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Part I: Military and police psychology: Mutual influences and contributions

Part I: Operation assistance

Q:  My wife’s family has a long military tradition and, recently, my brother-in-law came home on leave from his tour in Iraq. We were talking about his experiences over there and my own activities as a city cop, and it was amazing how many of the same tactics, challenges and stresses seem to affect us both. Has anybody ever taken a look at how military service people and law enforcement officers can learn from each other?

(AP Photo/Mike Derer)
A:  Like siblings separated at birth, yet unknowingly living next door to each other their whole lives, military psychology and police psychology have long independently addressed the cognitive, perceptual, emotional, and behavioral aspects of men and women performing extreme service in defense of their communities – whether that “community” is a specific neighborhood or the nation as a whole.

Especially after 9/11, the dividing line between police and military defenders of our civilized society has been further blurred. In fact, many law enforcement officers have undergone military service and many military service members utilize tactics and strategies derived from patrol and special unit policing to carry out their assigned duties. So it may be time to highlight the recent advances in police psychology that have both drawn from, and can contribute to, the work of our military colleagues and improve the clinical and operational services we provide to men and women in uniform, wherever they may serve.

Typically, military and police psychological services have been divided into two main branches: operational support and clinical services. The former will be described in Part I of this column; the latter will be covered in Part II.

Operational support
The term operational psychology is defined as the application of psychological expertise to support the deployment, sustainment, and success of military forces in attaining combat, intelligence, or other strategic goals, and successfully carrying out missions and special assignments, usually by making direct recommendations to military commanders. Some of the important areas of operational service where military and police psychology overlap are as follows.
Fitness for duty evaluations

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Law enforcement and the military share a legitimate concern with having their active duty personnel in optimum physical and mental condition. Where it is suspected that the service member cannot perform his or her duties adequately for reasons that relate to mental status, he or she may be referred for a specialized psychological examination, called a fitness-for-duty evaluation (FFDE) in law enforcement and a command-directed evaluation (CDE) in the military. Specific referral questions may include the service member’s ability to safely use a weapon; to have access to classified information or special case files; to remain on special assignments, such as intelligence, investigation, undercover, or special weapons and tactics units; to make a determination of service-related disability; or to gather information in the context of legal proceedings against the service member. 

Outcomes of a law enforcement FFDE or military CDE may include any of the following. Fit for duty-return to service: the service member shows no indication of a mental disorder or other problem that would impede his/her ability to perform his/her duties. Unfit but treatable: the service member is currently unfit but is amenable to treatment that can restore him/her to fitness in a reasonable time frame. Unfit for duty due to psychological disorder: the service member is unfit for duty and is not likely to become fit in the foreseeable future, with or without psychological treatment; options may then include recommendation for medical discharge.

No psychological diagnosis: there is nothing in the results of the psychological FFDE or CDE to suggest that the service member’s unfitness for duty is related to a mental disorder or mental health diagnosis; in such cases, the service member will usually be referred back to the administration, whose options may include additional training, discipline, or recommendation for administrative discharge. Invalid evaluation: the service member has failed to cooperate with the FFDE or CDE, has not been truthful, and/or has shown malingering or other response manipulation on psychological tests. Options here include re-evaluation at a later time or referral back for administrative disposition.

[For more information on this topic, see The Psychological Fitness-for-Duty Examination: What every police officer should know & Part 2: The Psychological Fitness-for-Duty Examination: What every police officer should know]

Special assignment personnel selection
Selection of special-assignment personnel actually represents a fitness-for-duty evaluation in the positive sense. Here the purpose is not to identify weaknesses and correct or eliminate them, but to pinpoint strengths and special cognitive abilities, interpersonal skills, particular temperaments, and personality characteristics that may be suitable for special high-risk and high-demand military and law enforcement tasks. In the military, these may include programs for military pilots and astronauts, U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, and drug interdiction and antiterrorism teams. In law enforcement, these may include SWAT teams, undercover officers, hostage negotiators, disaster response and antiterrorism units, and specialized investigators. 

Psychologists from both law enforcement and the military agree that selection and screening for such roles involves a dual process. Screening-out describes the process of systematically eliminating candidates who possess characteristics inimical to the task at hand, such as anxiety- and anger-proneness in a potential undercover officer or hostage negotiator, or poor teamwork ability in a Navy Seals applicant. But eliminating a bad candidate does not insure retaining a good one. That’s why it is equally important to have procedures for screening-in the proper candidates by first identifying the qualifications and characteristics that contribute to success in that performance role, and then designing assessment tools to measure it. Examples might include good perceptuomotor and critical judgment skills in a potential air fleet or submarine commander, or cognitive and emotional hardiness and resilience in a potential member of a search and rescue team.

