Monday, September 24, 2012

A Day in the Life

The shift seemed to go really fast. The tension was palpable, and it was as though every mood and movement were set to music. There would be two dead bodies and one armed robbery before my shift was over.

I stepped under the crime scene tape to kneel at the lumpy white sheet, pulled it back and tilted my head to look at the gaping wounds on the dead man's face. Crime scene techs swarmed over the liquor store, carrying their sidearms gracefully as they balanced their fingerprint kits, light sources, and cameras flashing photo after photo. My partner, a rookie dete ctive, waited anxiously for my pronouncements.

The case seemed familiar. I think I knew who did it - but it was an old nemesis who should still be behind bars. "I don't think this is where he fell when he died. The body's been moved. See this entry wound? Looks like a nine mil but the gun here beside him is a .45". I pulled out my pen and slid it down the barrel to pick it up, then dropped it into an evidence bag presented to me by a technician stooping to help.

I stood up relying on my memory rather than wasting time taking notes and walked to a large warehouse in the back of the store. Two burly guys were pushing merchandise around and making notes on a clipboard. I interviewed them for a few minutes as they meandered around, pausing only to deliver a deadpan response. I approached the first worker. "You work for the guy in there?" I asked as I followed him around the warehouse. He paused and met my eyes. "Not anymore," he said, gruffly. Then he continued about his tasks while I asked him about the murder.

My rookie partner's cell phone rang. He answered seriously and looked at me before he flipped the ancient phone shut. "Another one?" I asked, prophetically. "China town", he said ominously as I followed him to the shiny black Crown Vic by the line of uniformed police holding back the crowd. The dancing red waves of light were still flashing from the magnetic red light on the roof of the unmarked car . Reporters tried to get in our faces with cameras and microphones, but we sped off yelling "No comment" over our shoulders. My captain's voice blistered on the radio: "Franklin on tac 3". I picked up the mike and rolled my eyes at the rookie. "Go", I said, holding the button down the whole conversation. "That other scene you're headed to. It's Gloria". I sighed, said "10'4" and turned off the radio in frustration.

With only the sound of the siren filling the car, the rookie knew better than to ask me who Gloria was, but he deserved to know. "She's a hooker. My best snitch. We had a thing once - don't ask. She knew something was wrong - tried to call - I didn't get back with her". And now she was dead and somehow I felt responsible. We'd left one dead body behind, with no suspects, and the clock already had burned up 17 precious minutes.

We roared up to the scene. It was almost a carbon copy of the one we had left, and like a million alleys of a million hookers and strippers who'd been murdered on my watch. Crime scene tape, uniformed officers, hordes of reporters and curious onlookers - one of whom may be the killer. Silently and as if on cue, my partner and I removed our Glocks, racked the slide back to see if there was a bullet in there, re-holstered and got out of the car. Unsure of the danger ahead, we nodded at each other, held our pistols vertical and up close to our faces, then thrust them around each corner like a periscope until we got to Gloria's body.

To my surprise I sensed the slightest pulse of life, leaned over, and heard her final raspy whisper. I thought at first she said "I love you", but when my head cleared and I said it out loud I glanced at my rookie with a flash of revelation and said "By Bellview!" I laid the hand I was holding back down to her now lifeless body and hustled back to the car. "Give me the keys!", I ordered, and the rookie tossed them to me without hesitation as we jogged to the car, our trench coats flapping behind us.

Again the rookie's cell phone buzzed against his pocket. He answered, looked at me, nodded, said "Right. Thanks", hung up and announced to me that the fingerprints and DNA on the gun from the liquor store had matched to Big Tater, a perp that I had put in prison the first year I had my gold shield. He left the state prison two days ago on an early release.

At Bellview Apartments, I ran up three flights of stairs, gun drawn, rookie slobbering like a puppy on his first rabbit hunt, and we stood to either side of apartment 45 - the same number as the caliber of the gun found a the liquor store! - and I rocked my head back and forth three times to signal to the rookie that we were going in on three. Standing center of the door I made one swift kick with the sole of my loafer and the door crashed down. The occupant, an ugly gang member of some nameless ethnic minority, was startled but still tried to fight. I slammed him against the wall while reciting the Miranda warning from memory. I looked at the clock on the wall. We'd been on the case almost fifty minutes, not counting commercials. I had just enough time to sit in the captain's glass enclosed office and explain how I had managed to solve the crimes without taking notes, writing a report, or collecting any evidence.

