Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Listening to your brain: 5 ways to deal with job stress

From the archives: This first appeared in PoliceOne.com December 2009
The problem with talking to cops about stress is that there’s a little too much touchy-feely going on in some of those discussions. So let’s talk biology. Our brain soup is not a hot tub with little bubbles of hearts and balloons percolating around just waiting to be nurtured. It’s a complicated but primitive mess of chemistry and tissue. Much of what we interpret and label as “feelings” are actually biological processes over which we may have limited control.
No tough cop wants to think they have lost control of their feelings. I sure don’t want to think that. My job and identity are defined by self-control. I need it, I like it, I’m proud of it, and I’m not giving it up. But if I break a leg and it hurts and makes me limp, that has nothing to do with self-control. It’s just a limitation of biology caused by the stress of somebody’s bumper hitting me at 35 m.p.h. (been there, done that!). The same is true with my brain being thumped by stress. I can deal with it now, or limp with it later.
Basically your brain is operating in two different worlds: the rational and the primitive. When it comes to stress there’s a part of your brain that is sneaking around like a naughty teenager. Nestled comfortably somewhere behind your forehead is your parent-brain sitting in the den placidly smoking a pipe and reading Plato. The brain in the back of your skull is the teenager down in the basement bedroom doing God knows what. Like any parent of a teenager, the calm, rational brain relaxing in the den and analyzing life with a cool, experienced hand doesn’t necessarily want to know what’s going on in the basement. Like any teenager, the primitive basement brain doesn’t think the rational brain needs to know all of its business, but still needs attention and sometimes acts up just to see of the parent gives a darn.
So congratulations on that teen brain of yours. There it sits, nestled in the brain stem, probably thinking about sex. Even if you’re an old duffer like me that impulsive, adrenaline-fueled, hormone-charged bundle of nerves still wants to run things and doesn’t know when to shut up and behave.
Chances are good that your goofy youngster is doing what it thinks is best to help us survive, but making us miserable in the process. Basement brain is selfishly worried about surviving right this moment; it has no sense of the future. It doesn’t care about digestion or fighting off disease or starting a family. It only cares about keeping nerves at attention to recognize threats and getting blood to large muscle groups to be ready to fight. Teen brain doesn’t realize that putting the body in a state of hyper-alertness damages the parent’s ability to relax, engage in emotional closeness, sleep well, digest food, have fulfilling sex, or concentrate on small details. The parent brain is too busy compensating for these icky feelings to pay attention to the stuff in the basement even though that’s really where the problem is.
Are you getting the analogy? Is it time for you to get in touch with your inner 14-year-old. This is the person who is stressing you out and you don’t even know it. Consider one or more of these suggestions:
1) Ask the people who know you best “Do you think police work has changed me?” Don’t be defensive. Listen and let them answer honestly. Ask at least three people and compare their answers. Your self-awareness will impress them. 
2) Be a watcher and listener. Cut the bravado and big talk. If there’s a tough case a fellow officer just handled you don’t have to get your puppy dog face on and say, “How did that make you feel?” Just listen. What you hear may tell you as much about yourself as it does about the other person. 
3) Ask a younger version of yourself if you’re sadder, more tired, or less connected than you used to be. Think about who you were a few years ago. We all toughen up — that’s a good thing. But when we grew our thick skin did we trap a cold heart in there too? 
4) Casually ask your doctor about stress — both traumatic and cumulative — and see where you are on the checklist of warning signs. 
5) If you can’t manage to ask a professional then use the Internet or the public library to find some good information about PTSD, stress, and healthy lifestyles.
I want to hear from you, so e-mail me. I might even talk some sense into that teenaged brain of yours.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

From the Archives - The moral imperative of loyalty

First appeared in PoliceOne.com  Aug 3, 2009

The dyed fabric from the famous mills of Coventry, England in the 17th century kept its blue color so well that it was known as true blue. The color you bought was the color that stayed, without fading or changing. Is that you? Do you honor your highest and original values by remaining true blue? Can you state your most basic values that guide your daily behavior?

