Paul LeBaron, Long Beach Police Department

Ryan LeBaron, Long Beach Police Department

Anthony H. Normore, National Command & Staff College

 

The substantial number of officers killed and injured while serving their communities is profound and a solemn reminder that law enforcement is inherently dangerous.  In the ten-year period from 2009 – 2018 in United States, an annual average of 158 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty and 49,500 were assaulted, with 13,659 injured related to assaults in the course of serving their communities (National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 2019).  To this end, the following article focuses on a recent experience in the lives of police officers where risk management (RM) and human factors (HF) provided a safe outcome for law enforcement. Though the experiences are personal and contextual, they are intended to serve as important lessons for police officers everywhere.

Risk management considers several components that require review and analysis to adequately assess and mitigate the risk associated with engaging in an activity. The components include:  human (e.g., mental awareness, attitude, training, education); environment (e.g., urban, rural); machine (e.g., vehicles, firearms, safety equipment, electronic aids); external factors (e.g., suspect/victim/witness demeanor, agency/unit morale, policies and procedures, employee relations, law enforcement culture) (Bone & Normore, 2014).

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(Photo courtesy Fountain Valley Police Officers Association)

 

In terms of human factors, understanding the interactions among people and other elements of a system is critical. These interactions apply theory and methods to help optimize employee wellbeing and overall agency performance. The specific workplace elements involved include the environmental, organizational, and individual characteristics that influence behavior. Based on previous work by Bone, Normore and Javidi (2016), human factors can help substantially increase officer and civic safety, create closer ties between police agencies and the public, and enhance community leadership.

 

Human Factors and Risk Management at Work

It was the Christmas season. Sergeant Smith found himself completely dedicated to catching the suspect who shot two southern California officers. He had not had a day off since the incident, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On this night, he and his team of plain-clothes detectives were staking out a house in a southern California city when the suspect appeared out of nowhere. They followed the suspect to a local market, and in a split-second Sgt. Smith was surrounded by gunfire. The suspect was firing a gun in his direction, with his sights set on a marked police car containing three uniformed police officers that responded to assist the plain-clothes officers.

As Sgt. Smith ran from his cruiser, the first thing that occurred to him was, “there are bullets flying and you are running to them???” After he accepted the fact that what he was doing was a bad idea, he then tried to avoid being the next casualty. As he ran towards the suspect, Smith heard a voice yelling, “Go, I got your back!” He quickly looked to the rear of the business and saw his own brother in his police uniform running to him yelling that he had him covered. Smith recognized the need for uniformed support earlier in the day and requested a marked police car with two uniformed officers to be available if the suspect were located. By chance, the unit assigned to assist included Smith’s own brother, Detective Smith, who worked detectives with the same agency.

It was not until after the brothers debriefed the incident that Sgt. Smith realized his brother ran to his aide believing that he was the target the suspect was shooting at. Det. Smith could not see that the suspect’s attention was focused on the three uniformed officers, who had been called by another detective. As the brothers discussed further, they learned that as the plain-clothes officers began following the suspect, they tracked him to a strip mall in another city. The marked car being driven by Det. Smith was following at a distance and had positioned itself behind the business where the suspect ultimately parked and exited his car. Because of the suspect’s position, Det. Smith and his partner were already on foot behind the business, ready to respond when the shooting started. He heard gunfire and saw Sgt. Smith running towards it and assumed the worst.

guns_bodycam_footage_california

What makes an officer run into the line of fire to protect his brother? (Pasadena Police Department)

 

The suspect died that night from multiple gunshot wounds. Though not unusual to police officers faced with deadly possibilities, because of the event, Sgt. Smith reflected on the circumstances of that night. He could not help but think about two very important personal reminders.  First, his faith in God and in his Christian values took precedence. He took comfort in knowing that the Lord hears and answers prayers. He realized that his family members, friends, and colleagues had been praying for him and the injured officers, as well as for the investigation. Earlier in the day, Sgt. Smith prayed for his safety, as he knew they were close to finding the suspect. Based on known facts and updated intelligence, he knew it would result in a dangerous situation. For him, he felt all prayers were answered in a ten second span replete of total chaos since no officers were injured and no innocent bystanders were injured. Only the suspect was hit by the gunfire. Secondly, Sgt. Smith realized the importance of faith in family.  In retrospect, he realized that when in need, turn to your family for they will always “have your back.” In this case it was a literal application. His brother Det. Smith risked his own life to save Sgt. Smith, and for that, Sgt. Smith will forever remain grateful. Sgt. Smith never forgot what his brother did. In fact, he continues to encourage people to not neglect to express love to the important people in their lives since the opportunity to do so may not always be readily available. 

