Given the realities of 21st Century law enforcement, “stress inoculation” is an increasingly important element of any training program. But in order to train officers to take control of their emotions in critical moments, we first need to step back and understand how the process of arriving at the scene almost invariably creates enormous stress.
Law Enforcement and the “Transactional Model of Stress”
In the 1970s Richard Lazarus (of University of California, Berkeley) developed a “transactional model of stress.” In this model, we understand that a person entering a challenging situation makes two distinct appraisals of that situation. During the “primary appraisal,” the subject discovers that an event or situation has the capacity to be dangerous. During the “secondary appraisal” the subject evaluates whether or not they have the resources/abilities to handle that situation. Stress arises when the subject believes that their resources are insufficient to the challenge.
This kicks off a vicious cycle: Acute stress distorts the process of encoding and/or retrieving memories. This impairs judgment in that it reduces the amount of information one has at hand, while simultaneously reducing the ability to draw on resources (such as prior training and experience). That, in turn, increases the stress of the situation, which reduces cognitive resources further…and so on.
As Professor David Klinger noted during a 2017 appearance on the current events program The 1A: “The vast majority of police officers—about 95%—have some sort of perceptual anomaly or perceptual distortion [during a deadly force incident], where they don’t hear things, or hear things very loudly, or tunnel vision will set in, where they only see a portion of the visual field.” (Klinger is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri, as well as a former police officer, and author of Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force.)
Clearly, we need to do everything we can to slow this vicious cycle of mounting stress and reduced cognitive capacity. But many experts—including Klinger—note that officers do the opposite: They chronically arrive at a scene “over-escalated,” too eager to move in too close too quickly.
Stress Inoculation and Cognitive Appraisal
Obviously, for an officer arriving on the scene of a call, the fact that the situation is dangerous is presumed to be a fact. But as we’ve previously noted, the process where-by the officer arrives at the scene frequently whips even seasoned officers into an “over-escalated” state—limiting their access to mental resources, and thus creating stress.
The key skill at this moment is “cognitive reappraisal.” This is a process whereby an officer can “re-assess” both the primary and secondary appraisals they performed en route. But it’s impossible to perform such a reappraisal if you are already in the thick of things. Klinger has made this same point repeatedly: “We need to train officers … for sound tactics. Then we avoid a lot of this. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you need to shoot your way out of. … The safest thing to do … is step back.“
The challenge, then, is to inoculate officers from the increasing stress levels built into getting to the scene. This is why FAAC’s Training Group lead subject matter specialist, Chuck Deakins, favors comprehensive, end-to-end simulation training solutions like Driving Force. Such a simulator takes an officer all the way through the process as one continuous experience:
Receiving the initial call (with limited information, as is often the case in the field)
Getting to the scene (navigating whatever stressful driving conditions suit the training)
Engage with the victims, suspects, and bystanders on the scene (under chaotic or challenging conditions)
The entire experience is immersive and interactive, designed to ramp up the stress in a realistic fashion so that the officer can learn how to continually tamp down the stress cycle and find (or create) moments that allow them to reappraise the situation.
Rehearsing the Emergency
According to Deakins, combining both driving and force options simulators makes Driving Force an invaluable stress inoculation tool. “The simulator provides that safe environment to practice de-escalation where it commences with the driving response to the scene and where it ends with the actual contact at the scene.… You’re de-escalating, you’re practicing your breathing, you’re practicing your task management. … fighting your tunnel vision, breaking it up, using these skills that keep you from getting over-escalated.”
This allows officers to find the tactics they need to maintain both the right physical and psychological distance at every stage.
As Deakins has often noted, we usually integrate some form of emotional regulation and situational awareness training into individual disciplines—on the shooting range, on the training mats, etc. What we don’t do is practice how to carry this discipline across the abrupt shifts from rest, to receiving a call, to traveling to the scene at high speed, to engaging with a rapidly evolving—and potentially life-threatening—situation.
“If I go into a physical training or martial arts environment, what’s the first thing we teach?” Deakins asks. “Slow down. Control your breathing. Relax.”
The comprehensive immersive simulation gives officers that same experience but expanded to encompass all of the stressors they will encounter.