Police Psychology | Stress Inoculation: Not Just for Gunfights

Posted: July 6, 2017 in Police Stress
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Police Psychology | Stress Inoculation:  Not Just for Gunfights

by Patricia A. Robinson, Ph.D.

Sonoita, Arizona

 If you Google “police stress inoculation shooting,” you’ll get about 300,000 results, with titles like “Why your firearms training MUST include stress inoculation drills.” Acute stress induces the so-called “fight or flight” response, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system to prepare you to deal with the proverbial saber-tooth tiger about to pounce or the drug dealer drawing a pistol.  Without getting into the physiological weeds, we are familiar with the effects of the acute stress response:  pounding heart and rising blood pressure, tunnel vision, loss of fine motor control, auditory exclusion, and so on.  If you’re not prepared, these responses can wreak havoc with your shooting skills.

Trainers introduce artificial stress (e.g. time pressure, shoot/don’t shoot decisions, scenarios) in firearms training to ensure that when the real thing happens, an officer will still be able to perform, even under acute stress.   The middle of a gunfight is a bad time to be trying to think through step-by-step how to draw and fire your weapon or what to do when a malfunction occurs—your responses must be automatic.  With acute stress, when the gunfight is over (or the saber-tooth tiger has decided on a different entrée), our bodies return to normal.

Chronic Stress:  No Saber-Tooth Tigers, Just Being Nibbled to Death by Ducks

Chronic stress, on the other hand, produces all the same physiological effects as acute stress, although not always at as high a level—but it doesn’t go away as readily.  Your body never quite returns to normal.  Chronic stress can result from many sources, but among them is the need to remain calm and professional even under severe provocation.  That provocation need not be physical.  Just the daily grind of dealing with people who are angry and upset and take that distress out on the cops adds up.  After all, in what other job are you guaranteed when you head to work that at least once during your shift someone will call you an obscene name?  Ask any officer which call they’d rather respond to:  suicide by firearm or an ongoing neighbor trouble.  The suicide will win, hands down—even if the body wasn’t immediately discovered and has become, well, ripe.

Some progress has been made in teaching officers to manage angry or upset citizens.  In recent years, in response to various high-profile use-of-force incidents, law enforcement has focused much more attention on training officers in crisis intervention—teaching officers to recognize individuals in crisis, particularly when there is a mental illness component, and to use verbal techniques to de-escalate crisis situations where possible.  In other words, to learn and practice skills to calm people down.  Other people, that is.  But what about the police officer’s own anger and emotional upset?  What do we train for that?

I recall as a rookie officer encountering the reality of people screaming at me, calling me names, and accusing me of being a racist just because I wore a uniform.  This was new to me and, frankly, quite upsetting, particularly the racial accusations.  I always did my best to treat people with respect and fairness, regardless of their behavior, but the undeserved hostility rankled, nevertheless.  I once asked a senior officer how he managed to deal with it, and his response (facetiously) was “drink heavily.”  Nothing in the academy had prepared me adequately for that aspect of the job.  Over time, I developed ways to manage these situations and achieve a level of emotional detachment, but it still took a toll.

Think the effects are transient?  Think again.  I recently had occasion to watch the video of the Sandra Bland arrest.  You’ll recall that she was the woman stopped by a Texas DPS officer for failing to signal a turn, ordered out the car and arrested.  She committed suicide in jail, which triggered protests, especially after the arrest video went viral.  I’ve been out of active law enforcement for over 15 years, and still, when I watched that video and listened to the whole exchange between the trooper and Ms. Bland, I felt my stomach tense up and all those old emotions from similar verbal conflicts come rushing back. (If I still taught academy students, I’d use that video as a training tape for Professional Communication, but that’s another column.)

Can Stress Inoculation Reduce Chronic Stress From Anger?

Is there any way to train officers to better manage that internal anger that comes with the job?  Could the same stress inoculation techniques that we use to train officers to shoot under stress also work to help officers prepare for the critical emotional component of policing? What a great idea—why hasn’t someone thought of that?  Actually, someone did—forty years ago.   Writing in the American Journal of Community Psychology in 1977, Raymond W. Novaco described using stress inoculation to train law enforcement officers in anger management, with the twin goals of reducing inappropriate aggression by police and reducing police officers’ internal chronic stress.  So why in the world aren’t we doing that training routinely now?

While modern academies do incorporate some stress management topics, these are usually lecture classes.  Recruits are urged to manage stress in a positive way (exercise, eating well, maintaining social support networks) and avoid negative responses such as excessive drinking and social isolation.  Why not incorporate stress inoculation using scenario training specifically designed to help officers manage verbal altercations in a way that not only allows them to de-escalate the other person’s hostility, but also to manage their own anger and frustration?  If it works for gunfights (acute stress), it should also work for “word-fights” (chronic stress).

Teach officers a handful of anger-management techniques and then let them practice with intense, realistic scenarios in which hostile individuals berate the officers, call them names, question their integrity and intelligence—all the usual annoying things that upset people do.  Let the officers practice calming themselves down at the same time as they calm the hostile person and work through the scenario problem.   Have the officers report out not just why they chose specific actions to handle the call, but also how they felt, what pushed their buttons, and what worked to defuse their own emotions.

Without such training, officers all too often just try to “stuff” their feelings or numb them with alcohol (or worse). Sometimes this accumulated anger and frustration bubbles over and an otherwise reasonable officer “loses it” with a suspect, resulting in an excessive force complaint—and possibly a ruined career.   Other officers put up an impenetrable emotional wall in self-defense, and fall into an us-against-them mentality with the community. Using stress inoculation to train healthier ways to manage emotional overload will reap multiple benefits—both for the officer and for the employing agency.  Officers who learn how to manage their internal response to verbal abuse will be less likely to overreact when provoked, less likely to become jaded and cynical, and more likely to live longer, healthier lives.


Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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