Sunday, October 25, 2015

I need help! pssst - don't tell anybody! The police officer's choice - secrets or the job.

            After my article on recognizing signs of distress in a colleague ( I received several emails, two of which made an impact on me.
A Tale of Two Officers
            One officer related how his supervisor and friend began to recognize signs of depression in his behavior, speech, and work. His colleagues called him on it and offered support. After engaging in some therapy this officer was able to recover and remains a productive detective on his department.
            Another officer, by contrast, wrote to tell of his struggle with prescription drug dependence. After a surgery, the officer discovered that he had become dependent on the pain killers. Although there was no effect on his work performance, he recognized his need to address the problem and sought help. He was able to get into a rehabilitation program which successfully got him back to his pre-surgery mental and physical fitness. Other than his time off for treatment, there was never any performance concerns from his department regarding his work.
            Based on medical records from his department’s medical providers, the department filed charges on some technical violations of failing to disclose his prescription use. The case may result in the loss of his career.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
            The officer who recognized his problem and solved it is being punished for his honesty. The obvious irony is that by confronting a health problem that could have affected his career in the long term may have short circuited it in the short term. The worst outcome of such a case is not just for this officer, but for the profession as a whole. The lesson may be to keep your struggles to yourself and hope you can avoid disaster since you can’t trust your employer’s health providers with confidentiality.
            The law enforcement and corrections professions cannot afford to encourage its members to keep their problems secret. Mental health issues such as depression and substance dependency rarely resolve on their own – especially in the pressure cooker of this kind of work. Agencies and legislatures must protect these professionals from job loss for seeking care where no permanent threat to public safety exists.
Stress and Survival
            Stress and other health and fitness issues must be elevated to more than a short block of instruction in the police academy. Along with Constitutional Law, EVOC, arrest control, and firearms, holistic health should be the fifth pillar of knowledge for every law enforcement officer.
            Health stresses, whether originating in the brain or the rest of the body, always ultimately impact the health of a department and, by extension, the community it serves. Prevention and treatment are the keys to preserving an agency’s most vital asset – the well trained officer. Punishing the sick and losing decades of potential service by failing to preserve an employee is wasteful and cruel.
Rookies and Administrators
            One of the ways that these issues slip through the cracks is that mid-career officers are the most vulnerable, both in health risk and to the risk of losing a career. Rookies tend to be healthier (not yet worn out), and less self-aware of the subtle corrosive effects of job related stress. They frequently lack the far sightedness to maintain self-care, including reporting and attending to injuries on the job.
            Administrators may tend to forget what patrol and shift work does to a human body. They may also be so focused on liability and short term costs that they find it easier to rid the department of a “problem” than to address it and preserve a valuable asset.
Dollars and Sense
            For an agency that hopes to retain an employee for 20 years, the cost of extended leave compared to a new hire is simple math. It costs money to recruit, train, and equip a new officer, in addition to the liability, supervision costs, and low productivity of two or three rookie years. It makes much more sense to make efforts to restore an existing officer to health and productivity.
            Sadly, the common presumption about things we classify as mental health issues is that they are chronic and permanent. With professional attention and peer support the things we worry about the most – PTSD, drug dependence, and depression – are all treatable with success. Members who have addressed and resolved these kinds of health issues must not bear the label of “defective”, but as valuable overcomers.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Can Your Smile Get You Killed?

Anyone who has ever taken a polygraph knows how most citizens are feeling when a police officer approaches. A stress response is normal in almost everyone hooked up to the instrument. A stress response to any police contact is also certain.

Some officers, in a well intentioned effort to reduce the stress of the subject in a contact, will be exceptionally friendly. I am sad to report that this happy attitude can be fatal. Here are four reasons why:

Dissonance and congruence.
The brain wants to match every sensory input with a pre-existing pattern. It wants the world to be congruent with its expectations. When something doesn't fit, there is dissonance. Dissonance, like three sour notes played together on a keyboard, creates tension. Tension lights the fuse of the fight, flight, or freeze response.

What does a motorist or pedestrian expect from a police contact? The template in most minds is one of efficiency, stern alertness, and authority. We may not like that persona, but that's the role that society has assigned to us. When an officer is casually friendly it breaks the mold of that expectation. Rather than reducing tension, that smile and friendliness may trigger that dissonance in the citizen's brain, creating more nervousness, fear, or even anger than the expected standard professional greeting officers are taught in the academy.

Smiling Makes You Happy and Careless.
Research shows that when a person clenches a pencil horizontally between the teeth, the resulting lip posture mimics the muscles associated with smiling. This artificial grin actually tells the brain that you are happy. A happy brain is one that is all right with the world, therefore increasing lag time to recognize and respond to danger cues. Conversely, frowning is associated with making the brain think harder.

A person who thinks they can smile genuinely while pondering the possibility of a sudden attack will find the incongruity of those attitudes projected on their face. This conflict can be perceived by the citizen and likely interpreted as not really friendly, ratcheting up their stress response.

The Guilty Will Use Your Good Mood Against You.
Contact with a subject who is actually guilty poses the greatest threat to the overly-friendly police officer. The dissonance is amplified. For the offender who does not respond in kind with some socially acceptable friendliness behavior to the friendly officer, the emotion gap gets more pronounced. The officer will either increase efforts to be friendly, or suddenly turn stern in response to the guilty offender's stoic or silent response. Aggression can result.

The happy police officer tends to be more talkative, trying to evoke a sense of calm in the subject while accomplishing just the opposite. A silent offender is more dangerous than a talkative offender. Plots and plans for attack and evasion are on the mind of the silent offender. If the guilty subject believes he can use the officer's lack of awareness as an opportunity, he will. Humans are not wired to be cautious and happy at the same time.

Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?
FBI interviews with cop killers finds that these killers often report a subjective feeling that their victim was vulnerable. A recent set of experiments by Dr. Bill Lewinski on traffic stops resulted in an informal report by the role playing driver. Told to fire on an approaching officer on a simulated traffic stop that driver also had a subjective sense of who would be vulnerable to attack. As a matter of statistical reality, the number of officer murders relative to the number of police contacts is so small that the randomness of police killings defies efforts to find patterns to the murders. However, these two well respected sources raise a red flag about the importance of an officer's professional and authoritative presence that cannot be ignored.

Polite and Professional Wins

Nothing in this article should encourage an officer to be surly, impolite, officious, authoritarian, or paranoid. Use the standard greeting that you learned in the academy. Be professional, polite, and alert. And smile a lot - when you get home.