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Street-smart use of force: Beyond verbal martial arts and into brain research

The deputy was ill equipped to deliver the death message with no training in that terrible task. When she told the middle aged couple that their only surviving son had taken his own life, the father’s grief — still fresh from the loss of another son less than two years earlier — turned to rage. He picked up a planter and smashed it into the kitchen floor, his fists clenched, and his eyes were wide open and staring into nowhere.

The deputy drew her sidearm and pointed it at the distraught dad while the mother pleaded with the deputy not to shoot.

The grieving father’s aggression was within the realm of normal given the nature of the event. The deputy, failing to discern among the types of brain-stem generated stress responses and resulting behaviors, interpreted the father’s actions as a threat and responded from her own limited training, nearly turning a tragedy into a disaster.

Aggression Versus Threat
Many emotional responses can be misinterpreted as aggression, and much aggression is non-attack aggression. Researchers observe that home and territory defense, posturing for psychological advantage, pain response, escape behavior, and survival fighting come from the same biochemistry but filter through different neural pathways created from experience, socialization, and emotion. These different sources of stress manifest differently in behavior and body language.

If you haven’t taken advantage of the PoliceOne archives you should. Use the search box to look for "pre-attack indicators" and "body language" and ou’ll find a lot of good material.

The training gap, however, is understanding that not every person experiencing a flush of adrenaline is out to hurt the officer present. There are some fights that simply aren’t necessary. The advantage of developing discretionary skills is that threats will become more accurately detected for an effective officer response. Officers can make a quicker, more accurate appraisal of the nature of aggression they face so that the time officers use to interpret threats is dramatically reduced.

Neural Braking Versus De-escalation
In training officers I find that we are often boxed in by our vocabulary.

We talk about our use of force rather than suspects’ non-compliance. We also use the oxymoronic term "de-escalation" , a term that seems to imply that the officer was responsible for the "escalation" in the first place. I urge colleagues in my seminars to think in terms of neural braking - slowing and redirecting brain chemistry and cognition in both the officer and the citizen. (I also avoid using "suspect" or "subject". Using the person’s known name or "citizen" can reduce the adversarial language perceived by non-police readers). We may, by way of comparison with controlling a vehicle, pump the brake for a gradual stop, or slam on the brake for an immediate stop, or even let the vehicle coast to a stop on its own.

My goal in training officers is to have them visualize getting behavior decisions moved from the base of the brain (where rationality can be bypassed) to the front of the brain where logic can operate best. When that occurs, the officer’s internal cognitive process gets guided by neural pathways pre-established with training, rather than relying on the fight or flight commands from the brain stem. For the citizen, it means that the officer uses a variety of tools to reduce the citizen’s frustration or fear that fuels aggression.

None of this takes away from an officer’s decision to physically control a non-compliant violator when appropriate. That’s where slamming on the brakes may be necessary to put an immediate stop to threat behavior. Knowing when verbal intervention techniques are likely to be a waste of precious seconds is as essential as knowing how to use them when they are likely to work.

If You Have Time to Think, THINK!
Officers can enhance their own brain conditioning by actively discussing their confrontation experiences for lessons learned in routine encounters. When were we right? When did we over-react? When did we under-react? As we visualize and internalize the experiences of others we develop new strategies of our own. At least a half day of my training time is devoted to this kind of shared learning experience since the best collection of knowledge is often in the audience.

Importantly, officers must be acutely aware of their own brain chemistry, emotions, and patterns of response. We must often do intentional neural braking within ourselves to get our best rational behavior. We have to be honest about what we carry into a highly charged situation and how that affects our interpretation and response. Physical and emotional fatigue, poor nutrition, fear, arrogance, and mental distractions can hold us hostage to our own brain stem instead of harnessing that chemistry for our control strategy — whether it be guiding the citizen to calm compliance or engaging in effective physical control.

Using science to help us interpret human behavior more accurately can reduce errors that cost officers their lives or their livelihood. 

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