Yet, even the best screening protocol is essentially only a behavioral snapshot of the service member’s psychological qualifications. Ideally, reevaluations and reassessments should be a regular part of the service member’s progress through his or her military or law enforcement career. More frequent and careful monitoring should be the standard for service members in high-demand and high-risk roles.

Despite the varied roles of different special-assignment personnel, psychological research has identified a core set of characteristics that seem to characterize individuals who succeed in these roles in both military and law enforcement special units. Cognitive skills include both abstract and practical intelligence; good judgment, planning, and decision-making skills; flexibility, adaptability, and creativity in thinking; and ability to think quickly and adaptively under stress. Communication skills include keen verbal intelligence; ability to communicate through oral and written modalities; ability to adapt level of communication to that of the recipients; ability to quickly comprehend both the specifics and the nuances of communication. Emotional, motivational, and personality traits include emotional maturity; ability to function autonomously yet be a team player; cultural adaptability; stress-resistance and resilience; tough-mindedness and persistence; intrinsic motivation, commitment, and perseverance; reliability, dependability, and integrity.

[For more information on this topic, see: Mental toughness for law enforcement]

In addition to identifying general psychological traits of effective special-assignment soldiers and police officers, law enforcement psychologists have studied the individual traits and skills of officers who undertake specific high-demand tasks and many of these may be constructively adapted from the world of law enforcement to the military domain.

Undercover operatives
Both military espionage and police undercover work demand a certain type of psychological flexibility and resilience. Undercover operatives (UCOs) should be experienced, seasoned investigators of reasonably mature age, with a secure professional identity and prior experience in other areas of policing or military service. They must be able and willing to accept training and supervision when necessary and to work hard at perfecting their craft. UCOs have to be able to show perseverance and resourcefulness in the face of complex, changing, ambiguous, and often dangerous circumstances, with very little external supervision or oversight. At the same time, they cannot become free agents or loose cannons, and must be comfortable taking direction and operating within their agency’s policies, procedures, and guidelines. They must be highly proficient and flexible in their undercover role-plays and at the same time be able to maintain their core identities and commitment to the mission. They must be able and willing to spend long intervals away from family and friends.

Criminal and other investigations form an essential part of the work of both military and law enforcement personnel, and these individuals must possess a basic knowledge of the law and the legal system to guide their efforts. They must have an extensive knowledge of investigative and forensic techniques and procedures which they continuously expand by additional training. They must be able to take a broad and deep perspective on their cases, to perceive complex patterns and connections within standard typologies of criminals and crime scenes, but also to be able to creatively “think outside the box” to reel in elusive clues and flesh out skimpy inferences that may lead to valuable evidence. Criminal investigation is often long, hard, exhausting, and ungratifying work, and successful investigators must be able to marshal and sustain motivation and persistence to see the case through, from beginning to end. This requires a certain degree of tenacity and commitment, as well as the patience and independent-mindedness to deal with frustrations and disappointments along the way.

Command decision making under stress
Where military and law enforcement leaders prove their mettle is in crisis situations where crucial life-and-death decisions may have to be made with limited information and little time to ponder and contemplate. The following is a representative inventory of skills and traits, which reflect a combination of innate talent and rigorous training and field-testing, that comprise the basis for effective incident command leadership during military and law enforcement critical incidents:

Communication. The effective leader quickly and accurately assimilates what others tell him from a morass of often rushed, confused, and conflicting information, and is able to translate complex plans and strategies into specific, focused directives to appropriate personnel.

Team management. The effective leader coordinates the efforts of individual team members into a united force and is able to delegate responsibilities as needed, but can quickly jump in and take personal control where necessary.

Decision making under stress. The effective command leader must be able to think clearly and make critical split-decisions under fire. This requires the ability to distinguish signal from noise, to take in and distill the relevant environmental data and come up with a useful response.

Planning, implementing, and evaluating. The command leader possesses the cognitive skills to quickly and efficiently size up a situation, discern the appropriate actions, implement those actions, and then accurately assess their effects on the overall crisis management situation.

Emotional stability. Undergirding the traits of superior command leadership lies a certain basic emotional ballast and stability of character. This consists of a calm, purposeful, self-assured interpersonal style that inspires the troops with confidence and commands respect without having to fish for it. 