Loyalty is often expressed as if it were purely an emotion — the misting of eyes at the national anthem or a breathless vow of love in a moment of passion. I believe we need to understand loyalty as an act of will and intellect. It is this firmness of thought that will sustain our behavior within a solid ethical framework through a law enforcement career.

Our real loyalties are exposed in the grist mill of life experiences. In their book Theory in Practice, Chris Argyris and Donald Schon state, “When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use.”

This perspective on the contrast between espoused theory (our stated life principles) and our theory-in-use (what we really look like as we behave in the world) is an enlightening one for self-examination. For example, if we say that we are loyal to Constitutional principles, to a high morality, to the espoused values of our department, and yet falsify a use of force report for ourselves or a co-worker then we have established that our highest loyalty is to convenience and self-interest. Our true colors show, and they are faded and not true blue.

Without a clear reminder of what you really believe and live for, the expediency of the moment may prevail and betray your higher aspirations. A loss of focus that allows us to drift from our highest ideals can contribute to burnout and misconduct. A visible cornerstone for your primary, ethics-defining loyalty can have refreshing preservative value to the soul. Your cornerstone might be a cross or wedding ring worn daily. For others that reminder might be a family photo on the visor in the patrol car. For some, it might be a daily ritual or reading. I recommend a written personal mission motto.

A personal mission motto articulates your values so that you are compelled to define them. A motto or mission statement is the central measure for your life’s work and provides a standard against which to measure your decisions. My father was a WWII veteran who gave a lot of effort to the American Legion whose motto was “For God and Country.” All that he lived for, even the mundane tasks of work and family, was embodied by that phrase. Others might say “Family First” or “Remember Your Mission” or “Liberty and Justice.” Finding your cornerstone can help you through the day, and perhaps help you survive the worst days of all.

What is your motto?

Monday, June 11, 2018

It's a Curse, I Swear

From the archives: First appeared in January 2009 in Street Survival Newsline before Street Survival and P1 parted ways

Police officers are subject to a double and even triple standard in many respects. We are expected to catch bad guys without hurting them, solve problems in a few minutes that existed for years before we got called, get to emergencies instantly without driving too fast, and stop crime without making contacts with minority groups or rich white people. 

I remember listening to a citizen make a complaint on one of my officers for using foul language on a contact. I don't remember her exact words but it was something on the order of "Your [bleeping] cop used some [bleeping] language around my [bleeping] son and I think it was [bleeping] uncalled for and you should [bleeping] reprimand his [bleep]." Her point, although not well articulated, was that she could cuss but my officer couldn't. I actually agreed with her. 

Naturally if I begin a diatribe against the use of swearing the first offended person will say "Oh, like you never cussed in uniform!", and I confess I have. My use of foul language has been very rare and it was used for linguistic effect given the context, and with a purpose to achieve a specific communicative effect. Have I ever said other inappropriate things or acted out of emotion? - yes. As Sgt. Friday famously said "The only problem with police work is that you have to recruit from the human race.” 

Words have meaning. I used to have morning coffee with a cranky retired physics professor who would get a pained look on his face during holidays and sunny weather. On one particular morning he was talking about the silliness of thinly disguised euphemistic language in a sitcom he had watched in which the word "boinking" was used to refer to sex. His final assessment was that words are meaningless so you might as well use the "real" words. As I thought about his foolish assumption that words are meaningless I considered looking him in the eye and saying, "You know, you old bastard, that's really true," as a means to test his theory. 

The words and phrases that we use to describe this kind of language are meaningful as well. We talk about "cussing," which is a slang derivative of "cursing", associated with "swearing". Before language was easily reduced to writing for contracts and pledges, a person's word truly was a bond. History was passed down orally and naming a child often had a determinant effect on a life. Spoken words were powerful. False speaking was condemned in both legal and social discourse by ancient codes including the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi. Mystics believed - and still do I suppose - that you could speak a curse on someone and change their life course. Jesus taught that calling someone a disrespectful name was tantamount to murder in motive and heart. 

