By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
One aspect of law enforcement that is almost impossible to sufficiently describe to civilians is how the adrenaline rush that officers experience while engaged in particular crime-fighting activities affects the brain and the decision-making process.
An “adrenaline rush," which is actually a nonclinical term meant to describe the release of adrenaline (epinephrine) from the medulla of the adrenal glands, occurs when the Sympathetic Nervous System is involuntarily activated. This activation is initiated when the brain perceives a high stress event, which is often associated with imminent physical danger.
Contrary to the common sense of many outside of law enforcement, involving yourself in situations that activate this physiological response is often quite an exhilarating experience, and is actually sought out by many in the police profession. Detectives volunteering for risky undercover assignments and street officers patrolling for nefarious characters are examples.
While officers love the consequential high from the thrill of the hunt and subsequent encounter with criminals, it is important for them to understand that there is a significant down side to this physiological event.
Dave Smith, the venerable lead instructor for the Calibre Press’ Street Survival Program, talks about this phenomenon at length in his articles about a human being's need to involve himself in precarious endeavors. Dave refers to this need as the “Risk Thermostat.”
" Disengagement is a very healthy tactical maneuver when faced with multiple subjects, no legal reason to restrain, and no available back-up."
The brain's ability to process information, comprehend the immediate issue, develop responses to stimuli, and take action is a highly complex function that is executed in milliseconds. As most police officers know there have been countless studies undertaken about the effects of stress and its impact on the decision-making process during use of force situations. But what is rarely discussed is the impact stress has on the general decision-making processes of police officers when engaged in situations that don’t involve use of force issues.
It is inevitable that during the Street Survival Seminars a police officer will approach one of the Calibre Press instructors and ask a question about searching a car based on consent or reasonable suspicion (short of probable cause or a custodial arrest) while there are multiple subjects occupying said vehicle. Typically, the officers asking this question have several things in common: they are generally younger, have less than five years police experience, and work in situations where back-up is not readily available.
Those working in rural counties, sparsely populated states, small towns, and Tribal Police are examples. What they are looking for from the instructor is a magic answer. In their respective minds they believe they have missed out on some training that explains the formula for searching a vehicle as four or five potential offenders meander about in the immediate vicinity. They hope the instructor can fill the educational void.
But, when asked about the safest way to search in such a situation (multiple subjects, no legal reason to restrain, and no back-up available), the most common answer given by the instructors is often a disappointing one. For their advice is simple, direct, and to the point: don’t search. Disengagement, the instructors will say, is a very healthy tactical maneuver when faced with the described circumstances.
Frustrated by this advice the young officers will protest that letting someone they “believe” to be holding drugs, the possible proceeds from a crime, or other such contraband is unacceptable. They became cops to catch these people. Risks are part of the job.
But these interactions are almost perfect examples of how stress, exhilaration, and the decision-making process can create a dangerous situation and possibly a tragic outcome. As an instructor and a supervisor I can see in the faces of younger officers how the desire to catch criminals overrides the ability to weigh the potential risks.
Now don’t get me wrong, I was one of those officers. Some of the decisions I made while working night shift and not waiting for readily available back-up embarrasses me as I look at them from a more seasoned perspective. And I am certainly not saying walk away from such situations, police officers can be quite creative besides being brave.
But, it is important to also be realistic. An officer alone, with no back-up possible for an extended period of time, trying to search the car of multiple subjects that the officer believes are already criminals is ready made for a dire outcome. But letting go of such criminals is almost impossible to fathom. An unacceptable option -- especially if the motorist gives consent for a search.“Come on, I’m seconds away from finding the dope!” With that thought in mind, the excitement grows, stress levels rise, cognitive processes dull, the ability to balance safety concerns with the victory of justice over evil is compromised, and a bad decision is made.
Disengagement, as hard as it is to say, hear, and believe, is often an officr’s best choice. As we “old guys” tell the younger officers; the bad guys will eventually get caught. Someone will arrest them. Justice will be served. And even if that doesn’t happen, is getting killed by a bunch of miscreants over any amount of illegal drugs justice for your family? It is a tough reality to swallow but we can’t let the thrill of victory skew our reality and be the ultimate determiner our fate.