It was easy. It always is when you're a television cop.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Survival Mindset

I know I’m going to get letters on this one. Nasty letters. Letters that say I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m:

A.) an administrator

B.) not a big city cop

C.) just an academic out of touch with reality

D.) old

E.) not a true warrior

F.) etc, what-have-you, and so on

Misunderstood, Misapplied, and Misdirected

What I’m about to say may burst your bubble and make you so ticked off you can’t even finish the article through your angry eyes. I’m going to meddle with our collective and perhaps necessary cultural mythology. I’ll be branded a heretic to the religion of officer survival because I’m going to rail against cheap thinking that replaces reality in the minds of many of our police officers today. And I’ll even throw in a Bible verse to make the atheists and agnostics think I’m narrow minded and exclusive. All ready on the firing line?

The survival mindset is overrated.

Hold your fire. Maybe what I really mean is that survival mindset is misunderstood, misapplied, and misdirected.

Let’s do a little thinking about what sometimes passes for a survival mindset.

Are you overweight, out of shape, and full of junk food? Then you don’t have a survival mindset, you have a good luck charm. Your positive attitude isn’t going to push more oxygen through that extra few miles of blood vessels you’ve got weaving through your fat cells. If you had a genuine survival mindset you’d go for a walk every once in a while and stop popping buttons off your shirt.

Is your personal life a mess? Then you don’t have a survival mindset, you have paranoia and control issues. Your so-called will to survive is limited to not getting killed on any given day. A genuine survival mindset comes with a lot of reality checks and life balance.

“For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he,” says Proverbs 23:7.

How can you be a survivor in one area of your life and not all? Real confidence applies to every facet of your life, not just your swagger in uniform.

Are you as ready to sacrifice your life for a heroic cause as you are to survive combat? If not, then you have a strong sense of self-preservation, not a survival mindset. If you are quick to criticize officers who have died in the line of duty by spouting off that they just didn’t have a survival mindset that’s usually a sign that you’re whistling in the dark in denial about the realities of dynamic lethal encounters that you just can’t process. A deep survival mindset accepts death as a reality that does not deter what you have to do.

Do you approach your duties casually because you can handle anything that comes up? Overconfidence is not a survival mindset. It’s just cocky and stupid. Are you afraid of what other officers will think if you ask for a back-up? Do you rush in to prove you’re not afraid of anything? That’s posturing for your buddies, not solid police work.

Do you ignore advice of senior officers or cops from other agencies because you think you have the best, newest training? The survival mindset wastes no information. It seeks out small nuggets and puts together bits and pieces from every person, every trainer, every offender, and even people you don’t like. The officer who thinks they have arrived at their peak of knowledge and proficiency is not survival minded, but small minded. The true warrior is a humble learner.

Do you make light of death, tragedy, sorrow, and see emotion as a weakness? Then you’ve got a light-weight coping skill, not a tough survival mindset. Survival deals with reality and processes in a slow, mature way. Survival does mean suppressing your emotions appropriately — not ignoring them in yourself or others.

I recognize that I haven’t given a good definition of what a survival mindset is — just a few examples of what it isn’t. My goal is to start a discussion about whether we are really training today’s officers in that attitude, or merely brainwashing them to think that mindset trumps discipline and training.

It does not.

Bravado, posturing, boasting, pretending, and ignoring our fears are useful tools. Sometimes we do have to fake it until we make it. But as a lifestyle, they are poor substitutes for a survival mindset that will rise to any occasion, yields to learning, and balances the will to live with the will to live well, and with the courage to die.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Where Were the Superheroes?

The endless analysis begins before the blood-stained theatre seats have grown cold. I am long past being tempted to explain an insane or evil killer and from first glance it is unlikely that police and emergency response will yield much valid criticism since by all appearances first responders were amazing. But what about the audience of hapless sheep submitting to the slaughter? Where were the heroes among those watching a story about a fictional savior from crime and corruption?

I suspect that there were many.

Self-preservation is not irrational nor necessarily cowardly. Despite the images of screaming stampedes of humans driven by pure fear, accounts from past public disasters assure us that people behave a lot more normally and rationally that we might at first believe. Let's look at a number of factors that may have put this particular attacker at such an advantage that almost no spontaneous resistance could be effective.

