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Rush to judgment: Plato's lesson on 'eating our young'

Part five of a five-part series

Over the course of the past five months, we’ve been discussing the type of after-action analysis I’ve heard described as “eating our young.”

Throughout this series of articles, we’ve used the example of an October 2012 incident in which two St. Paul (Minn.) officers were ambushed by a gunman. Officer Daniel King was struck twice, once in the back and once in the left forearm. His partner, Officer Brian Wanschura, was unhurt and is credited with helping to save his partner’s life.

Keeping in mind what you’ve learned in previous articles about how the body and mind work under extreme stress — and the flawed conclusions one might make when not given all the information Officers King and Wanschura had that night — we go one step further in our examination.

Here, we will finally hear the officers’ stories from their perspective. As you listen to the officers’ responses during the unedited interview below, try to identify those stress factors — both body and mind — and their effects on the officers’ actions and choices.

Don’t Expect Perfect
So, now we have a lot more information and answers to some of our questions. As a trainer, I’d love to attend a formal OIS review presentation by these two officers. Better still, I’d love sit down and talk with each individually to delve even deeper into their perceptions of what happened that night.

Here’s what we now know. The officers were aware of a call involving a suspect who had taken weapons — a shotgun and crossbow. They see someone walk by with what appears to be a pipe. As they approach the suspect he starts to take what turns out to be a shotgun off his shoulder and Officer King fires at the suspect.

The suspect flees into the area of the parking lot. The officers follow in their speeding squad car. 

Officer Wanschura opens his door to go in foot pursuit of the suspect. The suspect fires and a 12 gauge slug rips through the door into Officer King’s arm. A second slug punches through the squad car and into King‘s vest. 

Wanschura — unaware of his partner’s injury — steps from the squad car. The squad hasn’t stopped as he anticipated, and he loses his footing and falls to the ground. 

Why? Because under stress stuff happens! But he is a highly trained motivated police officer. He orients himself towards the would-be murderer and from a grounded shooting position opens fire.

The suspect is focused on the squad car as his target — remember that stress affects bad guys, too —which allows Wanschura time to get up and continue firing.

The threat is stopped. King is mentally and physically prepared to administer self-care, potentially saving his own life. 

This is a great example of good police work, training and warrior mindset and that is why I chose it. And even though it’s a great example, it isn’t perfect, is it? This raises two important points:

1.) Don’t expect yourself to perform perfectly under high stress conditions. Give yourself permission to do the best that you can under these extreme situations. 
2.) Don’t expect more from others than you demand of yourself. Be patient and tolerant and forgiving of your brother and sister officers when they are less than perfect.

I hope this series of articles compels all law enforcement officers to rethink how we treat and talk about fellow officers. Do cops do bad things? Yes. Do we do bad things the majority of the time? No. 

The Value of Debriefing
The time to discuss the actions of an officer is called a debriefing. A debrief can be a large formal situation or a small informal conversation.

In a debriefing the officers involved have an opportunity to explain their perception of an incident, because as we know, no two officers will see the situation the same. In the St. Paul incident Officer King’s memory of when Officer Wanschura got out of the car wasn’t supported by the video. In other cases, officers have seen their partners shot multiple times when they weren’t and even weapons in the hands of suspects that did not exist. 

Perceptions of the event can be radically different than the reality. Debriefing allows officers to hear and be heard so that others can understand their particular view point which can help explain their actions in a critical event. Debriefing can also reduce the likelihood of an officer developing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

If you have a major event, I would hope your department would do a debriefing. In smaller incidents you can gather the officers involved and do an informal debrief in the parking lot or over coffee. Each officer explains their perceptions and from there you can learn what worked, what didn’t work, and ways to improve.

This requires that officers are willing to openly share and have a desire to listen to others viewpoints and the maturity and professionalism to use what is learned to improve themselves and their partners. I am not so naïve to believe that all officers are willing or even able to engage themselves in this kind of activity. Work with the officers who can, and hope the others will find their way sometime in their careers.

Plato's Lesson on 'Eating Our Young'
A student of Plato came to him and said that he had information about another of Plato’s students. 

Plato said, “Before you tell me this information let me ask you a few questions.” 

The student agreed.

“Do you know this information to be true?” 

The student replied, “No.”

“Is this information you want to share with me of a positive or a negative nature as it relates to this student?” 

“It is negative,” replied the student.

“Why do you want me to know this information?” 

The student thought for a moment and then walked away.

Plato was the last man believed to possess all of the knowledge of the known world. To engage in rumors, innuendo, and second guessing out of ignorance is forgivable. To engage in it knowingly is malice. The choice is yours.

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