I once led a study by a group of middle schoolers from my church and talked about this very subject. I asked them to write down every cuss word they knew. Although they were hesitant at first, they quickly began, obviously, to enjoy the exercise. I wrote all the words and phrases on the blackboard (which I carefully and fastidiously erased at the end of the session) and began to reveal the hurtfulness behind each word or phrase. The sexual references often were demeaning to women, spoke of violence and adultery, or human waste and worthlessness. Other words spoke of disrespect to the Creator or expressing the desire for someone to be condemned to a life or eternity of suffering. The heaviness of the reality of what is meant by the words we so easily throw around became evident to the young people. 

One theory of aggression blames violence on our liberal use of foul language - not that bad words cause violence (although what fight starts without them?) - but that if cussing becomes meaningless by overuse then what's the next level of venting but punching somebody? Growing up in a home where my Dad was a religiously discipline man I never heard him swear except when he was working on the car or telling the banker who came to repossess the farm to get off our land. He taught by example that cussing was reserved for special occasions. 

There is an evolution of language that makes some words and phrases harsher or softer over time. When I was in high school if something "sucked" the reference was to a demeaning, forced sex act. Today the word connotes a vacuum, emptiness, or worthlessness and most people have little objection to it. The epithet of calling someone a bastard has lost its sting in today's America where babies born out of wedlock is the norm. Other examples come to mind but I feel like a little boy behind the barn practicing my curse words if I ponder it too much. 

The most ubiquitous and harsh word is the word that originates as a reference to rape. It is referred to as the F-word, eff, f***, or other recognizable codes for public print. There are plenty of arguments for avoiding this word in addition to its potential moral revulsion. In most cases the word is just a space filler and makes no grammatical sense whatsoeffingever. Since police officers in emotionally charged situations tend to revert to what they practice, the word pops up on video tapes of crisis situations too frequently. If I never hear "Get on the f***ing ground and show me your f***ing hands now!" on blutube.com again I'd be grateful. The word has no communicative purpose and, in fact, obscures the flow of the language and the conciseness of compliance commands. It can also be prejudicial to juries and attorneys even though they are quite content using the language themselves or at least enjoying movies and HBO without the slightest flinch at the word. 

As for the argument that this is the language of the streets and people need to know how serious we are, I just have to say that avoiding that language in my experience has never kept somebody from responding to my commands. We're not "one of them" and pretending that using gutter language bonds us to our rough communities is disingenuous. None of this is to say that total foul language abstinence is necessary any more than to say that we never do anything in the course of our jobs that is not also proper in normal social intercourse. We do use harsh language, we do use force, and we do use deception, all of which involve ethical calculations of ends justifying means and that, in a perfect world, would never be necessary tools of the trade. 

Avoiding swearing in public requires the discipline of avoiding it in private. The exercise might be a good self-improvement project for this year. What the heck - it couldn't hurt.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Contextual Compliance Tool Kit