Expectations and mental state

A recreational setting is perfect for a dulled and lulled victim set. Who could expect anything other than a fun a relaxed atmosphere at a movie, at midnight, with a surrealistic futuristic comically bizarre set of characters? A subtle expectation of some new twist at this particular show may have opened the mind of those attending to accept any weird occurrence - almost like walking through a Halloween spook house. Everything that was within the realm of a possible normal entertainment value would be accepted by the mind as a non-threat. We cannot blame anyone for being unprepared for a multi-phased lethal attack that bore the surreal marks of the Batman movie itself.

Protectors of our own first

The police mindset is one of heroic intervention for a grand cause. Those at the theatre with guardian roles undoubtedly shielded and protected girlfriends, children, siblings, and strangers. From the many untold stories, there are already those of quick acting persons pushing others to safety and behaving courageously. Seeking cover to avoid being a victim makes a world of sense. We call it taking cover and protecting in place.

Overwhelming sensory input

Tear gas. Dark. Loud, flickering movie. Exploding gunshots. A fast-growing crescendo of moans and screams. Who even among our own elite has been conditioned to operate as an aggressor against a threat in that environment?


The greatest misunderstanding of civilians and police alike is the element of time. The cry of "why didn't you...?" is an effort for the rest of us to make sense of it. But this attack will be measured in seconds, even as we hear reports of the criminal walking calmly up the aisles picking his targets. The brain can process information and formulate a response only within the limits of time. Deaths happen with each trigger pull at a rate measurable in deaths per second in active killing scenarios. Reaction time to formulate even those must primitive of counterattacks were beyond possibility. Those seated in the audience, as anyone who has a craving for popcorn midway through a show can recall, are in a confined space of obstacles. Distances to target from victim to criminal would turn any single person to rush the killer into a pop-up target for the formidable weaponry in the killer's hand. There was no time to coordinate a group effort to rush the madman. Recruiting an able bodied team of persons accepting probable death was impossible.

Lessons learned

I sigh as I think of the fresh paranoia and second guessing that will spray across the country in the months to come. As civilians look to us for answers and insight, let's be careful to acknowledge not only the outstanding heroism of our brothers and sisters in uniform, but also the survivors in theatre nine. Overwhelmed by a calculated tangle of evil in a vicious senseless attack, survivors will point to moments of courage and compassion marking the event and its aftermath. We mourn the dead and rage against the slaughter. But let us not forget to salute the heroic human spirit - not the one on the screen in a cheesy costume - but the real ones around us.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Moral Immperitive of Survival

Some voice told me not to step across the threshold. At least I had an escape route as the drunken man waved his brand new — and very large — hunting knife in a challenge to me. Killing a man in his own home on his birthday would make for bad press, but I kept pressure on the trigger and watched the imaginary line I had drawn on the floor which would mark the man’s last breath. I was at peace with my decision even before fate intervened and the man lived. I could be in church the next morning with a clear conscience either way. Most religions, certainly true of mine, are purposed to have men live peaceably and yet they have a place of honor for warriors. In the natural order of things in a fallen world protectors are divinely ordained to exist as an agent of good. They are not commissioned to heal and spread glee. They are not armed with poetry and pillows. God knows we kill and He is OK with it. While this article deals with ethics from a Christian perspective, with rare exceptions most philosophies, moral systems, and theologies agree on this concept. Here is why, in my view, Biblical morality allows taking the life of another: 1.) The law of Moses (the Ten Commandments) forbids murder. This is not a prohibition against the killing of war, nor of self-defense, nor of administration of justice. Historical context and word study make this clear to most theologians. 2.) The biblical mandate for forgiveness and turning the other cheek is for personal morality. When we act on behalf of others, we have no moral authority to forgive on their behalf, to allow evil for the sake of tolerance, or to turn the cheek of anyone but ourselves. My badge represents all citizens. My sword and my body are in their service. To allow harm to me is to allow harm to them. To do them the most honor and highest service I must survive to continue the work. When I defend myself I defend thousands. 3.) Jesus was always kind to soldiers, even those who carried out his execution. The Apostle Paul, primary theologian for the young Christian religion is most likely author of the New Testament book of Romans chapter 13:1, states: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Certainly there are authorities who abuse their powers, just as there are parents - ordained by God to be caregivers of their children - who abuse their role. But the point is that when a person is acting in this God-ordained role appropriately, he or she is doing a noble duty in line with a legitimate earthly system of preserving order. 4.) Biblical accounts reveal the scars of battle on the minds of men. King David was called a man after God’s own heart, yet his legacy was soldiering. He was a righteous warrior with some human failings. David mourned only for the deaths he caused by his own scheming to cover up a scandal, and for his rebellious son. We are not told if he grieved for the tens of thousands who died at his hand in battle. The Apostle Paul personally executed believers until he, too, became one. Noah closed the door of the Ark against his prior tormentors left to drown when the floods came and they decided Noah wasn’t crazy after all. Conclusion My point is that even though death was a common theme in scripture there is no specific biblical prescription for handling death that comes from our own hands in terms of our emotional, mental, and spiritual state. There may be remorse, anger, guilt, glee, or a vacant place where feelings are expected to be. All of those reactions are normal and morally acceptable. They will be refined and worked out over time. Reactions to killing someone don’t have to be fully formed and resolved before the smoke of the gun clears, before the administrative leave is over, or before the counselor or chaplain visits are done. We may sense a global sadness about the loss of one’s potential for good, but being thankful that the other guy is dead and you’re still alive is not morally repugnant. Because the killing of one human by another is unthinkable to most citizens — and many officers — a police officer who kills has thrust upon them the collective anxieties of the whole social order. No way of feeling or thinking about the killing is going to please everyone. You feel what you feel. You did what you had to do. Take a deep breath and feel your pulse. If you survived, then you did the right thing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stop Saving Good Tactics for "The Big One"

