Survival Instincts: Psychology and Police

Dallas Police officers are pictured waiting outside at the entrance to the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Two Dallas policemen were reportedly shot at a nearby Home Depot and reportedly were transported to the Dallas hospital on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Screenshot

In the past few weeks we have seen the news explode with stories about police interactions that have gone bad and resulted in death or severe injury. It is not only the suspect who is killed, but at an alarming rate lately, police themselves are being maimed or killed in the line of duty. Armchair special operators are quick to dissect these situations and they tend to immediately blame the officer for the consequences. But there are so many psychological and physiological reactions to understand when it comes to high stress situations. While the officer may consciously work to maintain control, they have to control their own involuntary survival instinct.

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Any military veteran who has been through real life high stress situations knows the brain changes when things hit the fan. Some fall apart under pressure, some freeze, and others like the self-sacrificing hero Master Sergeant John Chapman, the indestructible Senior Chief Mike Day, or the Marines’ immortal Sergeant John Basilone, become extraordinary warriors.

The difference between law enforcement and military with this mental state change is that despite it, police must deescalate the situation somehow, even when words are failing. These situations are not “imaginable” because you cannot simply imagine yourself into something so completely unreasonable, so terrifying. Unless you have been in this sort of life or death situation yourself, you will not fully comprehend your own body’s reaction when facing down a threat.

Beware that within this article are several links to police encounters, including some traumatic ones. By no means is any violence portrayed intended to glorify it, it is only to educate the reader.

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Knife-wielding suspect grabs officer after being shot during arrest attempt, Athens, Georgia, 2019. The assailant was killed and the officer was unharmed during the event. Screenshot

The Survival Instinct

When I went through security forces training, the instructors warned about tunnel syndrome. When it sets in, the operator keeps trying the same thing over and over like they cannot break out from that plan, like repeatedly shouting “drop the gun”. Or like this case in Athens, Georgia, in 2019, even after firing upon the suspect, moving back and shouting “put the knife down Sir.”

I experienced this ‘freeze’ reaction during a security alert aboard ship after a pier-side power outage. At a time when everybody was supposed to remain in place, my security team was getting geared up. I provided cover in the passageway when two contractors stepped out, one dialing a cell phone in his hand. M9 drawn, I kept shouting at the man to set the phone down, while he obstinately ignored my orders. Police and security are taught “ask, tell, make,” I was stuck on “tell, tell, tell, tell.” What shook me out of it was our armorer, a Chief, telling me to take a course of action and he’ll back me up. I almost needed to be shaken to move past my one response.

The Science of the Survival Instinct

Now consider a situation where the officer is attempting to instruct a noncompliant suspect. In an article in Frontiers in Psychology, Simon Baldwin, a senior researcher at Canada’s Carleton University, explained that extreme stress situations cause hormone releases in the body, activating physiological baseline functions of fight or flight. This involuntary neurological response is the body’s natural survival instinct.

To get a basic idea of this, go sprint 100 yards, then have somebody throw a basketball at your head. Be sure to record your reaction to understand this exercise. Then think back to a time when you were late for work and frantically looking for your car keys, which had been in your pocket the entire time. You become so hyper-focused on the objective that you lose perspective on the situation.

Now combine those activities and amplify the intensity to a point of life or death. It is a highly technical cycle of hormone releases, involuntary neurotransmissions, and muscle reactions that all occur in microseconds because your brain’s limbic system is desperately trying to keep you alive. It is a lightning fast series of decisions your brain hardwired into your body to act as the survival instinct.

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The limbic system is composed of the Cingulate Cortex, which is involved in emotional and cognitive processing; the Thalamus, which relays information from sensory organs to the cerebral cortex; hypothalamus, which regulates the amount of fear, thirst, sexual drive, and aggression we feel; hippocampus, which plays a role in learning, memory, and ability to compare sensory information with expectations; and the amygdala, which influences our motivation, emotional control, fear response, and interpretations of nonverbal emotional expressions. Screenshot

Police must combat their own body and mind’s involuntary actions simply to survive. It is an internal battle between natural instinct and the attempt to maintain control of the situation. As the situation escalates before their eyes in mere seconds, it becomes strenuous to maintain perspective of the big picture. You’re trying to keep everyone alive, the suspect is fighting you. Do they have a weapon? What are they going to do next? Are they trying to escape or are they trying to hurt you? These questions are being processed in the subconscious and triggering the fight or flight reactions in the body. Or if the mental function is over-exerted, the result is the body freezing into tunnel syndrome, like operator error in the person’s own brain.