This archived article from PoliceOne.com first appeared Sep 11, 2008

The word is spreading that the use of force continuum is dying a slow death. While the continuum model has served as a useful instructional tool for trainees over the years it has serious and even dangerous limitations as a tool for application in a field environment.
Police officers engaged in encounters with non-compliant offenders may feel that they are legally obligated to climb the use-of-force ladder and de-escalate to compliance, hesitating to take safer immediate assertive actions to end unlawful resistance. The stair- step dance of “he does that then I can do this” confuses practitioners, prosecutors, and juries. Fortunately, the US Supreme Court has a refreshingly realistic standard of reasonableness which has yet to be fully grasped by policymakers of my generation still trembling from the Warren court years.
This article offers five principles of understanding encounters with non-compliant offenders under the doctrinal umbrella of offender-centered decision making. That is to say that the subject with whom a peace officer is in lawful contact is the primary decider of the tenor of the encounter.
In all cases where the officer is dealing with an encounter outside of a purely consensual one (in which the subject has the right to simply turn and walk away), the law explicitly demands that the subject complies with the officer.
1. Training and report writing about non-compliant encounters should concentrate on the offender’s behavior and accurately portray the officer as reacting to the offender in the context of the event.
While this principle may not sound radically different than current practice it is a contrast to the continuum model. The continuum doctrine and its underlying premise is that officers are legally and morally bound to use no force where the remote possibility exists of avoiding it and to use the least force theoretically possible in the least intrusive way for the shortest possible amount of time.
The reality is that when an offender is non-compliant (they become an offender at the moment of non-compliance) the officer has the legal and moral obligation to gain compliance as quickly and safely as possible. Rather than lowest force, we must transition to a most effective paradigm. In this context, we would define “effective” as that which is quickest and safest. The most effective means of gaining compliance may not be the least possible force but must remain reasonable.
That which is most effective, i.e. fast and safe, tends to result in shorter physical contact when a hands-on disposition is inevitable. Briefer contact means less likelihood of injury to an offender, bystander, and officer. In that light, application of effective means to end non-compliance is a moral imperative as well as tactically superior and justifiable.
In addition, while de-escalation is one of the many tools in the compliance toolkit it is not always wise to employ attempts at verbal calming. Some conditions contributing to non-compliance are medical emergencies dependent on brain chemistry that will not respond to calming techniques and that will only get worse and less treatable over time. This does not argue against crisis intervention methods, but rather puts those methods in the toolbox for use when appropriate and to be left in the box when they are not.
2. Restructure the language of reporting to eliminate the term “use of force” from reports, policy, and training as much as possible.
The baggage that comes along with this term unfairly colors any objective report and tacitly implies that the officer’s actions are suspect and brutal. It promotes the assumption that if force was used it was the officer’s fault and he or she has some explaining to do.
In keeping with the concept that the decision to be non-compliant is with the offender, an officer’s efforts to gain lawful compliance should be described in those offender-centered terms with the officer identified as the victim. The subject of the narrative should be the offender, not the officer. Putting emphasis on the behavior of the offender and the context of the encounter more accurately portrays the offender’s unlawful behavior and minimizes the perception of the officer as the aggressor. The officer leads the reader to agree with him or her that the use of force was imposed upon them by the offender.
With offender-centered reporting, agencies may decide that separate forms for reporting use of force are unnecessary. Those reports were important in an earlier era of policing but can be supplanted by a more comprehensive approach to report making.
Any efforts required to gain offender compliance should be a part of the offense report narrative; fully documented in the accurate and comprehensive description of the offender’s unlawful behavior and the context of the contact. The offender-centered concept of non-compliance enhances officers’ awareness of their victimization which, in turn, will likely enhance the prosecutors’ and juries’ perceptions as well.
Use of force reports are by their nature defensive and carry the cloud of accusation over them. Documenting non-compliance puts the burden where it should be – on the offender’s behavior in the context of a criminal act of resistance.
In using language to convey the circumstances of the event officers should avoid passive language like “he was then subdued” and avoid mere labeling such as “resistive”, “combative”, “uncooperative”, “non-compliant” unless providing specific descriptions of behavior such as walking away, pushing, refusing to answer, fighting, etc.
3. Context is critical.
The context of the encounter gives the officer facts that determine his or her course of action. These facts are almost always unknown to the offender, but the offender’s ignorance of them must not justify his or her failure to comply. The law requires compliance.
The significance of environmental, social, and historical factors that color the officer’s perceptions of the encounter will escape the reader of the report unless the officer explicitly guides the reader to navigate the cumulative significance of those factors. All of the factual circumstances of the event and the officer’s subjective interpretation of them must be communicated in the report.
The reader of the report must have as much information as possible about the situation faced by the officer. Standard concerns such as time of day, number of persons, and knowledge of the offender’s emotional disposition should be articulated. Officers must give voice to their fears and concerns even though documenting fear seems counter to our self-image. Those who read the officer’s report should not be left to guess or assume the appropriateness of the officer’s actions without a fully painted picture.
4. Use the “Contextual Compliance Tool Kit” language and imagery.
Stage and step compliance policies should be altered to explicitly recognize the rapid decision making and fluidity inherent in non-compliance events. The metaphor of the toolkit is much more useful than some geometric graphic.
Rubrics, tables, arcs, stair steps, and wheels all imply some rational orbit of events when a person resists a police officer. The process of deciding how to gain compliance is a logical one, not trial and error.
The use of force continuum is predicated on trial and error – if step two doesn’t work go to step three and so on. It implies a willingness to err on the side of being ineffective. Achieving compliance efficiently is rational – the officer will select the tool most likely to be effective in solving the problem of non-compliance.
5. Document success.
Officers tend to subtly express in their reports that resorting to force was somehow a failure on their part. Lawful use of force is never a failure, except perhaps a failure of judgment on the part of the offender. Gaining compliance is what law enforcement does. That’s the “enforcement” part. It is what police are hired to do, empowered to do, entrusted to do, and expected to do. It is necessary and honorable.
The narrative regarding the efforts to gain compliance should be as positive as a realistic account can be. Is there a happy ending when somebody is subdued by multiple officers and handcuffed? Certainly, in the universal sense there was failure somewhere – family, school, religion, government, personal choices; all the things the criminologists study. But the officer’s mission is direct: gain compliance effectively. If that was accomplished then say so in the report. Document all of the care-giving that followed the offender’s resistance, including rights advisements, checking the tightness of handcuffs and restraints, and obtaining medical care.
Policymakers need to understand that the reactive measures of the past generation to lawsuits and bad publicity have achieved their purpose. We must proceed with caution and be ever mindful of the potential for litigation and loss of public confidence while scrupulously guarding civil rights of all whom we encounter. We need not agree with the enemies of law enforcement nor apologize for gaining compliance under the law – using all the tools in our tool kit.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