suspect that everybody has something in a drawer or shelf that we just can’t bear to part with and yet never seem to use. If you haven’t yet seen A&E network’s popular show “Hoarders” — about compulsives who can’t throw anything away — you might still be able to relate to our innate fear of getting rid of something we might need someday. Too many patrol officers and supervisors have the same attitude about some aspects of police work. We keep some tactics on the shelf, ready to pull out only for what my old FTO referred to as the “Big Bust Club” (a moniker he gave up after our first female officer joined the force). The implication was that some aspects of policing belonged only to the SWAT team, or the detectives, or when we had a big felony bust. Here are a few examples (please add to the list) of tactics we keep on the shelf but that we should use routinely on everyday calls. Intel If knowledge is power, why not get as much power over a situation as possible? Before contacting a suspect can we find out more about him or her? Do we have time to talk to a neighbor, find out something about his friends, car, hobbies, habits? There is nothing more disarming to suspects than when they realize you know something about them that they didn’t expect you to know. Taking a few moments to talk to sources about the layout of a suspect’s house or if there are dogs or kids present can be a life saver. Gathering intelligence information should be as routine for the patrol officer as it is for the SWAT team preparing for a raid. Staging I remember being in a hotel attending a terrorism response conference when the fire alarm went off. Two local police officers responded and parked facing each other under the entrance canopy. The officers were exposed as they got out of their cars, impeded the egress of guests evacuating the hotel, and blocked a critical access for the responding fire and ambulance units. The officers were thinking response time, not operational management. If the call had been of a terrorist or active shooter in progress the response might have been radically different. The reality is the officers should have responded as if the call was an unknown trouble call — because aren’t all calls an unknown trouble? First responders should be conditioned to think about how their initial deployment will affect other responding units, as well as their own safety, in approaching every call. Debrief We learn by experience, and we learn from our experiences much more deeply and permanently by reflecting on them. Supervisors and fellow officers should take the opportunity to examine lessons learned from all kinds of call responses, not just the hostage situations and tactical team operations. I’m not talking about nit-picking every call but we can learn from every event. A high level of professional competence comes only from repetition of experiential learning (i.e. practice). If we can create learning opportunities every day, from both success and failure, we might avoid the high price of mistakes later. Evidence Collection Evidence, including physical, circumstantial, and testimonial, is often left to the investigators or shrugged off as not worth it in small cases. If we practice taking evidence in bicycle thefts and shoplifting cases several benefits can accrue. Victims will appreciate your effort. A happy customer may be the next willing witness or jury member for your future cases. Increasing solve rates on minor crimes is associated with solving more serious crimes. Practicing solid investigative skills on small cases is directly transferable to felony crime solving skills. Too often, supervisors will rush patrol officers, discourage tying up patrol time with investigations, and giving the impression that writing reports is the end product of police work rather than solving crimes and developing skills. Let's Get Started I remember visiting a friend as a teenager whose house was like a museum. There was white carpet we couldn’t walk on, antique chairs we couldn’t sit on, and fine China in a cabinet being saved for a special occasion that never seemed to come. What skills and tactics are you leaving on the shelf? Take one down, dust it off, and put it to use!

