Officer Overload: Are Too Many Responsibilities Compromising Officer Safety?
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of the California Police Chief magazine.
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
When five police officers in Dallas were killed by a military-trained sniper in July 2016, agencies around the country conducted briefings to discuss ways officers could protect themselves should they find themselves in a similar situation. Now common practice, these briefings are one of the most effective tools for promoting officer safety, allowing agencies to share emerging threats, promote best practices, identify policy issues, and discuss training needs.
Finding Every Opportunity to Talk about Safety
Sergeants generally bear the responsibility of teaching officers how national incidents affect officer safety. Jeremy Nikolow, a graduate of American Military University’s Criminal Justice program and 11-year officer at a large agency in central Florida, was recently promoted to patrol sergeant. He makes it a point to mention national incidents pertaining to officer safety during his daily briefings. In September, he discussed tactical and safety concerns after three Arizona officers were injured when a man intentionally drove his car into them at a gas station.
“Those officers were standing in a circle so they had a good 360-degree view,” said Nikolow. “Sometimes, no matter what you do or how aware you are of your surroundings, you can’t prevent attacks.”
Incidents like those in Phoenix, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, where officers were targeted for attack, illustrate the inherent dangers of law enforcement. Nikolow believes it is the responsibility of a sergeant to identify officers who may be showing signs of distress. “Not every officer is able to compartmentalize after an incident. Some really need to sit down and talk it out,” he said. “It’s important to recognize those officers and find practical ways to work through it.”
[Related: How Police Can Reduce and Manage Stress]
Sergeants are also responsible for conducting debriefings, a practice that has become more common among agencies. “We debrief now more than we ever did in the past,” said Keith Graves, a police officer for over 28 years and current Criminal Justice student at AMU. Graves is a Sergeant with the Livermore Police Department in California. “Whenever there’s a major call, I like to get people together immediately after to talk about what went right and wrong.”
Sitting down and critiquing an incident also serves as a daily reminder for officers to be aware of their biggest threat: complacency. That’s something Michael Kashiktchian has already learned in his two years as an officer.
Kashiktchian was hired by the Riverside County (CA) Sheriff’s Department in 2014, but has only been patrolling on his own as a Deputy Sheriff for eight months. He supplements his experience in the field with public administration classes at AMU. His training regularly reminds him never to make assumptions about what he’ll be facing.
[Related: Teaching Officers About Stress Management]
“Officers will inherently start developing an idea of what a call is going to be like,” he said. If it’s a theft, for example, officers might start to think about photographing the scene, collecting information about stolen property, dusting for fingerprints and so forth. Instead, officers should constantly remind themselves that they don’t know what they’re walking into and be prepared to use a myriad of techniques and tools.
“We have a checklist running through our minds, which seems like a constructive practice,” said Kashiktchian. “But it can lead officers to lower their guard.”
Officers Have More Tools than Ever to Keep Them Safe
Talking about officer safety is nothing new—it’s always been paramount for law enforcement. What has changed is the techniques and tools officers have at their fingertips, said Graves. “I was on SWAT as a young man in 1992 and we would constantly be called out,” he said. “Fast forward 25 years and our SWAT team isn’t called out nearly as much. It’s not that crime has decreased, but the average officer has better training on how to approach a situation when years earlier they would’ve called SWAT.
“When I first started, all I had was a revolver, a can of Mace, and a baton,” said Graves. “Now officers have Tasers, bean-bag launchers, pepper spray—there’s so much more equipment available for cops to protect themselves and to stop incidents before they escalate.” Along with many of those tools come ongoing training and often required re-certifications.
Are Officers Expected to Do Too Much?
“When I first started, cops weren’t dealing with nearly as much in terms of addressing societal problems,” said Graves. “But now, we’re asking so much and giving them so much training that they’re becoming overwhelmed.”
Rendering medical aid is a great example of this. Around the country officers are equipped with Narcan, a drug that reverses drug overdose. “People think this is a great solution because cops get there the quickest so they should administer Narcan and try to save these people,” said Graves. “The problem is that the places where people are overdosing often pose an officer safety problem.”
Graves has seen this danger first hand. In one situation, he arrived at a house where a young officer was administering CPR to a man who had overdosed. However, in doing so, he’d forgotten to clear the scene. It turned out later that there were several dangerous people nearby.
Agencies need to recognize that all these new responsibilities, new policies, new training, and new tools are overwhelming officers and hindering their ability to respond effectively, said Dave Blake, who spent 16 years in law enforcement before retiring from the Livermore PD in California. After retiring, he earned a master’s degree in psychology and started his own police practices consulting and training business focusing on use-of-force and the science of human performance.
“Officers are suffering from cognitive overload because they need to know all these policies and procedures and understand their practical application. They also need to develop new skillsets to use all this equipment correctly,” he said.
In Search of a Solution
With more and more responsibilities to handle, being a police officer today is more stressful than it’s ever been. Add in the high levels of pressure that come with the job and it’s no wonder officers feel overwhelmed and make poor split-second decisions.
[Related: Coping with the Stress of Police Work]
Blake thinks officers need to do more training in high-stress situations. “Situations do not often go as well as they do in training. If officers conduct training in an environment that is more in line with real-world events, they will be more successful,” he said. “Officers need to learn how to deescalate their own stress and allow themselves more time to observe and react.”
He also advocates initiating training programs that return to fundamentals. “With all this new training and equipment initiatives, basic officer skillsets keep getting reduced,” he said. Reality-based or simulated training with an emphasis on real-life scenarios and practical exercises could go a long way toward instilling confidence and decision-making skills in officers today. Law enforcement managers should determine what equipment and tactics are most appropriate for their individual agencies, and then focus training on those.