I heard this interesting story on NPR the other day. Three things that hit home with me.
First, the notion that so many factors other than training play into the decision-making process, like sleep and stress. Well, guess what folks: what’s one of the most stressful jobs?
What job has crazy shifts and unusual schedules, the highest rate of divorce, low pay, continued public scrutiny and mandatory overtime?
What job takes fathers and mothers away from kids on Christmas morning and Thanksgiving Day and even Halloween night?
What job involves dealing with people when they are most angry, hurt, scared, doped up, desperate, victimized and helpless? And it’s like this day, after day, after day—nine to ten hours a day. Guns, drugs, blood, guts and hurt children.
You guessed it. The job itself creates many of the stresses that would naturally impact the decision making process of a police officer engaged in a deadly encounter situation.
I am not sure the solution to overcome that part; it’s a bit overwhelming. The argument I always hear is “well, they knew what they signed up for.” And indeed they did (kind of, just like we all knew what we were in for when we had kids if you know what I mean).
So, let’s say they did come fully aware of what a day might be like. Guess what? They still signed up. They still go to work every day. They put on the vest ,they pull on the uniform and they load the gun. Even on days when no one else has to—they do. Even when they are sick, mad, frustrated, tired, dealing with stressful personal problems at home. They have to. If they don’t, who will?
There are not enough of them as it is already. For them, to be the guy that doesn’t show is an issue of officer safety. And, not their safety—but it’s the safety of their brothers they are worried about. There is no room to let down your coworkers here; it could end in the worst way possible. They all need each other too much.
Second, the idea of how few people are actually in a situation where deadly force (or as he refers to, a deadly encounter) is a true possibility. Have you ever really stopped to think what that would be like to clear a creepy old building or respond to a 911 call for domestic violence where you can hear people screaming?
I cannot even go to a haunted house. I cannot even go downstairs at night when I hear a noise. I have never been in a fight (well, except that one at the bus stop in elementary school—not good). I have never been involved in a serious crime. I am sometimes unsure how to even respond to a rude cashier, how would I handle a person on crack, with a gun—with nothing to lose. I don’t know how I would handle it—that’s the point.
Third, rethinking police tactics so that police have more time to think before they have to act—sort of giving more space to the decision making process.
I am all for that. In fact, I think it would help a ton. It would let the adrenaline slow, it would let them take a better inventory of their surroundings and the real threat. But, the truth is, they don’t have time and more often than people want to think about (including me) it’s a him or me moment.
The people most police encounter are not out on a picnic at the park. They are not just doing errands and pulled over for an erroneous stopping charge. I agree this happens—and it shouldn’t. It does happen and it’s wrong but it is such a small fraction of what happens every day with most police interactions.
Most are, unfortunately, with people who are either planning to hurt themselves, someone’s property, other people or the police. Period. That moment to discern “what’s up” is sometimes a split second. And, I believe more often than not, the police make the right choice and they were in danger.
I just don’t feel like the average person knows how out of control most of the people are that the police deal with. I don’t mean hands waving and screaming and running around like a mad man (although that happens—and sometimes it happens and they are naked). But I mean people who have no fear. No regret. No sense of belonging and connection—nothing to live for. Nothing to want to see, do, look forward to for tomorrow. That’s a real problem and creates an incredible reckless culture. I think the real solution needs to start there. Making sure everyone has a place, something to hold on to, and something to aspire to. Aspiration is highly underrated.