The Failure in Police Reactions to Emergencies – Amended After Toronto

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Within the span of a few days the Hamilton Police demonstrated good judgment and remarkable restraint keeping two unruly mobs apart on Locke Street, saved a little girl’s life with quick compassionate action, and killed a teenager, a boy obviously in the throes of some kind of psychotic episode.

Why do they perform so well, even heroically, in some circumstances, and so poorly, tragically, in others?

I am not asking the question rhetorically, for the question may be worth serious consideration.

The first of these three situations was the most dangerous. It could easily have erupted into violence followed by five years of lawsuits.

The second required quick, focused action despite the horrifying sight of a child being caught under a moving train.

The third required a calm assessment of imminent danger (there was none) and then a calm slow approach.

In the rush to arrive at an unfolding situation each officer will develop heightened arousal. Stress hormones, adrenalin, breathing pattern, heart rate, blood pressure will all be aroused. This is commonly called the fight / flight response, but it is a complex system of brain/body arousal that allows for increased awareness of danger, heightened ability to focus, increased startle response, decreased pain sensation, decreased attention to ‘unimportant’ internal and external stimuli (e.g. time, hunger, thirst, chirping birds, other people), and heightened reflexes.

For the little girl with the severed limb this served her well. The officer reacted quickly and with full focus and efficiency without external distraction.

For the containment of the two mobs there had been enough planning, preparation, structure, and organization that each officer was able to quell or override their fight/flight response and diffuse the potential for violence.

Not so in the third example. The officers arrived in fully aroused state and entered the situation with heightened reflexes and heightened fear. Guns were drawn, triggers pulled.

Each circumstance is different. But in all the unnecessary police shootings of the past few years there has been one consistency: Police arrive in a rush on a call labeled as dangerous in some way. They are in a state of heightened arousal. They do not pause. They do not collect their thoughts or information. They do not pause in safety to slow heart rate, breathing, to scan the environment. They are hyper focused. They push forward. There is no thought of backing up.

In this state a cell phone can be seen as a gun. Awkward movements and slow response to commands can feel dangerous and threatening. The fact that no third party is at imminent risk does not register.

In a recent police shooting in the U.S. you can hear the heightened arousal, the full fight/flight response in the voices and breathing of the officers.

I have to conclude that some things are missing from police training. The first would be a pause upon arrival at the scene to determine if there is indeed a truly imminent threat to a third party. (Not a suicide threat, refusals, waving of arms, bizarre behavior, bad language, verbal threats – but a truly imminent threat to a third party. Is there anyone else on the street car, in the back yard, nearby in the field, nearby in the park, in the arrival lounge?). The second is the option to hold, rest, backup, breathe, take the time to dampen the state of arousal one is in at that moment, and then and only then proceed in a sane, calm, safe fashion.

And all that I suggest was done by the Toronto police officer when he confronted the driver of the van that had just wreaked havoc on Yonge St killing 10 and injuring many others. When the officer arrived, no one was in imminent danger. He even had the presence of mind to return to his cruiser and turn off the siren as it was distracting and preventing the officer and the subject from hearing one another. That also gave  him time to calm his nerves. At times, he backed away and, presumably when he realized that he was not in danger himself, he advanced and the suspect gave up.

We can only hope that this incident will serve as a training tool for others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

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