Det. Smith was likewise impacted by the experience and turned to his spouse for support. His spouse later wrote about the incident from her husband’s perspective. She described the look in her husband’s eyes when he relayed the story to her that evening. He told her he had heard shots and thought the suspect was shooting Sgt. Smith. His immediate response caused him to run to Sgt. Smith in what he assumed to be the line of fire and let him know, “I’ve got your back”. As Det. Smith shared his experience with his wife, he paused and indicated he really didn’t know how he felt, other than wanting the suspect to be taken down. His thoughts on the night were just slightly different than Sgt. Smith’s. Det. Smith was shaken by the time he arrived home. His adrenaline was no longer elevated but the reality and severity of the event finally hit him full force. He realized that he knew that night he was either going to shoot and take down the suspect, or he was going to get shot, or shot at, by the suspect. He hadn’t realized that his brother had also coordinated on-duty SWAT officers from the police department of the city they were in. The prior meeting and coordination allowed for the plain-clothes team to make immediate notifications to local officers if the suspect was located. Det. Smith felt that had Sgt. Smith not done this, he would have been shot as he came around the building. In fact, Det. Smith felt that it was his brother who had his back, and his wife was grateful they were there together to protect each other. 

 

Lessons Learned for Police Leaders

Law enforcement is an honorable, challenging, rewarding and unique undertaking. Few, if any, careers require the diversity of knowledge and skills, along with the steadfastness of attitude, as does this noble profession. Officers engaged in critical activities in which they risk serious injury or death will benefit from recognizing how human performance relates to their jobs. Based on the experiences of the brothers, police leaders can benefit from lessons learned about human factors and risk management that may benefit effective agency leadership.

First, police leaders need to consider how the brain interacts with the body and decision-making abilities during stressful incidents. Officers can experience high levels of stress during critical incidents. During such situations the brain experiences the phenomenon known as “fight or flight” or when overwhelmed people can completely shut down or panic (Gilmartin, 2009). The eye, ear and other senses do not have a will of their own, but operate at the directions of both the conscious and unconscious mind – a blink to an object coming at the eye is an instinctive reaction of the unconscious mind, while a directed weapon stare is a reaction of the conscious mind (Artwohl & Christiansen, 1997). The impact of intense stress before, during, and after such an event affects the details of what officers remember about the situation. During these incidents, officers will focus predominantly on the threat, or on personal survival. Because of their selective attention under these circumstances, they will have a low rate of recall of information subconsciously deemed unrelated to the perceived threat. This results in a specific and vivid, though not necessarily accurate or complete, memory for aspects of the event.

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Second, the importance of proper planning and resources are crucial. Had Sgt. Smith not taken the time to coordinate the assistance of uniformed officers, the entire situation would have likely led to tragic circumstances. The stress the brain feels during critical incidents cannot be undermined. However, leaders and supervisors, and even individual officers MUST prepare for the worst, and take necessary time to ensure they have the right people and equipment available for them.

Thirdly, aligned with proper prior planning is the need for stress inoculation through realistic training (force on force) scenarios. This is critical in reducing the adrenaline driven effects of “fight or flight” and tunnel vision.  While there is no true-to-life comparison for the actual stress of a deadly force encounter, quality realistic training brings an officer’s mindset much closer to what he/she will experience on “game day.” This type of training also allows the officer to visualize the different nuances of an encounter and leave him/her with an indelible memory of how very small changes in their action/reaction could significantly sway the outcome. 

(Adobe Stock)

 

Fourth, a critical focus for agencies is the importance of officers’ wellbeing. Officers have a physically and mentally demanding job that at times is life threatening. Departments need to make protecting the health of their personnel a priority. Leaders actively should model and encourage wellness. They must remain vigilant not to allow complacency—a common human characteristic—to lead to their demise.The confidence in their abilities and command presence will help officers to avoid harm caused by suspects. In the case of Sgt. and Detective Smith, an opportunity presented itself that linked the relationship between them as brothers to a healthier recovery from a very traumatic incident Although most cannot be with family members, having the right people in place to debrief with employees makes a huge difference in long term wellness, willingness to open up, and ability to learn for future incidents. Essentially, a connection should be made between a critical incident on the job and the need to debrief both professionally and with an officer’s family, particularly with spouse/children.  The professional debrief is important from a risk management and leadership perspective, but the familial debrief is arguably more lasting and beneficial as we continue to see an increase in retired officers struggling with PTSD and suicide (Gilmartin, 2002).

Fifth, selective attention explains the discrepancy between an officer’s recollection of a critical incident and what video evidence demonstrates. Based on the work by Lewinski (2008), attention is both internally directed or driven to something, or externally attracted to it, and the process is both a conscious and an automatically unconscious one. For example, in the case of these officers and the conflictual situation with the suspect and gunfire, “the motion instantly attracts the officer’s attention even if the officer was not even thinking about the incident having any potential for becoming violent” (p. 109). Regardless of the reason for the officer’s focus of attention in a rapidly evolving, dynamic, and high-stress encounter, research and logic both inform us that the officer’s attentional focus is going to significantly influence what the officer can then perceive and remember… if something is not perceived, it cannot be remembered” (110). To reiterate, it is the focus of attention and not the operation of the senses that determines what information is perceived and then acted upon or remembered.