To try to understand the full effect of all this on the body, you must also understand the environment as well. Consider the George Floyd situation as a whole. The full interaction has been public since August, and it is longer than nine minutes; it is nearly an hour of attempting to deescalate an escalating situation. It involves Floyd swallowing illegal drugs to hide evidence, the drugs taking effect, his hysteria, the ensuing struggle, the crowd surrounding the officers, and finally the tragedy. Here is the today’s addition to hectic events: crowds watching, recording, taunting, threatening, and attempting to get viral fame and internet rage sensation. All while the officer is attempting to do their job. In this bodycam perspective of the crowd around George Floyd, you can see them becoming confrontational with the police, even physically closing in on them at points. The walls close in and pandemonium ensues all at the same time.

Training for the Survival Instinct

Dan Bongino gave one of the best explanations for the Daunte Wright shooting. Not in his answer to Geraldo, but on his podcast, describing the natural reaction. In these high stress situations, the body reverts to what it knows. Dan Bongino cited a Force Science article explaining that for every taser draw from the weak side, officers likely train to strong side draw their firearm at the shooting range at least 100 times, likely even more. The weak side taser draw is a cognizant and deliberate action that goes against instinctual motor functions. The firearm draw is a simple motion that is repeated on the range and in scenarios ad nauseum. Why? In the immortal words of Sean Connery in The Untouchables: when your shift is over, you go home alive.

The solution is simple, right? Train more with the cross draw or weak-side draw. From the armchair tactician’s point of view, pepper spray and tasers are perfectly capable alternatives. They are not. They are a risk the officer takes in the hope to injure the suspect as an alternative to killing them. This must be stressed: the officer uses these tools at their own personal risk with the hope of reducing harm in a potentially life or death situation.

Joe Biden and so many others say “shoot to wound”. Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia taught us that when a bullet passes through the attacker, there is a good chance that it does not incapacitate them. If anything, as adrenaline surges through the attacker’s body, their limbic reaction may focus on the fight reaction, not the flight. And that all assumes that in the situation, the officer is even able to shoot the attacker in the leg, a low and moving target.

Just to add perspective to my article, I setup a simple scenario to draw and shoot at an assailant with a knife from about 15 feet. You can view it here. In summary, I would have died. I managed a center mass shot, but only about a second before I would have been stabbed.

Police around the country have created training simulators that attempt to make the scenarios as realistic as possible. To help outsiders understand these terrifying situations, regular citizens, reporters, and community leaders are occasionally given access to the simulators. They seem to discover the situations occur far faster than expected. When placed inside the scenario, people tend to discover very little time to be fully calculating and deliberate in their responses.

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Vallejo police department Lt. Kevin Bartlett runs through a virtual situation at the Fairfield training facility. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald) Screenshot

The Solution

So is there a solution? There will never be a foolproof solution. As long as there are people who do not want to go to jail and people who have to take them there, there will never be a perfect solution. But the best solution is not just to point fingers at the cops, start filming, and offer your two cents. Nor is it to go on national television and say that cops either need better training, defunding, or a nonsensical mixture of both. The solution is to teach people not to resist. Even if you believe you are being arrested unjustly or unlawfully, your time in court is the opportunity to make that case. It is not perfect, but it is better than being killed.

If you are being detained, the more aggressive your response, the more aggressive the detainment. And that brings about those involuntary fight or flight actions and reactions in both your body and the arresting officer’s. It seems like a bold statement when mass media pundits paint images of bloodthirsty killers with guns and badges, but let cooler heads prevail and live to see the next day. Thus endeth the lesson.

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Featured photo: Dallas officers wait outside the hospital after a shooting via Dallas Morning News

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