Staying Sane by Talking to Yourself

It’s four in the morning and I’m on call. The ringtone on my cell for dispatch makes me start trying to remember where my clothes are — I know I’m going out in fifteen below zero weather to take a report. “An opportunity to serve,” I mutter to myself. An opportunity to serve. That’s my manta for call-outs. By the time I’m on scene, I’ve usually said it a dozen times. It makes me remember what my purpose is, and to focus on the citizen customer who doesn’t need to know what an inconvenience he is to me. Although I’m good at recognizing the signs of stress, sometimes it takes a few minutes to realize that my shoulder muscles are tight or that I’m sighing a lot or that I’m concentrating on trivial, easily solved tasks instead of the elephant in the room. When I finally become self-aware I find that a focusing thought for the moment can restore my perspective. Rather than cursing or shouting a meaningless phrase like “SERENITY NOW!” I use a positive phrase containing some solid truth helps me get back on track. When my father, who rarely cursed, found his thumb under a hammer and was tempted to take the Lord’s name in vain to get his emotions and his pain under control, I would hear him say “God..... bless America!” In times of difficulty I remember a Bible verse or thought, like “In all things give thanks,” or “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives.” I’ve also made up my own sayings such as: “What doesn’t kill you still makes you flinch at loud noises,” to remind me that character building has its cost. Visual pictures can also help to reassemble one’s sanity on stressful days. I like the image of a tent being blown in the wind. Mentally I go to each corner of the tent, pounding the stakes into more solid ground. It reminds me to take care of the foundational things instead of chasing the wind. When writing my book Is the Line Ready: A policeman’s perspective on worldly wisdom, I assembled a year’s worth of great sayings to stay motivated and grounded. There are many such books as well as services that can email a quote a day or an inspirational thought or verse. Rather than engaging in verbal or mental rants and negative self-talk, try using guiding words, thoughts, and images. Doing so can be a bridge to healthy thinking.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Thought for Police Week 2012

Alone in the darkness with only the glow of the dash lights and the red, green, and amber lights of various electronics surrounding the drivers’ seat, thousands of police officers cruise, crawl, or careen through the streets and back roads of America every night of the world. And yet they are not alone. Some surround themselves with icons of the fullness of their life. A picture of their child or a statue of St. Michael, or a card printed with inspiring or motivating words. Memories accompany them, too. Words of an academy instructor. Advice from an old hand. The longer the years, the more stories they carry. It seems that every block or mile post reminds them of an incident. Even that old patrol car, the odometer marking each mile, can hold a lot of stories. The other — and universal — companion of every officer is the constant presence of death. We can ignore it, reject it, fight it, accept it, or challenge it. death doesn’t care much what we think of it. However we ride with death it rides with us still. Will it meet us at the next call? Will he visit us before we get home again? I am no stranger to death. As a lawman, I have had death in my nostrils. As a chaplain, I have officiated over its handiwork. As a coroner, I have declared it. As a messenger, I have announced its arrival. As an investigator I have probed it. As a human, I have touched its twilight with prayers for deliverance from it. As a son, I have watched the science of its arrival, measuring the absence of the breath and pulse of life in the clean, white room of my father’s last moments. We can taste it in the wasted lives and vacant looks of the addicts. We see its shadows in the hopeless child. We see its wicked finger beckoning to the woman on the bridge whose life has lost its appeal. We see it reflected in the engravings on a thousand noble memorials to fallen warriors. When we stand at those graves or under the half-lowered flags this police memorial week, has death won? I say no. I claim with the Apostle, “O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I shake my fist at death and do not fear it. If we have lived well and planted good works and wisdom, death does not win. If we serve daily in honor of those who served to the end, death does not win. If those who survive us can say we were good and faithful servants, death does not win. If we look past our last breath and see a future that bears the mark of some good we have done, death does not win. If we cheat death’s purpose of robbing us of precious moments by burying them in silence and instead say today to those whom we love how much they mean to us, death does not win. This week we will grieve. Death has visited our brothers and sisters. It has taken warriors from us. It has battered and bruised and challenged us. But it has not won.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Excited Utterance and Officer Involved Trauma

