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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Who Will Save Us from Ourselves?

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on February 26, 2012

Aurora Police officers go through many hours of annual mandatory training to ensure that we are prepared to engage in battle against evil whenever it becomes necessary.

We believe you “play like you practice” so our Training Division creates scenarios that are designed to give us realistic dress rehearsals for the real things. The training encompasses firearm proficiency, defensive tactics, crowd control and law updates, to name a few, and we pride ourselves on our preparedness.

Survival strategists tell us that in order to survive a battle, we must develop a mindset where failure is never an option. I have heard first-hand accounts from officers who were involved in gun fights say they reverted to their training as though it were muscle memory and recalled consciously tapping into that inner voice that says, “I will stay in the fight.”

Since our profession is masterful in creating human beings that are willing to run towards the gunfire when all others are running away, most police officers, like soldiers, are proficient in the tactical skills that are instrumental to our survival.

Unfortunately we sometimes fail when it comes to teaching officers to cope with the stresses that are inherent in our profession.

During my early training, no one told me that I would not sleep for a week after seeing my first double homicide where small children, although spared, were locked in the apartment where their parents had been slaughtered. No one warned me that the first sexual assault case against a child would forever alter the way I saw the world.

I don’t know that you can train for these traumatic events except to experience them as they unfold and try to figure out a way to silence the film reel that continuously replays in your mind. These scenes appear over and over, and in time, a police officer becomes immune to the trauma. Those who don’t develop immunity are doomed to a life of pain and suffering so a person’s emotional survival many times depends upon building walls.

I never believe anyone who tells me they keep their home life and work life separate. I don’t think humans can compartmentalize the two worlds by masterfully navigating between them – even if they claim to have this skill. This is precisely the reason police officers are believed to have a higher divorce rate and are more susceptible to alcoholism or other unhealthy vices as compared to other occupations.

When I researched the facts and figures associated with this claim, I found so many contradicting studies that I couldn’t formulate an absolute. (I did learn that agricultural laborers have the lowest divorce rate so if you are looking for assurance in marriage longevity, you might consider such a career.)

In my research however, I learned that 147 police officers committed suicide in 2011. That’s over two times the number killed by a bad guy with a gun. I’m not a psychologist but I believe there is a correlation between the stress incurred in this profession and the high suicide rate.

If an officer has not developed or learned the coping skills necessary to handle trauma, it manifests in other areas of their lives. Relationships are bound to suffer based on my aforementioned compartmentalization theory and officers are likely to turn to unhealthy vices to numb the pain. In a final act of helplessness, death might seem to be the only option to stifle the suffering.

I truly believe policing is one of the noblest professions. The skill and will of a well-trained officer benefits mankind in the understanding that the police are our nation’s first line of defense when we are met with a threat.

We train so we can be the victor over the bad guys but I sometimes wonder who will save us from ourselves.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

When Preserving Life and Protecting Life are in Conflict

*Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, February 12, 2012

I believe we all agree that there is nothing more valuable than human life.

But if we were to engage in a deeper and more philosophical discussion, we would find that there are different beliefs on what constitutes the value we attach to life.

That value is derived from our own belief systems and the way we see the world. The way we see the world is culminated by our experiences. The struggle between pro-life and pro-choice is a perfect example of belief systems that are at odds.

So is the fact that we attach value with different ideals. Is a heart surgeon’s life more valuable than that of a homeless person? If you had to take a life to save a life, would you?

In January 2010, one of our police officers was faced with that dilemma. He was off-duty and had just picked up his 13 year old daughter from school. As he drove down the street, he witnessed a male with a gun, chasing and shooting at a group of kids. The officer immediately exited his car, told his daughter to get down, drew his weapon, and gave several verbal commands to drop the gun. When the suspect pointed the weapon towards him, the officer fired, killing him. The officer later learned that the shooter was 15 years old.

On Feb. 1, Calumet City police officers shot and killed a 15 year old after the boy lunged at an officer with a knife, striking him. The distraught family members called the officer a murderer saying their son was autistic. The officers were criticized for not applying less lethal force that might have stopped the 5’10”, 220 pound teen.

In either of these scenarios, what would you have done with mere seconds to decide? If you had to save yourself or another innocent person from a gun-toting or knife-wielding aggressor, even if it meant taking his life, would you?

Fortunately, you need not spend much time contemplating this dilemma because the odds of finding yourself in one of these scenarios are highly improbable.

Sure, in the scenario involving the Aurora Police officer, it could have been you that pulled up in the path of the gunman. But as a citizen, your responsibility is to observe and report; and let the trained experts put themselves in harm’s way.

That is precisely what our police officer did: he confronted the threat and stopped the shooter before any innocent lives were lost. With his own life and that of his child’s at risk, he did exactly what he was trained to do.

The media is masterful at sticking microphones in the faces of distraught family members and others screaming out against police officers. Don’t misunderstand, when an officer commits misconduct, we all should be outraged, but when an officer has had to make a decision to preserve life by deploying deadly force on a violent aggressor maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge lest we have the ability to put ourselves in that very same scenario.

I sometimes wonder if the rest of the world envisions cops high-fiving each other in the locker room after one of these horrific scenarios. I was there the day our officer had to shoot the 15 year old and there was no celebrating. Behind the badge is a human being that will never be the same because of his own inner-conflict. The values that taught him to preserve and protect life were at a crossroads.

I doubt many give pause to think of his strife or that of any police officer who has had to live with the decision to take a life in order to save one.

It isn’t an easy decision - even when it’s the right one.