[For more information on this topic, see: Police Chief Magazine — View Article ]

Hostage and crisis negotiation
For both military and law enforcement response teams, there are few emergencies as critical as a hostage crisis. Lives are at imminent risk of violent death, often at the hands of unstable and desperate perpetrators, and usually in the midst of a chaotic and uncontrolled environment. Resolution of hostage crises may take hours or days of incredibly focused and intense negotiation, requiring the use of virtually every crisis intervention strategy in the military and law enforcement operational psychology skillbox.  

Most hostage crises encountered in routine law enforcement work involve botched robbery attempts, settling of scores in a workplace dispute, or escalation of a domestic conflict, often fueled by drugs or alcohol. Military personnel may be confronted with more dangerous types of hostage situations involving hardened enemy combatants or ideologically-driven terrorists who have no qualms about killing their captives to get what they want. Despite this, in the hands of a well-trained crisis team, containment and negotiation strategies yield a 95 percent success rate in terms of resolving a hostage crisis without fatalities to either hostages or hostage-takers (HTs) – a remarkable statistic for any form of lifesaving strategy.

Crisis negotiation teams around the world are increasingly incorporating the expertise of specially trained psychologists or other mental health clinicians. Ironically, although the U.S. Department of Defense recognizes psychologists as vital members of their crisis negotiation teams, many military services do not provide formal training in hostage negotiation. Thus, this is an important area where military psychologists can learn directly from the accumulated knowledge and expertise of police psychologists and a number of armed service branches have explicitly encouraged military psychologists to study and adopt the law enforcement model in the following facets of crisis intervention:

Crisis team development and training. The psychologist may participate in selection of team members and provide ongoing training in areas related to psychological aspects of crisis management and hostage negotiation. These include basic and advanced communication techniques and the effects of HT personality and psychopathology on different stages of crisis management. 

Operational assistance. During an actual hostage crisis, the on-scene psychologist can monitor the progress of negotiations and make recommendations to the negotiator, or may simply provide mental status updates on how the HT appears to be responding and monitoring perceived danger level, while letting the negotiator use his or her own skill and judgment to manage the negotiation. Another important operational role for the psychologist involves the team members themselves in terms of assessing the stress levels of the various team members during the negotiation and helping to bolster stress-coping skills and morale. Finally, after the crisis is over, the psychologist may participate in both operational debriefings and critical incident stress management services. 

[For more information on this topic, see: Hostage negotiations: Psychological strategies for resolving crises safely]

Interview and interrogation
Two of the most direct ways psychologists provide operational support to the military are: (1) assisting command decision makers in identifying and profiling enemy commanders, terrorist leaders, and political figures; and (2) informing and supporting interview and interrogation procedures for obtaining the maximum amount of useful intelligence and other information.

Therefore, the recent controversy over military interrogation techniques in the Iraq war and elsewhere is unfortunate, not just for the human-rights issues involved, but from the perspective of sheer operational effectiveness. This is one area where military investigators can learn a great deal from police psychologists. Law enforcement has perfected the art and science of behavioral profiling, interview, and interrogation to gather information in undercover operations, organized crime and drug traffic interdiction, serial murder investigation, and counterterrorism.

The ability of civilian police investigators to gain useful information from suspects is all the more remarkable considering that due process of law prevents them from using excessively coercive or deceptive tactics. Indeed, the effectiveness of interviews and interrogations are largely a product of how well an investigator can “read” an individual and then modify his or her style and methods to best capitalize on the subject’s personality traits and characteristics. Thus, law enforcement interrogators routinely have to utilize psychology in a very direct and practical way. 

The current standard protocol of interview and interrogation in most civilian law enforcement agencies relies on a progressively narrowing or “funnel-shaped” model of information gathering. Following an initial stage of rapport-building, which is cultivated and maintained throughout the interview, subjects are asked to describe events in their own words, without direction or interruption by the interviewer. Next, the interviewer poses general questions to fill in any missing data or resolve any glaring discrepancies in the narrative. More focused and detail-oriented queries are then used to help tie up any loose ends in the narrative and obtain a clear overall picture of the subject’s knowledge. Finally, rapport is reestablished at the close of the interview to smooth the way for further interview and interrogation if necessary. More specialized types of probing techniques can be utilized with subjects having psychopathological syndromes or personality disorders.

[For more information on this topic, see: Personality-guided interview and interrogation]
In Part II of this column, we’ll examine the mutual contributions of military and police psychology to the challenges of clinical service delivery.

To learn more about this topic:

Look for Part II: Military psychology and police psychology: Mutual influences and contributions on PoliceOne

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