I have become disgusted with what is happening in the world today concerning law enforcement, and I now feel the need to speak out. Specifically, I am sick of the constant drone of progressive and activist voices blaming police officers for the ills of society and constantly complaining about us as individuals, about our training, and about those who train us. I have had my fill of the narrative that is built upon false premises and untrue allegations. Most troubling of it all relates to use of force. The misinformation that is distributed concerning the false reality of use of force and the screams of excessive force has become overwhelming and very few academics or those with academic “cred” are speaking out. The only voices we seem to hear are those who dislike the police and are more than willing to use their fancy degrees and other credentials to support their bizarre and totally misdirected ideas about policing and use of force dynamics.
As the debate rages concerning police use of force, an interesting new approach has been presented and is heavily being pushed by progressives within and outside the police world. This new approach decries the warrior mindset model and the militaristic aspects of police training and encourages a more passive, slow, and reasoned approach to conflicts on the street. Training concepts that focus on anticipating threat cues, watchful vigilance, swift neutralization of threats, active pursuit, and a “don’t back down attitude” are now accused of being the culprit for excessive use of force. Rather, new ideas are being proposed that focus on training concepts such as retreat, slowing down responses, avoiding violent confrontations, and increasing verbal de-escalation skills. Under terms such as “21st century policing”, “blue courage”, and “guardians”, progressive minds are actively working to try and fix what they believe to be inappropriate training of officers. In their narrative, the police are to blame for use of force incidents. Never mind the active resistance of subjects which most often leads to force, the increasing disdain for the law and law enforcement, the fact that fewer services exist for the mentally ill than I can ever recall in my lifetime, or that minority populations lack opportunities for jobs and/or economic prosperity. No, it’s much easier to blame the police.
According to the New York Times (May 5, 2015), current police policies should be a thing of the past since these policies were adopted when “officers faced violent street gangs, crime rates soared, as did the number of officers killed.” The Times continues, “Today, crime is at historic lows and most cities are safer than they have been in generations for residents and officers alike.” I guess in their world, there are no more gangs, crime no longer exists, and officers are no longer killed. I would love to live in this world, but unfortunately it does not exist. Today, we face more threats than ever and the dangers faced by police officers are just as profound as they were in the past.
This mindset of passivity and retreat is not uncommon to me. As a young psychologist working on a forensic unit for the criminally insane, I ran into this same way of thinking. The unit was filled with three distinct types of patients; the severely schizophrenic, those with less severe mental illnesses, and a few antisocial characters who managed to manipulate their way into the hospital as a way of avoiding prison. Most of the patients had committed murder or some type of violent crime. As administrators sat in their comfortable offices away from the unit and seldom, if ever, stepped foot on the units, they offered their “expert” analysis of how patients should be treated and how we should intervene. As one can imagine, patients on this unit were frequently aggressive. In fact, acts of aggression took place multiple times a day. However, we operated under a very strict set of rules and regulations about how we were able to intervene to stop the violence.
Specifically, hands on interventions were strongly discouraged, as were injections of therapeutic medications, while encouraged were “de-escalation techniques.” This was due to the progressive administrator’s view that if violence occurred, it was the fault of the doctors and direct care staff on the unit due to their lack of proper verbal de-escalation skills. Their belief, as ridiculous as it may sound, was that if we were implementing the proper verbal techniques, aggression would not occur. In other words, it was our fault these patients were aggressive. What appeared lacking in their consciousness was the idea that people who want to be aggressive will be aggressive no matter what you say, what you do, or how professionally you intervene. That appeared lost on them. Rather, we were at fault. As doctors and direct care staff were carted to the hospital daily for treatment of injuries from aggressive patients, we continued to be told it was our fault and that strong interventions to stop aggression were not needed. We only needed to speak more therapeutically and use better de-escalation techniques. The patients were inherently good and we were inherently bad. Their acts of aggression were innocent and could be explained away, while defenses of our own well-being were intentional acts of excessive force and/or a failure to demonstrate proper de-escalation techniques. Sound familiar? Well, it should because those people are the same people dominating the podium today.
One foundational belief of those promoting progressive policing revolves around the idea that a warrior mindset is wrong. They believe today’s officer is trained in a manner that discourages communication, encourages excessive vigilance, and leads officers to “shoot first and ask questions later.” One only need look to the New York Times’ recent article (August 2, 2015) entitled “Training Officers to Shoot First and He Will Answer Questions Later.” This article, a direct assault on the Force Science Institute and its director Dr. Bill Lewinski, incorporates a cadre of voices to rally around the concept that teaching officers the basic science underlying human factors and performance is essentially training them to shoot people. In other words, their perception is that by educating officers about the reality of human factors and the limits of human performance, trainers are making them trigger happy cowboys who target innocent citizens. It reminds me of the same monkey logic that suggests if we train children about the danger of drugs, this might spark their interest and they will start to use the drugs. Or, better yet, if you teach young people about birth control, they are more likely to run out and start having sex.