6 tips for getting the most out of police training

This is an archive repost that originally appeared in PoliceOne.com in May of 2008

Cops love training. Lock and load. Hit the range. Slap some leather. Punch some holes in some paper. Lay some tread on the track. Mount up. Sign me up for SWAT school!

But let’s face it, not all training is worthwhile, not all subjects are fun and not all trainers are gifted educators. Here are some tips to get the most out of training – even bad training.

After 30 years of seminars, academies, and recertifications, I could sleep through most classes. But I am a life-long learner and even if I go to a repeat class with a boring instructor, I always promise myself that I will learn at least one new thing. That makes me a gold miner – looking for nuggets of useful information along the way.

Listening and watching for those nuggets keeps me alert and interested in what may be around the next coffee break.

Learning and retention occur when information is meaningful, especially if emotion or social connections are attached. Sometimes you have to make your own meaning – especially if you’ve tuned out an instructor you don’t like.

Think creatively and be open-minded. Can this diversity class help my interrogation skills? Would this information be good for someone I am training or work with? Is this mandatory class a step on my career ladder?

Many times a concept, principle or course of instruction is presented as though it were brought down from Mt. Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. Methods, laws and training doctrine change. Sometimes new ideas are bad, sometimes new ideas are old ideas with new acronyms, and sometimes a trainer gets pulled in to teach a course for which they are not truly qualified.

You don’t have to be disruptive or disrespectful to question and debate things in your own mind. If you engage with the material and wrestle with it under the skeptic’s scope, you’ll add value to your training day.

Talk to other cops on break and at lunch. Pick their brains, listen to their war stories and get their business cards. The trainer is never the only person in the room with good information to share. Harvest knowledge from others.

Stop posturing. Quit trying to prove you know more than the instructor or the officer next to you. Avoid telling yourself you already know all of this stuff. You don’t have to have a better story, a better way to do something or figure out a way to announce how great you are. Listen to your own conversation.

If you start hearing yourself saying “I” more than three times in a brief conversation, it’s time to shut up and learn.

Despite the popular concept that there are no stupid questions, I know better. I have heard stupid questions and have been known to ask a few myself. It’s OK. Take the risk. The resulting dialogue will give a needed break to the course, inspire others to engage with the class and answer the stupid question somebody else was too afraid to ask.

If you don’t ask at the time, get the instructor’s email address and check the bibliography for the material to answer your questions later. You are the person most responsible for your own learning. Don’t be passive about it.