Finally, with the exponential growth of social media, around-the-clock news coverage, and the sensationalism of law enforcement from movies, citizens easily can become jaded about how officers police the community. Consequently, educating the public on the realities of policing can prove challenging. As iterated by Bone et al (2016), by sharing some of the human factors involved in policing, especially during stressful incidents, the public can see officers as real people with vulnerabilities. For example, when explaining to the community why officers cannot simply shoot a gun out of a suspect’s hand, leaders can discuss what happens to the human body during times of intense stress (e.g., tunnel vision, increased adrenaline, faster heart rate, and heavier breathing) and confront this challenge by closely and proactively examining their community policing efforts to humanize officers.

 

To learn more:

Artwohl, A., & Christiansen, L.W. (1997). Deadly force encounters: What cops need to know to  mentally and physically prepare for and survive a gunfight. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.
Bone, D., & Normore, A.H. (2014). Progressive law enforcement leaders effectively manage departmental risk.Law Enforcement Today (LET): The Law Enforcement Community. Retrieved from, https://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/progressive-le-leaders-effectively-manage-departmental-risk/
Bone, D., Normore, A.H., & Javidi, M. (2015). Human factors: police leaders improving safety while developing meaningful public trust. FBI Law Enforcement Journal.Retrieved from, https://leb.fbi.gov/2015/december/human-factors-in-law-enforcement-leadership
Gilmartin, K. (2009). Hypervigilance: A learned perceptual set and its consequences on police stress.Retrieved from, http://emotionalsurvival.com/hypervigilance.htm 
Gilmartin, K. (2002).Emotional survivalfor law enforcement: A guide for officers and their families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.
Lewinski, W. (2008). The attention study: A study on the presence of selectiveattention in firearms officers. Law Enforcement Executive Forum 8(6), 107-138
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund: Deaths, Assaults and Injuries(2019). Retrieved from, https://nleomf.org/facts-figures/deaths-assaults-and-injuries
 

Authors:

Commander W. Paul LeBaron

Commander Paul LeBaron is a 26-year veteran of the Long Beach Police Department and is currently assigned as the Commander over the Port Police Division in the Port of Long Beach. Commander LeBaron’s previous assignments include Patrol, Field Training Officer, Drug Investigations, Media Relations, Vice Investigations, Internal Affairs and he has previously served as the Commander over the East Patrol Division, Detectives Division and the Chief of Staff to the Chief of Police. Commander LeBaron earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies at California State University Long Beach, a Graduate Certificate in Criminal Justice from the University of Virginia and a Master’s degree in Management and Organizational Leadership from American Military University. Commander LeBaron is a graduate of the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute (SLI), the FBI National Academy and the USC Sol Price Executive Leadership Program. He is also an instructor for DARE International, the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance and a lecturer in the Criminal Justice Department at CSU Long Beach. He is a long-time volunteer for youth sports and a Merit Badge Counselor for the Boy Scouts of America. He is married and the proud father of three children, the proud brother of 8 siblings, and the proud uncle of over 55 nieces and nephews.

 

Lieutenant Ryan LeBaron

Lieutenant Ryan LeBaron is a 19-year veteran of the Long Beach Police Department.  He is currently assigned to the Criminal Intelligence Section.  Lieutenant LeBaron’s previous work experience includes Patrol, Field Training Officer, Gang Investigations, SWAT, Advanced Officer Training, and the Lieutenant overseeing the Police Department’s Fleet and Information Technology Section. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Marriage and Family Studies from Brigham Young University, Idaho.  He is a graduate of the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute and is a council member for the Special Olympics Southern California Law Enforcement Torch Run. In the community, Lieutenant LeBaron volunteers in numerous leadership positions with the Boy Scouts of America.  He is also busy supporting many Special Olympics events throughout the year.  His free time is spent with family where he can often be found watching his children compete in youth sporting competitions.  Lieutenant LeBaron has been married to his wife for over 20 years.  During their marriage, they have been fortunate to be parents of seven children.

 

Dr. Anthony H. Normore (Tony) 

Dr. Normore is President of National Command and Staff College, and Chairman of the Criminal Justice Commission for Credible Leadership Development (CJCCLD) with the International Academy of Public Safety. He holds a Ph. D from University of Toronto and a Master’s degree from Université Laval, Quebec City. An emeritus professor of educational leadership and former chair of graduate education at California State University Dominguez Hills, Dr. Normore has also served as a visiting professorship of Justice Studies at University of Guelph-Humber (Toronto); a graduate professor of law, ethics, and leadership for the Summer Leadership Academy at Columbia University (New York); instructor for inmates at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; and more recently collaborated with Los Angeles Police Department in developing credible leadership for police officers. His police research can be found in Police Chief, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, California Peace Officers Association’s Journal of California Law Enforcement, Law Enforcement Today, and Policing: International Journal of Theory and Practice. He’s the author/editor of 25+ books, 80+ professional journal articles, 300+ conference presentations and recently named as the 2019 recipient of the International Authentic Leadership Award from the Consortium for the Study of Leadership and Ethics (CSLE).

 

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