind of love has officers willing to risk their lives for strangers? Coretta Scott King talked of a powerful love for people we may not know.

“Love is such a powerful force... that kind of unconditional love for all of humankind. That is the kind of love that impels people to go into the community and try and change conditions for others, to take risks for what they believe in.”

Grow the Knowledge
Many cops have shared with me that they’re “adrenaline junkies” (only in the nicest way). They thrive on the thrill and excitement of danger.

Adrenaline junkie is a colloquial term that describes someone who likes thrilling and fear-inducing situations. The act of conquering fear creates a rush of endorphins that create a natural high. Sometimes the inclination is to seek out ever more intense thrills.

You hold a key to knowledge and hard-learned wisdom about bravery. Please share in the comments section or email me via my website and I can share it while protecting any confidentiality you desire.

Have you experienced or witnessed an act of bravery?
What was it like – physically, mentally and emotionally?
Were any of the factors discussed above involved?
What did you take away from the experience?
What have the scientists and I completely missed about the mystery of bravery?

And while you’re being brave in a way I can only be thankful for, take care.

As a state and federal prosecutor, Val’s trial work was featured on ABC’S PRIMETIME LIVE, Discovery Channel’s Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. Described by Calibre Press as “the indisputable master of entertrainment,” Val is now an international law enforcement trainer and writer. She’s had hundreds of articles published online and in print. She appears in person and on TV, radio, and video productions. When she’s not working, Val can be found flying her airplane with her retriever, a shotgun, a fly rod, and high aspirations. Contact Val at