By Stephanie R. DeRiso, Captain, United States Army, IPSA Member
As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, America is experiencing a series of both peaceful and violent protests across major cities in response to the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, while in police custody. Public safety professionals to be mindful of operating in situations where their presence may not be celebrated, let alone wanted.
Answering the call of duty
When asked why they do what they do, many people in emergency services, law enforcement and the military will offer that they want to help and serve others. However, these professions continue to operate in contexts where the definition of ‘help’ varies widely. Regardless, public safety professionals are required to continue to perform their respective functions of enforcing the law, preventing and investigating crimes, apprehending offenders, maintaining public order and promoting public safety. It is critical that professionals operating within the context of heightened hostilities can refocus their efforts in a healthy way while still performing the roles entrusted to them by the public. Although the following mechanisms can apply to other public safety professions, they will be applied to law enforcement considering current events playing out across America.
Law enforcement principles, theory and practice
As law enforcement officers prepare for functioning within potentially hostile contexts, research is a constructive method for preparing the mind. It is useful to research the history of the law enforcement profession to understand its core values, theories and principles. It is also useful to research the region, communities and ideologies prevalent within the operational environment. However, most critical, is researching the intersection of the profession and these crucial factors.
Research is not considered reading through myriad of polarizing social media posts, but instead truly studying empirical academic research about the policing history, social history, racial segregation, political and economic factors that shape the dynamics at play between law enforcement and the populations they serve. Developing a historical frame of reference for the reactions of communities, allows for mutual understanding and empathy.
Focus on individual interactions
While building mutual understanding and empathy, it is also important to consider how one individual can make an impact. Public safety professionals must be diligent to focus on individual interactions and shape the trajectory they do have control over. While one officer cannot personally shape the universal narrative of a stereotypical law enforcement officer, he or she can interact in a way that impacts those perceptions positively. That is not to say that violence should be met with passivity; the use-of-force continuum is a crucial guideline for protecting constituents, officers and bystanders by escalating levels of reasonable action. However, whenever possible, officers must make deliberate efforts to remove themselves from the echo chamber of labels and work directly with the human being in front of them. While stereotypes are a mechanism for making sense of a complex world, they are also a method for eliminating opportunities to exercise critical decision-making.
Communicating before, during and after shifts
During polarizing situations, it is important to discuss experiences with colleagues. At the end of an especially challenging shift or operation, taking the time to swap stories about interactions while on the job allows leaders to better understand the evolving environment they are sending subordinates in to. This can open the door to additional resources, to include proper training, education and equipment.
This also presents opportunities for better scenario planning. While more seasoned officers may have a better frame of reference for making good decisions in stressful scenarios, discussing experiences provides a mechanism for adding others’ experiences to one’s metaphorical toolkit.
So much of law enforcement training is logically designed to allow for the human brain to rapidly move through a flow chart, selecting or bypassing crucial decision points to make the ethically and legally correct choice all in a matter of seconds. When the boxes on the flow chart are limited, officers may also be limited in their ability to make sound decisions within short timeframes. Open dialogues inform additional mental flow chart boxes.
Remind yourself why you wear the badge and the uniform
Getting back to your origins is a critical mechanism for handling situations of increased uncertainty and hostility. Although many public safety professionals are tired, angry and frustrated, there is a reason they have gone through all of the grueling steps to wear the badge and the uniform. There is something or someone that inspired you to willingly walk towards harm, to help people on their very worst day and to trade certain freedoms for those of your community.
Pull out the old photo of you graduating from the academy or even that horrible photo taken on the first day of basic training. Remember the excitement and hope you held for your future when you started the process and allow those embers to regain their flames. If you cannot do so, it is also important to consider the why and how of this feeling.
As reported by the Department of Justice, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder impacts an estimated 15 percent of law enforcement officers in the United States today. PTSD can lead to behavioral dysfunction, to include aggression, depression and substance abuse, as well as overall poor decision-making. It is a moral imperative that public safety professionals take care of their mental well-being. The streets you patrol and the protests you respond to should not be treated as a battlefield, but the stressors law enforcement officers face day in and day out can take the same emotional toll.
About the Author
Stephanie DeRiso has served in the U.S. Army for 8 years. She initially served as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist at Dover, Air Force Base, Delaware before receiving her commission in to the Military Police Corps. As a Military Police Officer, she led law enforcement operations in Fort Stewart, Georgia and across Europe in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. She was selected as a Joint Special Operations Command Cultural Support Team Specialist and served on training and combat operations alongside special operations units across Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Most recently, she is pursuing qualification as a Civil Affairs Officer at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminology, Law, and Society from George Mason University and will receive her Master of Professional Studies in Emergency and Disaster Management from Georgetown University in May of 2021.