(Photo Dale Stockton)
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
In police work, the impact of complacency is too readily obvious in training accidents, deaths and operational tragedies(2). Where does complacency in police officers come from? There are at least three sources: innate complacency that pre-dates their law enforcement career; complacency learned over the course of their law enforcement career; and situational complacency imposed by the nature of the law enforcement environment.
Some individuals bring too much ego or machismo to their career, and this attitude discounts the need for constant vigilance and respect for rules, regulations and procedures. At the other end of the spectrum, na vet and a failure to recognize the inherent and constant dangers of police work can also foster complacency.
Officers who overestimate their own ability or don t appreciate viable threats due to ego or inexperience become more dangerous over time. Tragedies are relatively low-frequency events, and the absence of anything bad happening can reinforce these attitudes and make complacency even worse.
Complacency can develop or be learned on the job. As Johnson pointed out, success can decrease diligence and promote negligence. Similarly, in an ironic and dangerous twist, too much experience can lead to inflated confidence and complacency. This been called the disease of expertise.(3)
At the other extreme, a quiet, uneventful career can lead to false comfort and expectations about security on patrol and in the field. Rationalizations such as it was fate or stuff happens or his number was up become excuses that attempt to justify complacency.
Situational influences can also lead to complacency. Stress, fatigue and time pressures can become distractions that sap energy needed for vigilance or motivation to follow procedure. Certainly burnout, depression, substance abuse and similar problems can have the same effect, essentially resulting in behavior that can look like complacency and foster complacency.
Another situational influence is social loafing, the downside of group efforts. Social loafing refers to individuals slacking off because they assume someone else will do the work, make the necessary preparations, take the necessary precautions and pick up the slack. This can be an incorrect and lethal assumption; even if everyone else does their job, the complacent officer can put everyone in jeopardy.
Writer and motivational speaker Oz Mandino has said, I will not allow yesterday s success to lull me into today s complacency, for this is the great foundation of failure. For the police officer, it also represents safety, survival and winning.
The content of this article reflects the authors opinions and doesn t necessarily represent the policies or practices of, or an endorsement by, the Pennsylvania State Police.
1. Brantner-Smith, B. Terror, Patrol and Vigilance. Calibrepress.com Newsline. 2006.
2. Murray, K. Training at the Speed of Life. Armiger Publications. 2004.
3. Gonzales, L. Deep Survival. W.W. Norton. 2003.
4. Duran, P. Developing the Survival Attitude. Looseleaf Law Publications. 1999.
5. Smith, D. Conscious Safety. Calibrepress.com Newsline. Aug. 8, 2006.
6. Asken, M. MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations. Self published. 2005.
7. Grossman, D. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. PPCT Publications. 2004.
8. Ruge, R. The Warrior s Mantra. Barricade Books. 2005.
1. The topics of complacency and, more importantly, combating complacency must be discussed, reinforced and kept in officers awareness repetitively, if not constantly. Brantner-Smith says we can enhance complacency awareness by acknowledging the importance of vigilance at various times, such as at meetings or roll calls.
We can never emphasize it too much, but we should vary how we present the reminders to help prevent the message from becoming old, stale, boring and ultimately ignored. Tip: Remember the adage, Be brief, be interesting and then be gone. There s no shortage of instructive police examples nationally (and probably locally) you can use to capture your officers attention, promote reflection and place an important blip on their personal radar.
2. Maintaining humility and awareness is critical. Excessive self-importance and smugness must be reined in. Officers must recognize that no one is ever fully trained or experienced. Officers are always developing and improving, so although contentment and satisfaction may be deserved, it should, at best, remain brief. An organizational climate that emphasizes continued striving for excellence through training can help foster such awareness and humility.
3. Consistent and frequent training in tactical and physical skills is essential, and reminders and practice of vigilance, safety procedures and situational awareness must be integrated with all of this training.
4. Words are powerful and may indeed prove mightier than the sword, even on the street. The consistent use of tactical terminology will combat complacency. Phraseology such as when-then (rather than if-then) and unknown-risk stop (rather than low-risk stop)4 can promote awareness and readiness, and reduce complacency.
5. The development and implementation of a survival and duty mindset and mentally preparing for each shift prior to beginning that shift can combat complacency. Much as an athlete psychs-up before a game, it can prove helpful for each officer to develop a routine that signals they are moving from off-duty awareness to the high level of awareness needed on the job. Walking through the door of the station (and probably some point before that) should be like throwing a switch to start an enhanced state of vigilance, leaving the non-duty world behind.
Dave Smith5 has recently emphasized the importance of the state of conscious competence (even more than unconscious competence) because, he says, It isn t enough to have safe habits; we need to be constantly aware of safety.
6. Related to the duty-mindset is using tactical performance imagery6; i.e., mentally rehearsing possible actions when a call begins. Part of this mental rehearsal should include a focus on high awareness and maintaining high alertness until a scene is totally secure. This is a learned behavior that can be trained.
7. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman7 reports that fighter pilots often place yellow dots in the cockpits of their planes to remind them to maintain a certain level of arousal and readiness (condition yellow) that maximizes performance. Officers can place similar prompts in a cruiser that grab attention and remind them that complacency is not an option. Officers can change and refresh these signs, cues or prompts to prevent them from becoming stale.
8. Rodger Ruge8 has described the role of affirmations in police work. Affirmations are positive statements about ourselves that we make to ourselves. We typically state them in I form and in the present tense, such as I m a dedicated and determined police officer.
Affirmations should include statements that counter complacency, such as I m actively aware at all times while performing my duties. Affirmations are often a key component of the survival mindset by affirming such beliefs as Survival is a choice and I choose to survive this shift, I will think and act in ways that are protective so I ll get home to my family or I ll be there to back up my fellow officers and ensure our safety.
9. Personal debriefings and personal-performance critiques can help maximize tactical performance, as well as combat complacency. A self-review after each call or incident is useful to assess strengths and highlight areas that need improvement. Officers should make critiquing and noting the role of vigilance and safety a part of this.
10. Finally, countermeasures to combat complacency must be promoted by all officers; it s not just the responsibility of command. The use of the greeting stay safe is an excellent example of continuously calling attention to the essential task of combating complacency. As they said in the popular TV police drama Hill Street Blues at the conclusion of roll call, Let s be careful out there.
If some officers seem less vigilant about safety, such interactions can serve as subtle reminders. Or, such officers can be challenged more directly to remember that other members of the shift are also in their care.
Combating complacency is a non-negotiable issue.
Michael J. Asken, Ph.D., is the psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police. He is the author of MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations. Visit his Web site at www.mindsighting.com.
Christopher L. Paris, J.D. is a sergeant with the Pennsylvania State Police currently assigned to the Bureau of Training and Education. He s a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Scranton, earned a Juris Doctorate from Temple University Law School and is a member of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Bar. He was the PIO for Troop K Philadelphia and conducted more than 250 TV, print and newspaper interviews. He currently consults for Victory Tactical Solutions ( www.tacticalvictory.com ). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.