3 ways to prepare for psychological realities of violent encounters

What few instructors teach is the psychological gap between the theory and practice of training and the jarring, disorienting reality of a violent encounter

Amid the current debate over recent and highly publicized police uses of force (UOF), law enforcement agencies policies, practices, and training related to the “how and when” of force are beginning to come under scrutiny. This is a natural and necessary — if often frustrating — byproduct of the debate that should be welcomed: where deficiencies in training and expectations of officers are lacking, let light and reform shine, but where officers and agencies are getting it right, let that be illuminated as well, so to answer the critics with sound and legal justification.

If the actions of those officers now under the microscope do reveal failures of training, judgment, ethics, or even to follow the law, let’s be honest about it and take responsibility to change where needed.

Many agencies are already examining how well their people are trained and taking proactive steps to improve — mine has greatly enhanced UOF trainings with well-planned and elaborate scenarios, improved equipment, and expectations of universal mastery — and others are sure to follow suit. With demands for greater accountability, a spotlight on policing that is just not going away, and the increased willingness of many offenders to fight back, departments and cops that fail to respond intelligently are setting themselves up for disaster. I see the current public crisis of confidence as an opportunity for improved officer training, performance, and outcomes.

Violence is Neither Natural nor Easy
While improved tactical training and greater accountability to policy, ethics, and law are positive outgrowths of a department’s self-reflection, I believe there is still a crucial but little addressed element inherent in almost every UOF situation. What many officers and administrators rarely consider, and few instructors teach, is the existence of a wide psychological gap between the theory and practice of training and the jarring, disorienting reality of a violent encounter.

Simply put, there are obstacles most peoples’ brains create that can prevent us from choosing and using the appropriate force necessary to protect ourselves from harm or to overcome violent resistance. Confused in a moment of extreme stress, our minds can lead us to freeze up and fail to use appropriate force, or grossly overreact and use too much. Awareness of this gap, and possessing the skills to overcome it, may be the difference between saving or losing your career… or even a life.

For most of us, violence is neither natural nor easy. It became clear to me soon after joining the police department that this is true even for a lot of officers who balk at using force on a resisting or fighting subject, regardless of how much self-defense training they’d received in the academy and beyond. While especially true of young cops early in their careers, even experienced officers may freeze or hesitate when something about the situation overwhelms their ability to react appropriately.

In his 2004 article, Why Things Go Wrong in Police Work — coauthored with then-IACP president Joseph Polisar — police psychologist Lawrence N. Blum addressed why some officers might overreact or underreact in the face of a threat:

“Unanticipated encounters, by definition, place the officer in a momentary position of disadvantage and can result in a momentary mental shock reaction in the police officer called perceptual lag. Under conditions of imminent, unanticipated, or rapidly changing threat, the spark and fuel for brain activity in the thinking brain is shifted to the reactive brain, to generate the individual's emergency response (fight, flight, or immobility).

In the moment it takes for police officers to reorient themselves… they are most vulnerable to error or some degradation in their performance. During the unexpected moments of police work, many officers experience a sense of urgency to catch up in order to take control, and may use degrees of force, for example, that are found to be improper or excessive. Still other officers may, in response to the same problematic conditions - for a split-second in time - remain immobile in the face of an imminent threat.”

Roadblocks to appropriate response arise from fear, uncertainty, a failure to accurately read what is happening before them, or disorientation but, regardless of the source, hesitation or overreaction can destroy lives and careers. Not all officers are susceptible, of course, and with time and experience most of those who are will build the confidence to act decisively with the right amount of force for the situation. Unfortunately, some will just never be able to do the job or earn the trust of their peers and supervisors.

But if an officer can hit such a roadblock during a routine UOF, how much greater risk of either over or under reaction is there during a deadly force encounter (DFE)? Most of us will use varying degrees of non-lethal and less-than-lethal force many times throughout our careers but only a tiny percentage will ever fire our weapon at another person; despite what media accounts might portray, DFEs are still a rare occurrence overall and, when they happen, police officers have to overcome a massive and well-documented psychological roadblock – an inborn aversion most human beings have to killing members of our own species.

