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January 20, 2012
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

What we do isn’t a game

When a police officer is thrust into the fight of his or her life, the outcome will not decide who gets a Super Bowl ring, but who lives and dies

I have come to grips with a condition I have struggled with since I was boy. I have LSI — Low Sports Interest — a condition for which there apparently is no cure. I think I was born this way even though I tried to fight it. I’m told there are a couple of “important” football games this weekend, but as a person with LSI, I have very little interest.

I was embarrassed as a young boy when my dad caught me reading a book about how to throw a football. “You can’t learn to throw a football by reading a book,” he said compassionately. I was confused. After all, the name of the book was “How to Throw a Football.” In junior high and high school I found my leadership and teamwork niche in student council and cut my competitive teeth in debate tournaments. But still, I struggled with LSI. Let’s just say that dad was pretty happy when I joined the Army.

Now the tables have turned. Whereas once I was the wonder of a father who couldn’t understand my lack of manly interest in sports, I am now a father whose son cannot understand my lack of manly interest in sports. My son is a sports fan with notable athletic achievements dating from Tee-ball and Pee-wee basketball. To try to relate — and cement those father-son bonds — I will occasionally try to have some quality sports moments. Those don’t last very long because my competitive spirit — honed in the sweat-drenched classrooms of weekend debate tournaments — makes me hate to lose.

No Second Guessing
So, I quit playing when I quit winning. That means that driveway hoops, Rec Center handball, golf, chess, and thumb wrestling were all bitter memories by the time he went off to seventh grade. I still attend an occasional pro sports event with him and we have a good time, although I suspect when he finishes college and gets a job, my companionship (i.e. buying the tickets) will be less sought after. I still don’t really understand football, or basketball, or the nuances of baseball, soccer, hockey, or the reason I spend a hundred bucks to sit in the middle of screaming intoxicated adults in extended adolescence while trying to read the local paper between plays, or downs, or quarters or whatever they are.

The one advantage that my LSI has provided is that I don’t do any Monday-morning quarterbacking — no second guessing of the millionaires who obviously have reasons for making the decisions that their entire lives have been devoted to being able to make. When a batter stands with a thin wedge of matter held above his shoulder, he faces a small sphere that will be hurled in his direction and arrive from the pitcher’s hand to the batter’s torso in about a third of a second.

Since the batter’s brain takes a quarter of a second to command the arms to begin his swing, there is less than one tenth of a second to make a decision to swing or not swing. This doesn’t count the milliseconds for the retina to translate a few million inputs, or the micro-adjustments the muscles must intuitively make in order to make the kind of swing most likely to rocket the ball in a certain direction.

Similarly, who am I to question a pass from a quarterback being assaulted by a horde of adversaries anxious to knock him silly, looking into a swarm of movement where the field of opportunity changes with every fleeting moment. Spectators may moan about moves they wouldn’t have made had they been in the batter’s box, but they soon forgive and forget and go about their business.

Sudden-Death Decision
I wish the public would give the same consideration to officers making their split second decisions. When a police officer is thrust into the fight of his or her life, the outcome will not decide who gets a Super Bowl or World Series ring, but who lives and dies. The spectators — always late to the game and depending on replays — will have no experience with which to judge the winner and yet they will be vocal in their opinions while the survivor must remain silent. The field of encounter is not cleared for the contest, it happens right in the middle of the real world. There is little notice, no fanfare, and the adversary plays by no rules while the officer has many. The contest cannot be flagged for penalty, because it is the final play and it will be a sudden-death decision.

Fine motor skills will be dulled by primitive body chemistry while those same instincts will focus the senses in ways the officer cannot possibly consciously control. With neurons firing at lightning speed, the officer’s brain will simultaneously reflect on training, emotions, calculations of time and space, moral considerations, and will balance all the training to shoot against all the powerful indoctrinations not to shoot.

While the body accounts for movement, light, and all the micro-data accumulated over a lifetime, all comes to focus in one small finger pressing against a very small trigger to create a very small hole in the opponent that may or may not end the encounter. If the officer wins, he or she gets to spend the rest of their career explaining why they chose not to lose.

As it turns out, I signed up for the toughest game of all.


About the author

Joel Shults currently serves as Chief of Police for Adams State College in Alamosa, Co. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He currently serves on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at www.joelshults.com

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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