The more passive and “therapeutic” mindset that underlies progressive policing wants police officers to become more like social workers and psychologists. They want police officers to simply ignore the time and motion factors involved in dynamic, unpredictable, and rapidly unfolding conflicts. They want to ignore the science that tells us subjects can kill police officers in the blink of an eye and well before the police officer has any idea he/she is being shot. They attack the science and research that underlies action-reaction time and motion data. They claim the studies are biased, and in the August 2015 article by the New York Times, allege Dr. Lewinski’s research lacks any empirically based foundation. Really? I guess that is why I am holding in my hands right now two specific empirical studies analyzing the same time factors taught by Force Science and guess what….the numbers are exactly the same. The truth is the truth. Regardless of what some want to believe, there are people out there who will kill you, everyone has the potential at some point and under certain circumstances to be aggressive, and individuals will and can attack quickly. The unfortunate reality is that once an offender makes the decision to act against the officer, that officer is then directly behind the curve unless he/she is able to recognize the threat cues and act accordingly. In shooting situations, the officer can be shot multiple times before ever even recognizing it has happened. Interestingly, the public understands these time factors related to sports. They understand the batter has to try and anticipate the pitch direction and initiate the swing well before the ball crosses the plate in order to successfully make contact. However, when it comes to police and force, these time and motion factors somehow become clouded.
Police officers must be trained in the factors underlying human dynamics in use of force. This type of training improves decision-making and gives officers the knowledge they need to not only be safe themselves, but also to avoid using excessive force against others. Progressives and activists claim this information only serves to make cops paranoid and gives them permission to shoot first and ask questions later. In reality, the information helps officers be vigilant to the realistic threats that exist and take the necessary steps to anticipate the threat, develop a strategy of how to intervene early in the encounter, and make productive decisions that could essentially save their lives. It is as important as knowing how to use any of the weapons on your belt.
Now to the idea of police officer as psychologist or social worker. Do you know any psychologists? Would you want them to respond when you’re in a crowded movie theater and the shooting starts? Do you want a warrior to respond or a social worker? As this psychologist/social worker cop idea is promoted, I think about my mindset prior to entering the police academy. I think about the naiveté that surrounded my view of the world. I consider what it would have been like for me to skip the academy and all of my subsequent police training, put on the uniform, and begin policing based only upon my skills as a psychologist. Well, the reality is I would have had the hell beat out of me many times and likely would be dead right now. I am not talking about simply the absence of defensive tactic skills or firearms training, etc.; I mean the absence of training the proper mindset to police. The psychologist mindset is not useful or productive in the police world. The psychologist/social worker is trained to think therapeutically, to be passive and docile, to avoid showing anger or aggression, and essentially to retreat in the face of conflict. I tried to police as a psychologist and let me tell you…..it didn’t work. Thanks to my Field Training Officers, they quickly changed my mindset and taught me how to think as a police officer. It saved my life. The introspective, passive, and conflict-avoidant psychologist learned to be vigilant, assertive, and decisive. I learned that some people need to be comforted and supported while others need to be dominated. It became very clear to me that the officer’s mindset on the street can mean the difference between life and death. The warrior mindset is critical to our survival, while passive, therapeutic, and unwilling to engage in the fight is a shear recipe for disaster.
These statements are certainly not to downplay the importance of skilled communication and articulation skills among police officers in their interaction with the public. Nor are they to dissuade a discussion of solid and sophisticated decision-making about when and how to intervene with aggressive subjects. Nobody is suggesting we don’t focus on teaching cops how to talk to people or stand-down when it is appropriate to do so. That is a critical skill and one that can potentially make the difference between properly deescalating a situation and unnecessarily escalating one. But, cops can walk and chew gum at the same time! We can learn and implement proper communication skills and tactical decision-making while also remaining vigilant, recognizing threats, and asserting ourselves decisively when needed. I would argue that the warrior mindset can exist in conjunction with effective and successful communication. It is not an all or nothing proposition. This opinion is based not only on my understanding and awareness of the literature related to police performance (there are numerous empirical studies showing police currently show extraordinary restraint in dealing with the public), but also on my experience in interacting with police officers on a daily basis and watching how they interact with citizens. Believe it or not, the vast majority of police officers are not the barbarian cavemen some in the media would have the public believe. In fact, some of the most effective communicators I have ever seen are police officers. Unfortunately, the successes that exist in police-community interaction are seldom seen on the six-o-clock news, while the unfortunate conflicts that exist are played over and over again.
The issues I have brought forward have especially important relevance to me; not only as an academic, but as a police officer on the street. I have skin in this game and just like other officers out there, I want to go home at the end of the day. My life and the lives of the noble men and women I serve alongside are too valuable to be put in jeopardy for the purpose of satisfying some social experiment. Especially from a movement of progressives and activists who are invested in fueling a dishonest, poorly supported, and inaccurate narrative while feeding their anti-police base.
By John Azar-Dickens, Ph.D.
Dr. John Azar-Dickens is a forensic psychologist in private practice and a patrol officer with the Rome, Georgia Police Department. Azar-Dickens is a presenter for the Force Science Institute, where he provides seminars nationwide regarding behavioral science issues involved in use of force incidents. He is a Berry College instructor in forensic psychology, abnormal psychology, and performance enhancement. Dr. Azar-Dickens is also a two-time Ironman finisher and an avid marathon runner and triathlete.
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