Turning the "Oh sh*t!" moment into when-then thinking
When cops tell stories about everything going wrong, everyone learns from the experience
Editor’s Note: We welcome to our roster of writers Roy Bedard, who has worked within the public safety sector for more than 20 years. Roy’s column, which debuts below, will recount stories of police officers who have had some of the worst possible moments — those calls on which everything went completely wrong. Please check out his Opus below, look for his next column in coming weeks, and let us know if you have a story to tell here.
You can learn a lot about life by listening to the stories of others. When you think about it, police training is little more than sophisticated storytelling designed to prepare officers for future challenges. Stories change us — sometimes fundamentally — by establishing new pathways in the brain for new thoughts to channel.
Stories should have a beginning, middle, and end. Good stories need good characters, and these are usually established in archetype form. Good characters represent something larger than even the character itself. Their personas represent something that the audience can identify with, something that can be applied individually by each listener. There is a plot that usually centers on certain stakes. The plot is built upon drama, comedy, or tragedy, and in the end there is a lesson — a moral that radiates beyond the story with residual effect.
Many police training articles are written about what you should do in a given set of circumstances. Others are written at the conclusions of an active episode about what others have done. Like children gathered at a campfire, police officers share stories of their adventures, laced with afterthoughts and lessons to help others more completely understand the unpredictability of police work.
It’s natural though, when retelling stories, to sterilize the details of traumatic events, both consciously and sub-consciously, sometimes leading to an expression of the events in a less than accurate way. Part of the reason lies deep in the human psyche, a profound need to structure recall by first organizing irrational details into a manageable story that makes sense in hindsight. Culture also plays a role by compelling us to share stories through the accepted progressive storytelling format.
Before telling a story, the tone is first set in our mannerisms. Depending on whether the story will be a dramatic, comedic, or tragic, how it is told will have a lot to do with who the teller is. Funny people will tell funny stories, embellishing as necessary to evoke a laugh or a smile from the listener. Serious personalities tend to grow the story bigger than life, lacing each pause with a lesson or a morsel of wisdom by which the story only serves as the vehicle to the larger message.
Self-absorbed people will often tell their stories in a self-serving fashion, promoting themselves as the story’s main feature.
But all stories are important because they have the unique ability to create experiences that one has not actually had. In fact our story telling ability makes Man the only creature capable of learning without actually doing. Story telling may be the single most important social ability we have, the one that allowed us to dominate the other creatures and conquer nature without the benefit of sharp teeth, claws or wool. Because of what we have learned from each other, we have prevailed over time.
There is however, a dangerous gap in reporting. This gap comes in the accuracy of the event’s retelling. Where we can always learn lessons by applying the traditional story telling rubric, the real experience of police work is less clearly translated. It is a hodgepodge of unfolding — often irrational — events that cannot always build upon the calculus of reasonable decision-making.
It’s not always possible to tuck the facts of a real encounter into a neatly packaged story. In the real world, sometimes it’s difficult to know the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. It’s not uncommon for the plot to change mid-story, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell where a story begins or where it might end. But, still it is these disjointed actual experiences that need to be captured and told so others can learn and become more prepared for future encounters.
Steinbeck said that the most carefully laid plans of mice and men will often go wrong. More recently known as Murphy’s Law the concept is based on the rubric of story telling as I have described. To predict the future we look to the past and present for clues to how the story will likely progress. When the future doesn’t hold true to our reasonable expectations, it is Murphy we implore with a shrug of the shoulders. Progressive linear thought has a way of catching us off guard and is the number one cause of untimely death.
In this space on PoliceOne I will share a series of articles detailing the traumatic experiences of America’s law enforcers. The exclusive stories recounted here are about real cops in real situations, forced to react to a multitude of variables as they unfolded, and often as everything went completely wrong. We believe that more importantly than what these officers wanted to do, should have done or would do if given another chance, is the experience of what they actually did under the affects of intense stress. Written in storybook form, these articles attempt to move away from the textbook analysis and to drill down into the human psyche, allowing you, the reader to get inside the officer’s head to understand what was happening, at the moment it was actually happening, We want to capture the moment, unadulterated, and to provide you clues and inspiration for navigating through our own future ordeals.