Surviving the Streets: “When You’re Under Pressure You Don’t Rise to the Occasion, You Sink to the Level of Your Training”

By Stephen Owsinski:

You’ve heard it before: “To be a cop, you either have it or you don’t.” Have what? That certain cop look? A fetish for flashing lights and blaring sirens? Desire to witness a dye-pack explode in a bank robber’s crotch? The complete DVD-set of NYPD Blue? Ancestral ties to Clint Eastwood? Cop DNA?

Or is it the innate sense to combat evil, thwart crime, and survive the inherent life-threatening battles along a mined, phantom-like course? Ding-ding. Let’s go there!

Like many before me and many more after me, folks aspire to be cops since childhood. Whether the influences originated from within bloodlines—dad and granddad were policemen—or from watching any number of cop TV series, the common denominator is a passion to help others and resolve problems by applying (enforcing) laws.

Conventionally, the credo “To Protect and Serve” sticks like glue and cops adhere to the principles of humanitarian goodness. But not every tour of duty goes off without a hitch.  That is where training comes in, and survival on the streets remains numero uno.

Military Footprint

Traditionally, tons of cops first serve in the military before transitioning to a law enforcement role. Ample and stellar training and discipline is acquired from a military stint. Given the paramilitary model espoused in American law enforcement, military service, training, and survival techniques correlate directly. Whether in a metropolis or rural jurisdiction, police training is relatively universal. Bottom line: survival is the name of the game…and training to win is infinite!

I respected police tactics taught by academy instructors, but I definitely relied on my police cohorts who brought military experience to the table. It is not surprising that former military members who become cops easily attain rank as police supervisors. And the ones who share the experience, support their squads, and emphasize the cops-cop genre generally advance up the chain of command. There is a difference between surviving individually or among a group of cops, and the finest leaders not only emphasize the latter but stand among them. A leader’s roll-call speech goes a long way when it is exemplified by battling side-by-side on society’s front lines. Solidarity is a formidable bondo.

Train, Train, Train

In lieu of military training, police academy training is the launch of tactical doctrines, with perpetuity to sharpen survival skills. Although jurisdictional size often dictates tax base, and tax dollars equate to police training funds, training opportunities may seem minimized. Every one of our nation’s roughly 1,000,000 cops shares the same interest: going home at shift’s end. If training is a catalyst to increase those chances, every possible training venture should be considered, even if it’s an online modality (simulations). Training often, training hard, and training for peak performance is imperative and life-saving.

Firearms training is endemic in policing. Despite the fact that most cops never experience engaging a suspect in a gun-battle, it behooves to qualify and practice consistently. With federal and state governance dictating how often law enforcers must qualify (re-qualify) with their firearms, exceeding the minimum can make the difference between life and death—yours and citizens. Settling for the bare minimum is tacitly accepting mediocrity. Practice, practice, practice…always! It is the difference in forfeiting victory in a dual. That “To Protect and Serve” mantra includes each and every police officer. Frankly, this tenet applies to very citizen as well. Don’t just pocket that concealed-weapon license; qualify it, hone skills, maintain superiority.

Close-quarter conflict is another dynamic. A physical fight may ensue whereby parties tussle in a ground fight. Peak physical conditioning can help overcome not only fatigue but also the opponent’s resistance. Most police agencies have physical sustenance facilities. Spending time conditioning the body (and mind) is crucial. Off-duty time can be a hybrid venture: physical exercise with your spouse or friends equates to duty-bound preparedness and optimal health. Why not take advantage of that?

Another survival trait is the art of verbal judo. Training to de-escalate situations via communication is a viable skill not only in police work but also in everyday circumstances. Simply using words, tempo, and inflections can go a long way towards obtaining a peaceful resolution. Hostage negotiators are adept at this skill-set, often surviving armed standoffs and saving countless lives. An acutely concentrated mindset should never be underestimated and must be considered in all engagements.

Off-duty preparedness is an aspect every cop must entertain, and the purpose parallels the on-duty objective: staying alive. In 2015, Dylann Roof walked into a South Carolina church and opened fire, slaying nine people. If a gunman is willing to walk into a church and wreak havoc—as has happened already—are you prepared to thwart and fell the threat? We have seen incidents exactly like this, some in which off-duty cops were armed, among the congregation, and engaged armed killers.