The Human Aversion to Killing
During World War II, US Army historian S.L.A. Marshall conducted informal after-action interviews of combat troops and concluded that as many as 80-85 percent never fired their weapons at exposed enemy soldiers, even when failing to do so jeopardized their own survival. Some of the soldiers acknowledged firing indirectly toward the enemy but without specifically trying to hit anyone (or deliberately avoiding harming anyone) but some refused to engage at all.

Were the enemy distant or fleeing — granting the impersonality of great space or not shooting at someone whose face they could see — more soldiers would directly engage. Marshall’s research methodology was questioned but subsequent and more rigorous studies of combat troops in other conflicts corroborate it. Based on these studies, psychologist and professor Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman has concluded “there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man” and that often they “will die before they can overcome it.”

Scholarly study of warfare throughout history seems to confirm humans are, in general, ineffective killers when up close and personal with a potential target. The overwhelming majority of police DFEs are very up close and personal.

Most officers value and take seriously their oath to protect all life and will go out of their way to avoid using deadly force. They know shooting a person can be a deeply traumatic event regardless of justification, and the act will bring intense scrutiny and questioning from their department, the legal system, the media and public, and even from their own inner voice, all of which can promote immobility. And now, with the 1000W scrutiny we all face, uncertainty and self-doubt are bigger threats than ever.

Overcoming the Gap
Awareness that such a psychological gap exists and may appear at the worst possible time is the first step to overcoming it when the need arises. The risk of under or over reaction under stress are real and, frankly, only somewhat predictable. Remember, no matter how proficient you may be at any point of the UOF Continuum and with whatever tools you have at your disposal, until they are needed under sudden duress your proficiency is only theoretical.

Highly-trained martial artists who are “Masters of the Studio” can find themselves outmatched by an experienced streetfighter, and expert marksmen on the range throw rounds everywhere when the target is flesh and blood for the first time. With awareness, however, you can improve your odds by taking these simple but effective steps to prepare for a serious use of force encounter:

1. Practice visualization. Regularly asking yourself, “What will I do if/when…” and then imagining your response is an effective way to practice in the privacy of your own mind, but a discipline we often drop over time. Mentally preparing for UOF incidents combats complacency and reduces the likelihood you’ll freeze, panic, or overreact in the real moment.

Imagine how you’ll react to a variety of scenarios on every car stop, at every alarm, during every field interview. Imagine and mentally practice not just responding to deadly threats but to lesser degrees of noncompliance, resistance, flight, and verbal challenges in order to prevent overreach. Get in the habit of mindfulness throughout your day, every day, and eliminate the very idea that you’ll ever have to face “the unexpected.”

2. Seek realistic training. Use of force training should feel as close to reality as possible. With firearms, training based on operant conditioning, where officers fire at realistic, human-shaped targets (or perhaps live humans, using Simmunition) with immediate feedback (reward or correction depending on outcome) conditions officers to engage assailants intelligently, but without overthinking and hesitation. Many police departments have moved to this kind of firearms training but all should, and with much more frequency.

With all UOF training, hold yourself to the highest standard of attention and seriousness in learning and practicing the skills, and look for ways to stay in practice beyond the periodic qualifications your department requires. These are usually the bare minimum required for certification and, as time passes without paying them heed, skills diminish. Consider looking to outside classes to enhance what you know and pick up new skills you don’t.

3. Become a use of force expert. The fear of legal or departmental repercussions weighs heavily on most cops and can get in the way of acting. Take upon yourself the responsibility of becoming expert in federal and state laws and case law (think Graham v. Connor and Tennessee v. Garner, in particular) governing use of force, and your department policy, and think of staying constantly up-to-date on legal updates as an essential job function.

Confidence in your understanding of the law and policy removes a huge psychological hurdle. Looking at the controversial cases driving current debate with objectivity and sense of perspective does, as well. We are easily hamstrung by fear of what might happen to us if and when we use force, leading to the risk of a “too little/too late” response. We don’t want to be the next pariah. But maintaining perspective allows us to factually understand what some of our peers in the hot seat have done right, what could have done better, and where some realistically screwed up.

We resent armchair quarterbacking when our tactics are questioned so a lot of us try to avoid it when looking at someone else’s, but it is one of the best ways to prevent our own failures when facing similar situations.

Skill training for violent encounters is critical, and departments are stepping up to meet the challenges we currently face. Psychological training is just as important, but it might be up to you to be aware of and close the gap. 

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