Photo by Mark C. Ide
FEATURED IN TRAINING
“Are you OK?” In one form or another, it’s a question we frequently pose in police work. There are different applications for it, each with its own response. Sometimes the reply is genuine. On other occasions, it’s a method of deflecting concern. Over the years, I’ve been asked this question a number of times under a variety of circumstances.
Check It Out
I’ve said it before: Firearms practice must involve envisioning a real danger, not a paper target. It should be accepted by the officers that this is a lethal attack. The suspect may be using a firearm, a knife or any other type of weapon. Whatever form the assault takes, at the first opportunity I encourage students to check on each other by asking something like, “Are you OK?”
A status check after “Shots fired!” is pretty darn important. It’s such an important point that it must be automatic under stress, similar to instantly reloading an empty gun. Lt. Col. Grossman has taught us that we may not immediately feel pain as the mind and body process these stressful situations. Example: A vicious predator severely wounded one of our officers in the arm, but this real-life hero had no inkling of his true condition as he returned fire and killed the suspect. Only when he tried to get out his radio off his gun belt did he realize his condition.
A variation of the OK question should be internalized: “Am I OK?” Doing a quick injury assessment is basically a survival mechanism. Chances are extremely good that modern medicine will take care of your wounds and return you to your loved ones. An important part of this depends upon another “OK moment” that we should force into our students’ mindset: “I’m going to win this fight. I’m going to be OK.”
In a Flash, Life Changed
In addition to the physical consequences, there are other, residual effects that turn life-threatening events into long term, life-changing consequences. Therefore, a check on a cop’s mental and emotional state after a traumatic moment is absolutely OK.
Not everyone can pick themselves up in true John Wayne fashion without also picking up some “baggage.” Experts call this post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Street cops may have this weight locked and loaded into their minds almost as soon as the event ends. Some carry it with them for a long time. Although the incident may have been years ago, when they think of that moment it can be “in the now”: To this day an experienced SWAT cop carries intense feelings created decades past by a hostage’s tragic death during a tactical operation.
Similarly, a personal incident that’s stuck with me started with rolling to a morning burglary alarm call. On the way, a teenager in a hurry to get to school rode his bike right in front of me. I couldn’t stop in time. It usually unfolds in the same slow motion sequence I experienced that morning. He’s scooped up by my unit’s bumper. Frame by frame, his bicycle sails over the roof. His head and then his body slam against the lower right portion of my windshield cracking it. I thought he was going to die in my arms, but the Good Lord knew different.
After the paramedics took him to the hospital, a friend asked the question: “Are you OK?” I knew I wasn’t, but I also knew that I was supposed to lie and answer in the affirmative. The standard post-traumatic incident drill in those days was to go to a bar and drink. So after the paperwork, off we went. Although well-intentioned, it didn’t help. It made it worse. At that time in police work, there was nothing else in the way of real assistance for what I was experiencing. Even if there was, I probably wouldn’t have said a word. Real street cops didn’t do that. It was a few days before I could really sleep. Other symptoms lasted longer.
Here’s why I’m sharing this story. Making sure about a partner’s condition after a “bad one” should extend to how they deal with the aftereffects. Sometimes, cops will be solid and that’s usually a good thing. But if a partner delivers something like a staccato “I’m-OK-fine” response—as I did—then it’s likely a lie. Accompanied by other signs, as well as delayed negative behaviors, this can mean that the officer needs assistance dealing with what’s going on.
One of my most rewarding assignments was with our department’s Trauma Support Team. Acting under the guidance of police psychologist Dr. Lawrence Blum—a hero and role model for his life’s work of taking care of cops—we’d meet with officers as soon after an incident as possible. Our job had nothing to do with the investigation. That would take its course without the team’s involvement. Our focus was getting good officers—as well as dispatchers and other personnel—through tough times with minimal baggage. This was true whether it was a shooting, a baby drowning or any of the other ways cops get dumped on by death’s reality.
After our initial steps working with those involved, it occasionally became necessary for a more clinical approach. That’s when we would turn to Dr. Blum. My opinion: This process saved good officers from being further victimized by that “baggage” many of you already know too well. (Read his book “Force Under Pressure” for more.)
When similar incidents take place at your shop (and we know they will), I suggest you take a more proactive approach than what I experienced. If you’re a good instructor or even a field training officer, then you don’t need a psychologist’s credentials to recognize when a fellow officer is struggling. If you’re passionate about your important job, there’s likely some level of care for those you trained. If one of them goes through a tough incident, then invest a little more in their well being, gauging their condition by simply asking, “Are you OK?” Then listen carefully to what they tell you.
For the law enforcement trainer, another application of the OK status check comes with the progress our students make during training. Whether it’s arrest and control, basic tactics, force-on-force scenarios or firearms, it does no harm to ask something like “Are you getting this OK?”
The verbalized response, as well as the student’s body language, can tell the training truth. If they get it, then that’s good for them—and you. But even more important is identifying those who need additional attention. Remember: We’re talking about people who may be on the streets tomorrow facing a critical incident. The training you provide can make the difference.
A way to pin down exactly how the student is fairing is to next ask “How can I help you?” Students will sometimes be reluctant to admit they’re experiencing problems. The one-two punch of this question and “Are you getting this OK?” may help you make that difference.
Finish Strong, or Else
A final, important note: When possible, it’s important to finish training sessions with students sent off having experienced a positive ending. Example: If allowed to leave the range without achieving the required accuracy, then our officers may depart with the “F” word on their minds. No, not THAT word! I mean that they failed to qualify or meet the requirements. That’s a bad thing to leave in their heads. It might take more of your time but whenever possible, I suggest you invest those extra minutes—or hours—to fix it. Sure you might get home a little later, but for them it might honestly be a question of whether or not they go home at all.
But I’m a realist, and I can hear your comments already. I know there are going to be folks who, despite your instruction, can’t get it right. What do you do with them? It’s a question for you to answer, but you probably know already. I’ll tell you what I’d do: If they can’t make the grade, they fail. I know this is a little contradictory but here’s where I’m going: You’ve done your best. It’s time to be honest. There are other people who may have to depend upon that officer. If they’re not up to it, it’s more than just themselves they’ll affect.
This doesn’t end with the individual. You must also put their superiors on notice that a substandard performance problem exists. Take it to the higher ups, preferably through documentation. I’ve had to do this, including talking to an irate captain. We kicked one of his officers out of the SWAT Academy because the fledgling tactical operator couldn’t pass the PT test. Basically, the message was that the officer wasn’t cutting it and he wasn’t going to be allowed to continue with the program. Get him ready, and send him back when he is.
OK, I’ve got to close. I want to thank those of you who have read this column in the past and have come back for more. I realize that in addition to the more traditional topics, some articles have explored unusual subjects like we did this month. My intent is to give you new perspectives or reinforce your own thoughts. As a fellow trainer, I suggest you explore the variations of that humble phrase—“Are you OK?”—and use it to maximum effect.
Train safe. God bless America.
With next month’s issue, I’ll tackle in-depth a topic that we can’t forget or ignore: The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As I’m sure many others will be saying, it’s hard to believe that a decade has already passed and yet so much has happened. Brave men and women in the military and in police work have lost their lives all too early. With the latter case, it’s our job to take lessons learned and make them real for our officers.
In my September column, I’ll be talking about someone who lived this and in the process stood out from others well before that day in 2001: Rick Rescorla. He had a trainer’s vision of what might happen under the worst possible scenario and despite resistance from within, put practices into place that he’d helped develop, preventing a greater loss of life—a trainer’s trainer.