And what about surviving the streets when encountering cultural barriers? Media accounts blasted cops for the impression that police had no acumen in cross-cultural interactions and failed in their missions.

In a recent article, I described such an incident in which I investigated domestic violence involving an armed “husband” and his Russian mail-order bride who was highly distrustful and resentful of police. “I don’ like KGB, you!” she made quite clear. Training in cultural diversity kicked in, as did psychology studies, as did my own European culture and roots. I related my Polish/Italian lineage…and the impasse started to melt away. The synergy resulted in a favorable outcome (except for the arrested husband).

Thinking Cap

I was stopped once by a city resident and merchant who was a known police supporter. “Miss B” spoke at city council meetings, supporting items involving police programs and funding. She also attended police award ceremonies. Miss B was quite altruistic, never expecting anything from the police force except to perform their duties. (We need more Miss Bs in the world.)

One evening, she said “Hey, I saw you the other day, flyin’ by with your lights and siren.” A common activity for a police officer, so I simply acknowledged her with “Oh yeah?” Cackling at me, she followed-up with “You looked like a mannequin! How do you stay so calm with all that adrenaline going on?” Good question. My reply was simple: “You get so conditioned to it. While en route to calls for service, concentrating on my strategies takes over.” She replied “Oh, I see…that makes sense.”

In reality, that was not always the case. Before my controlled nature kicked-in, as a rookie I was more like a kid operating a police cruiser, with lights and sirens activated, bouncing in my seat as if I had a bursting bladder. Caught-up in the moment, it is called. The tsunami of adrenaline invites slippage of emergency operating acuity, often resulting in officer fatalities stemming from motor vehicle crashes.

After a few years, it became second-nature, and my thinking cap lead the way. The novelty of the flashing lights and woo-woo of the siren gave-way to situational awareness and optimal responses. Ingrained by constant training, possibilities and variables are considered before arrival, and are adapted-to accordingly.

Look at the constellation of riots that dotted our landscape recently. Analyze published pictures or videos of the phalanx of uproarious rioters taunting, up close, in the faces of riot police, and verify the controlled tact of cops. That is a subset among survival skills: knowing when to tighten the duty belt is just as imperative as knowing when to unloose the gadgets and skills to help effect law and order. There is an absolute layer of psychology in such a scenario. Remaining calm in the face of fury can actually dampen unruly taunters. Inciters want a cop to flinch and react aggressively, in effect ensnaring law enforcers in their web of nonsense. Unless warranted by a physical illegal action, denying bait is a reaction far more powerful. Like ignoring a child acting-out, they see it has no effect and simply downgrade bad behaviors. Born of discipline, holding the line caters to street survival while upholding the law.

There are many strategies employed by soldiers and police officers, by which they survive field and street duty. Humans have a tendency to get set in their ways (habits). Routines get noticed by others; namely bad guys. Instead of tactical replication, opt for advancements on techniques, change-up methods and applications. Advance to higher-conscious levels of survival traits.

Mindset and Matter

On the exterior wall of the newly-constructed Tampa Police Firearms Training Center building is the following: “When you’re under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. Train well.”

Programming and reprogramming as techniques are outmoded, updated, or entirely supplanted is not uncommon in law enforcement circles. Just imagine the intense training to survive a CIA operative career. In fact, working autonomously is its own class of training. Training is the beginning, the middle, and the end goal.

Indeed, dipping down deep into your well of training, tactics, strategies and skills can and will save your life. Lord knows the streets are rife with anti-police organisms which thrive on indifference and depravity, assassinate cops, and slaughter civilians…without a grain of remorse.

Whether a cop or a citizen, are you prepared to let that happen…or are you up to snuff in surviving the streets?

Take it to the arena of civilians and any of these factors transcend. How skilled you are is defined by how abreast you are of situational awareness, tactical genius, and instinctual responsiveness. Gut instincts are excellent back-up!

Train well. Train to survive. And survive to train some more.

Stephen Owsinski is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit.  He is currently a researcher and writer.

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