By Joel Shults

The legal belief that people behave rationally on a conscious level, short of mental disease and defect, can be lethal to the career of an officer involved in a controversial traumatic event.. A lot of attention has developed around the brain and its processes in recent years. A search of book titles about how we think, make decisions, and learn most effectively will reveal several best sellers. Legal assumptions have not caught up with biological realities and may never be able to do so.

Are humans rational? I believe so, but not always on a conscious level. Let’s take a walk down the block and examine how the brain guides us. Stay with me while I make a crucial point. If the terrain is familiar then some neural paths have already been formed in the brain – you know to be alert for that uneven place in the sidewalk and the dog that always barks ferociously from the other side of the fence. If this is unfamiliar territory then the brain must rely on previous walks to interpret and navigate the environment. The brain speculates, very accurately, what to expect and how to respond.

Now let’s say you see a dog on a leash coming toward you. I once worked a series of peeping tom calls where the peeper used his dog walking as an excuse to be out in the evening. I’ve also been bitten too many times to remain a dog lover. So in my case my brain puts my body on alert when I see a dog. If you’re a dog lover, your brain puts your body in a different condition of acceptance and calm. In any case, the point is that our past experiences construct how we see the world and how we physically react to it.

As you continue on your imaginary walk, you see two people walking on the other side of the street. They stay close to the shadows, hold their jackets close to them, and look back over their shoulders. The average citizen would find them suspicious, but they wouldn’t necessarily understand why. As a seasoned officer you know that the behavior is suspicious because most people want to walk where it is best lighted, their arms relaxed, and focused on their path. The citizen just knows something doesn’t seem right because whatever those two are doing, it doesn’t match up to their mental template of normal people out walking. This is the concept of cognitive dissonance – things don’t feel right, causing some mental tension. We have to resolve this tension somehow. For the citizen it is typically a mental narrative seeking an explanation. The citizen resolves their fear and can go on about their business without further distress or involvement: “I bet they are skipping school” would be a nice way to explain and resolve the scene. The officer, however, will continue to investigate to determine the real facts.

Our walk gets more exciting. Out of nowhere, a motorcycle and speeding car collide and skid to within a few feet of you, striking a utility pole. Now the brain is remarkably focused. It shuts down every function and thought of the body that is not directly related to surviving the next few seconds of life. This is especially true if we have no existing template of experience in our past to guide our response. Digesting supper? Forget it. You need the blood elsewhere. Getting a cold? No time to make antibodies. Beautiful sunset? The building behind you could be on fire and you wouldn’t know it. The normal pathways that filter experiences through the frontal cortex are short circuited directly to the primitive fight or flight part of the brain. Most officers are aware of the sensory and memory distortions that accompany traumatic events like lethal encounters. But what about the moments after when the brain and body are trying to return to normal?

Here’s where the concept of excited utterance comes in. Also known as spontaneous exclamation or res gestae statement, these statements are legally considered reliable because they are made spontaneously in reaction to a sudden event without deliberation. While these statements may be honest and unfiltered, they reflect a mental search for truth but may not reflect factual reality. A police officer who has just shot a suspect (or engaged in any life threatening activity from a hard fight to a dramatic rescue) has gone from conscious, controlled awareness to a series of autonomic responses (hopefully using neural pathways built during training). As things rapidly begin to return to normal the brain now begins to reconstruct the event to make sense of it. Because killing someone doesn’t make “sense”, even to a trained police officer, the brain begins exploring “logical” explanations. Thinking outloud, an officer may say “I must have tripped”, or “My gun just went off”, or “I didn’t mean to kill him”, or “did you see that knife” when no knife is found. The officer is in no mental state to be constructing an alibi or defense, he or she is merely doing a very normal thing – trying to construct a narrative that makes sense to a freshly traumatized brain.

