Stressful encounters: Why anger and fear can be good
We must recognize, examine, and understand two emotional responses we encounter on the street
It’s important for law enforcement officers to understand what they can and cannot do under stress conditions. Consequently, a lot has been written on the topic of human performance under stress.
A topic which has not received as much attention but is just as important to understand is the major emotional response that officers may encounter under stress conditions, as well as in their “normal” daily professional activities.
Specifically, we must recognize, examine, and understand two emotional responses we encounter on the street: anger and fear.
Of the two emotions, anger is generally more acceptable to the law enforcement officer and easier to understand. To a certain extent, anger can be a powerful motivator and allows officers to be assertive.
It even plays a small role in command presence. It is important for officers to acknowledge and recognize that anger is a normal reaction. The emotional response of anger can either aid or hinder an officer’s performance.
Anger is a feeling of displeasure from perceived injury, mistreatment, or opposition, to one’s self or to another person. When anger is inappropriate or out of control (read: rage), it can become a liability.
It is difficult to exercise effective emotional control when a person is extremely angry. To avoid getting to this point, officers need to prepare themselves for dealing with anger.
Sometimes law enforcement officers act as if they should not have angry reactions to things they see or experience during the performance of their duties. Denying or suppressing anger for long periods may create emotional and physical problems.
Law enforcement officers have reported that anger appropriately channeled has enabled them to keep fighting, or at least keep trying, during a crisis situation. During the impact suit drills with the recruits, the instructor in the impact suit will hit the recruit in the head or face.
We understand that the recruit should get angry about being hit in the face no matter who does it. The recruit is instructed to control and use that anger and to focus it on the task of winning the encounter.
Anger can come from other sources. An irate suspect or victim that chooses to tell you what they think about your ancestry or opine about your parent’s marital status at the moment of your conception is just trying to get under your skin.
The officer needs to depersonalize what is being said and realize/consider what the source of this tirade truly is about. Recognize that the subject is reacting to the uniform and not to the person in the uniform.
There is much that can be done for officers to learn to control their anger. Identify anger-inducing scenarios and develop problem-solving solutions. Recognize the onset of anger and use controlled breathing tactics. If it is appropriate, take a step back from the situation and let another officer handle it.
Fear is a normal emotional response to a perceived threat (real or unreal). It is normal for officers to experience fear whenever they encounter a potentially dangerous situation.
Fear is normal and does not become a problem until it interferes with the ability to perform effectively. It has been said, “Courage or bravery are not the lack of fear, but in fact, the control of fear.”
If I had an officer that claimed he felt “absolutely no fear” about going into a darkened building on a forced entry burglary call to search for the unknown suspect(s), I would ask that person to act as the “key man.” That is the officer that collects all the vehicle keys of the searching officers and gets to guard the cars outside the building.
An officer that feels no fear in this situation will most likely not use reasonable caution and could place the search team in bad situations.
Everyone has experienced the sensation of fear. It can be unpleasant, but it is normal, natural, and often necessary. A person’s fear changes with time and experience.
Fear may alter alertness during stressful situations. When a person experiences fear, the body reacts, often by an increase in adrenaline, heart rate, and breathing. In addition, some common physiological responses to fear may include:
1.) Blood clotting enzymes flow into the system to minimize damage from wounds
2.) Vision and hearing become more acute and focused (e.g., tunnel vision and tunnel hearing)
3.) Increased muscle tension and perspiration
4.) Raised pain thresholds
5.) Time distortion
6.) Color distortion
7.) Impaired fine motor skills
The officer may experience reasonable fear as a result of:
1.) A sudden or erratic movement by a subject
2.) The sight of a weapon in a subject’s possession
3.) The knowledge that a person is in danger of bodily harm
4.) A sudden sound produced outside of the officer’s field of vision
5.) Unresponsive, unexpected response to the officer’s action
Discussing fears with others is one step toward managing fear. In addition, going through the mental rehearsal before an incident takes place (“when this happens, I will…”) as well as after-action assessments (“what could I have done differently”) will better prepare the officer in dealing with fear.
Other methods for managing fear include focusing on what must be done and not solely on the danger itself. Officers can evaluate the situation and determine what must be done to achieve the goal.
Recognizing Our Humanism
Let’s recognize our humanism and embrace it. We must recognize that we have these emotions and learn how to control and use them to our advantage. As trainers, we can help officers learn how to control and use these emotions by inducing high stress levels in our training sessions.
The officers learn how to deal with these emotions in controlled environments through “stress inoculation” training. Such training could include the force option simulator, force-on-force scenarios using paint marking cartridges and realistic impact suit training.
Note: Giving credit where credit is due, much of the information for this article was “borrowed” from the Regular Basic Academy Workbooks from California POST.