Violent Confrontations and the Psychology of a Cop

Every officer knows that things can quickly turn lethally dangerous. How can these situations be prevented?
August 14, 2015
By Samuel Johnson Jr.  |  Contributor
Senior managing director for Mangfold Group LLC and a former Baltimore police officer

It's been just a little over a year since Michael Brown died after encountering a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. What initially seemed to be an isolated incident of alleged excessive force has evolved into a national crisis as a number of other African-Americans have died during and after encounters with law-enforcement officers. In each of these cases local communities, the media, academics and politicians have been asking questions: What role did race have in these encounters? And was the officer properly trained?

With these questions in mind, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon recently ordered a state commission to overhaul police training across the state, and some variant of that action is happening or likely to occur in police departments nationwide. But as these needed reforms play out, let's not forget Sean Bolton, the Memphis police officer who was shot to death July 31 while walking up to an illegally parked car. Bolton was among more than 70 American police officers who have died so far this year in the line of duty, more than a quarter of them by gunfire.

No one, of course, disputes that policing is an inherently dangerous profession, and in every phase of law-enforcement training one commonality exists: survival. To understand survival through the psychology of a cop, come with me behind the closed doors of an American police training academy.

As a young recruit, one of the very first things taught to me was that on every call an officer might respond to there will be at least one gun present -- the one the officer brings to the scene. So this was drummed into us: If a physical confrontation occurs between you and a suspect, you are in a fight for your life. Why? Because statistics show that if a suspect takes away an officer's weapon in an altercation, there is an 85 percent chance that the officer will be killed by that weapon.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that police officers are trained to win in combat situations, when their lives are on the line. As a mantra among police officers goes, "I would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six" - that is, 12 jurors rather than six pallbearers.

Indeed, the courts have long recognized that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments about the amount of force that is necessary, and to make those judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. Guidelines for how this force should be exercised were established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 in the case of Graham v. Connor: "severity of the crime being investigated, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, and whether the individual is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." The reasonableness of a particular use of force, the court said, must be judged from the perspective of the officer engaged in the confrontation, not with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

So what can be done to reduce the kind of confrontations that all too often end with an officer or a suspect injured or dying?

As every police officer knows, suspects are more inclined to engage in confrontational situations when an officer is working alone. So the first and simplest step is a continuing process of staffing analysis that aims to ensure that the appropriate levels of law-enforcement manpower and other resources are being deployed into the community every day. Often a show of force, with numerous officers on the scene, can help to de-escalate a potentially volatile situation.

In striving to help officers cope with the emotional challenges of a dangerous profession, the kind of improved police training that Missouri is embarking on certainly has its place as well. And it's never been more important for police to reach out to improve their relationships with the communities they serve and to do whatever it takes to help people appreciate the psychology of a cop.

Everyone should understand that to a police officer there's nothing routine about a "routine" traffic stop, that any kind of police-response situation can turn ugly in a moment. The goal should be that at the end of the day everyone -- police and suspects alike -- makes it home safely.