When the facts are in, or cooler statements are made after a period of rest and reflection the initial sense-making statements of the officer still in shock may seem incongruent. This may be interpreted as a deliberate lie, guilty statement, or cover up from the perspective of defense attorneys or officers investigating the shooting. I can’t suggest that no such statements ever be made because involved officers will not be thinking clearly enough to engage in self-protective silence that, in itself, could be misinterpreted as conspiratorial. I just ask that you keep this article for the day that you or a colleague need to help explain something that made perfect sense to your brain after the most traumatic event of a lifetime, but won’t make sense in the mind of a jury without the perspective of how the brain works in the context of that event.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Too Bad It’s Not A Game

I have come to grips with a condition I have struggled with since I was boy. I have LSI (Low Sports Interest). There apparently is no cure. I think I was born this way even though I tried to fight it. I was embarrassed as a young boy when my Dad caught me reading a book about how to throw a football. “You can’t learn to throw a football by reading a book”, he said compassionately. I was confused. After all, the name of the book was “How to Throw a Football”. In junior high and high school I found my leadership and teamwork niche in student council and cut my competitive teeth in debate tournaments. But I still struggled with LSI. Let’s just say that Dad was pretty happy when I joined the Army.

Now the tables have turned. Whereas once I was the wonder of a father who couldn’t understand my lack of manly interest in sports, I am now a father whose son cannot understand my lack of manly interest in sports. My son is a sports fan with notable athletic achievements dating from T-ball and peewee basketball. To try to relate and cement those father-son bonds I will occasionally try to have some quality sports moments. Those don’t last very long because my competitive spirit, honed in the sweat-drenched classrooms of weekend debate tournaments, makes me hate to lose. So, I quit playing when I quit winning. That means that driveway hoops, rec center handball, golf, chess, and thumb wrestling were all bitter memories by the time he went off to seventh grade.

I still attend an occasional pro sports event with him and we have a good time, although I suspect when he finishes college and gets a job my companionship (i.e. buying the tickets) will be less sought after. I still don’t really understand football, or basketball, or the nuances of baseball, soccer, hockey, or the reason I spend a hundred bucks to sit in the middle of screaming intoxicated adults in extended adolescence while trying to read the local paper between plays, or downs, or quarters or whatever they are.

The one advantage that my LSI has provided is that I don’t do any Monday morning quarterbacking; no second guessing of the millionaires who obviously have reasons for making the decisions that their entire lives have been devoted to being able to make. When a batter stands with a thin wedge of matter held above his shoulder, he faces a small sphere that will be hurled in his direction and arrive from the pitcher’s hand to the batter’s torso in about a third of a second. Since the batter’s brain takes a quarter of a second to command the arms to begin his swing, there is less than one tenth of a second to make a decision to swing or not swing. This doesn’t count the milliseconds for the retina to translate a few million inputs, or the micro-adjustments the muscles must intuitively make in order to make the kind of swing most likely to rocket the ball in a certain direction.

Similarly, who am I to question a pass from a quarterback being assaulted by a horde of adversaries anxious to knock him silly, looking into a swarm of movement where the field of opportunity changes with every fleeting moment. Spectators may moan about moves they wouldn’t have made had they been in the batter’s box, but they soon forgive and forget and go about their business.

I wish the public would give the same consideration to officers making their split second decisions. A police officer is thrust into the fight of his or her life. The outcome will not decide who gets a Super Bowl bonus or World Series ring, but who lives and dies. The spectators – always late to the game and depending on replays – will have no experience with which to judge the winner and yet they will be vocal in their opinions while the survivor must remain silent. The field of encounter is not cleared for the contest, it happens right in the middle of the real world. There is little notice, no fanfare, and the adversary plays by no rules while the officer has many. The contest cannot be flagged for penalty, because it is the final play and it will be a sudden death decision.

Fine motor skills will be dulled by primitive body chemistry while those same instincts will focus the senses in ways the officer cannot possibly consciously control. With neurons firing at lightning speed, the officer’s brain will simultaneously reflect on training, emotions, calculations of time and space, moral considerations, and will balance all the training to shoot against all the powerful indoctrinations not to shoot. While the body accounts for movement, light, and all the micro-data accumulated over a lifetime, all comes to focus in one small finger pressing against a very small trigger to create a very small hole in the opponent that may or may not end the encounter. If the officer wins, he or she gets to spend the rest of their career explaining why they chose not to lose.

As it turns out, I signed up for the toughest game of all.