Sunday, August 7, 2011

Not Today

Not today, not on this shift, not on this call, not on this stop — I will not be caught unaware!
Dave Smith 

There’s a picture of my 10-yr old daughter on the inside of my locker door. I had one of my son wearing a goofy hat, and another of our family vacationing in Mexico, but they fell off. My girl’s giving me one of those half feigned 4th grade picture day smiles. Every  day after I flop my vest over my head, I will look at her and say, “Not today.” 
Today won’t be the day I let my guard down. I won’t assume this so and so call will be like the others. I won’t assume the parolee I’ve always gotten along with will again agree to go lie down for three months on another violation. I’ll watch my six and that of my partners. I’ll be ready, willing and able to be more violent than the most violent person I’ll meet that day. You wanna kill me? Not today. 
I don’t like violence. Never have. I never fought as a kid. The first time I was hit in the face it was as a cop. Violence is a necessary evil to maintain social order. Police officers, if we’re doing our job right, maintain order.   
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes describes life without a “social contract” in his classic book Leviathan. He calls it the “state of nature.” Life in a state of nature, he says, is characterized by... 
continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Sounds a lot like the failed state of Somalia, where for decades various tribes, religious zealots and megalomaniacs have climbed over one another for power, or Mexico where narcoterrorists skin people alive and hang them in public places.  
Most people don’t think this could ever happen here. Most cops know it could. We see people who have no sense of future and who place very little value on human life. We see them in the parts of our cities and towns most people don’t know exist. These children who live in violence, squalor and psychological deprivation grow up. They become asocial “focused aggressors.” They keep fighting after being pepper sprayed and keep shooting after being shot. 
Focused aggressors have a few advantages over cops. First, they don’t give a fuck about life - yours, theirs or that of anyone else. It would be quite difficult for me to articulate in words to my wife or a non-police friend, exactly what it’s like to meet someone who just doesn’t give a fuck. It’s disturbing. 
Another advantage asocial focused aggressors have is that they get to pick the time. The parolee who I’ve always gotten along with swimmingly gets to pick the very moment he’s going to try to get my gun and attempt to execute me. 
Not today though. Today, I’m going to assume he’s going to try to kill me. This means I have to perform schizophrenic mental gymnastics, outwardly friendly and disarming but physically and emotionally ready to become more violent than he. 
I’m going back to the gym again tomorrow. I’m going to look like something in my uniform because I know there exist a growing number of asocial, predatory human beings in my city who look for the weak. The victim who gets beaten and robbed never knows it, but he was likely picked. Most people don’t know that criminals often drive or walk around looking for prey. 
But not today. Not me. I don’t get a kick out of beating someone’s ass but I’ll do it. Not if, but when I have to. As that great American poet Dr. Dre says in “The Watcher,” 
if you really want to take it there we can,
Just remember that you fucking with a family man.
I got a lot more to lose than you, remember that,
Don’t tell your wife or your boyfriend or kids, but tell yourself, “Not today.” They don’t need to know the gory details of mans inhumanity to man, that’s what you signed up to know. But be very clear with yourself when you walk out of the locker room that today will not be the day. 
We work in a cesspool of shit. It requires real dedication, commitment determination and help from others to wash the residue of the cesspool from our bodies, minds and hearts. It’s good work and we owe it to ourselves and our families. However, we cannot unsully ourselves if we don’t get out. Getting out starts with the simple and resolute oath whispered to ourselves and made to those who love us: Not today, not on this shift... 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I Need a Book Name

If you had written a book on police mental health issues what would you call it? The book is based largely in research findings, personal anecdotes from my work as a street cop and mental health professional treating cops. The 'usual suspects" of divorce, alcoholism, suicide, health problems & traumatic stress each have their own chapter. The literature for each affliction is reviewed and specific suggestions are made which will allow the officer to live a more full, complete life. So what's this book called. The best known similar book is Kevin Gilmartin's Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, so I can't steal that. Looking for that super sexy title. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lexipol, Gordon Graham and Critical Incident Stress: A Critique

Anybody subscribe to Lexipol’s “Tip of the Day?” I’m not sure exactly what Lexipol’s raison d’ etre is, but it’s pretty cool to see Gordon Graham pop out from the side of the screen and give us the straight talk on various police-related topics. 
Now, I saw Mr. Graham speak at a conference once. The topic was “risk management in law enforcement,” and he’s quite plainly an expert in that area. Unfortunately, he’s not quite as informed about critical incident stress and I worry that his mini lecture on the topic may make people with cumulative critical incident stress worse. 
Mr. Graham tells us there are 8 things we need to know to “cope with, withstand...prevail” over critical incident stress. Here’s my critique:

1. Superior training and skill development. 
This, he tells us, is by far the most important factor in our coping with, withstanding and prevailing over critical incident stress. By “training” the only thing he could be referring to is stress inoculation training, which, though rarely used in LE, has much promise. If this is what he meant, I wish he would have just said it. As it is, it suggests if one struggles with the emotional aftermath of critical incident exposure, it somehow reflects a failure to train well, which simply is not the case. 
    Posttraumatic stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event, not a sign of inadequate training on the part of the LEO. Unless he refers to stress inoculation, I am baffled by the inclusion here of “skill development.” What “skills” does an officer need to develop so that he doesn’t have insomnia after witnessing the death of a child? 

2. A learning attitude toward the profession...a culture of knowledge
    This makes sense. As Dave Grossman writes in On Combat, “Forewarned is forearmed.” It behooves us a human beings who police, to know how critical incident stress may impact us, so that we can plan accordingly. 

3.  High intelligence and problem solving ability. 
Smart people don’t get posttraumatic stress disorder? Never heard that. What do we say to the young officer who witnesses a child die? If he were smarter he’d be fine? Higher ‘intelligence’ (which we measure through controversial and value-laden tests) has been correlated with lots of good stuff, but not resistance to critical incident stress. If  you’re having difficulty concentrating after exposure to a critical incident, it doesn’t mean you’re a dummy. 

4.  Good verbal and interpersonal skills. 
Really? I’m pretty sure there’s no science behind this claim. If there is, I’d like to check it out. I know it sounds like I’m bagging pretty hard here on Mr. Graham...I just wish he would have told us where he got these from. 

5.  Adequate emotional control. 
Okay, this is where we get into potentially damaging information. This is eerily similar to the long held cultural myth that posttraumatic stress only afflicts “weak” people. It’s cousin is the cultural myth that psychotherapy is for “crazy” people. I find this offensive. Can you imagine sitting in a room filled with cops as they debrief a horrible critical incident, and telling them if they simply control their emotions they’ll be better off? “Get ahold of yourself man!”

6.  A sense of optimism. 
This is related to one of the components (called ‘commitment’) of hardiness, which is a personality trait. This is accurate. 

7.  Seek help and support. 
     This is quite a true and valuable point, and one I make all the time to friends and co-workers. So many of the common maladies which befall our brothers and sisters in blue are treatable. But you can’t get better if you don’t ask for help. 

8.  Critical Incident Stress Debriefings.
  Another rock solid suggestion. 
At the end of his statements, Mr. Graham tells us he got a lot of his information from an article written by someone else. That’s fine, but when you say it, you own it. Some of Gordan Grahams’ information on critical incident stress is confusing. Some of it may be damaging. 
The law enforcement industry has begun a paradigm shift regarding the psychological toll a police career can have on the officer, and how to manage it. We cannot afford to go backward. . .we’ve come too far.