At some points in our lives, most of us become “experts” on why people do what they do. We witness people doing things that, on the surface, seem inexplicable or badly done. We drive by a road repair crew consisting of eight guys, all with shovels, seven of them, either talking to each other or giving directions to the one guy actually patching the hole. “Ah!” we say to ourselves, “the union at work again.” Maybe so, maybe not.
We don’t really know, but that doesn’t stop us from speculating. And most of the time, it doesn’t really matter, because we’re not going to do anything about it, anyway. But sometimes it does matter, because our speculations and judgments can impact on the lives of others. One group that’s regularly impacted is the law enforcement community.
Without exception, every time a person is shot by the police, the issue of “training” is trotted out, as the underlying culprit. The police profession is painted, with a single stroke, as run by amateurs and brutes, who are always on the lookout for people to victimize. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Lack of “training” has nothing to do with the tragic loss of life, involving cops and civilians.
Early in my consulting work, I was engaged by a large, suburban police department to look at a variety of issues, amongst which, was their training. I suggested that it would be important for me to go through the training in order to see what was helpful and useful, as well as what was extraneous and useless. My request was granted (I participated in classroom instruction, but not the physical fitness training – I was too out of shape to punish myself).
Part of the training, and perhaps the most intensive was in understanding the use of firearms – the legal, the technical, and the moral aspects of having an instrument that could take a human’s life. I want to zero in on one exercise that profoundly changed me, and my understanding of a police officer’s life.
Picture yourself in a dimly lit room, about 10 – 12 feet from a wall with a very large screen on it. You have what looks like a standard issue handgun, and your instructions are to react to the scenario that comes up on the screen. You’re told that your weapon shoots a laser, and that the technology connected to the screen will produce feedback on every aspect of the encounter you will be having.
The first scenario comes up – on the screen, a car has been stopped by you and you are walking toward the driver’s side telling the driver to put their hands out of the window. You tell the driver again, and stop about halfway to the car. There is no response to your commands. Your stress level is thru the roof, and you can feel the weight of your gun in your hand. In a flash, the car door is flung open, and an individual wheels around, faces you and shoots. You’re not sure exactly when, but sometime in the last few seconds, you discharged your weapon. The lights go on, and the instructor grabs a printout, which shows that you were late to fire, and took a fatal shot to the chest. The lesson: You Took Too Long To Decide To Discharge Your Weapon. You get two more opportunities, involving a robbery in process at a convenient store, and a small group of gang members walking toward you, with one of them waving his gun and talking unintelligibly.
You fail two more times and are “killed,” as are all the others in the training class. So, what’s the point – you have to make a judgement call that can cost you your life, as well as another person’s. (The numbers on this type of situation, are sobering. It take 1.4 seconds to wheel around and shoot. On average, it takes the person being shot at, 2.6, to 2.8 seconds to decide to shoot.)
How would like to have to make this decision, in the line of your work? Does this happen often, of course not. But it happens, most often in highly visible situations which get a lot of media attention from people who have no idea of what they’re talking about. This is not confined to law enforcement. This is embedded in the military, the intelligence agencies and many others. And as we become, unfortunately, a more violent society, it may well become a part of many of our lives.
When you make your judgements about what people have done, or are doing, make sure you understand what drove their decisions, and what would drive yours.
January 30, 2023