Ego: Leave It Out!

Don't provide the spark, or fuel, to a fire that will spread broadly

By Jeff Shannon  |   May 26, 2015

With the media vultures waiting in the wings and the omnipresence of video cameras, it’s now clear that law enforcement officers everywhere are blamed for an individual officer’s transgressions anywhere.

We can no longer breathe a sigh of relief that the officer(s) caught on video behaving badly doesn’t work in or near our community. Even though he or she is on the other side of the continent, they may as well work for our department because in the public’s eye we’re all the same. In the court of public perception, the consequences for one officer saying or doing something unprofessional are immediate.

Not Fail, But …
It’s tempting to lament the unfairness of our current reality. After all, the vast majority of our contacts with citizens go well. We treat people with courtesy and respect, but these videotaped encounters are deleted immediately by members of the public because they won’t get many “likes” or provide the media the little flame they need to fan.

As guardians, it’s in our collective best interest to take control of what we can control to stem these fires. Staying with the flame analogy, we know three things are required to create fire: fuel, an ignition source and oxygen. YouTube, CNN and the like are always there with the oxygen. And while the citizens we contact can be thought of as fuel, it’s the law enforcement officer who provides (or doesn’t provide) the spark.

So, let’s concentrate on not providing that spark, because without it we won’t have to cringe at what some cop in Montana—no dig intended on the Big Sky state!—did, knowing that we’ll all feel the reverberations.

Tips for Improvement
How do LEOs create these sparks? Lots of ways, but we’ll pick the most common one: ego.

Ego has no place in our work. When ego surfaces in us, we are at risk for being “that guy” in the viral video, the video that—thanks to the air provided by the media—contributes to violent protests across the country.

Our ego gets involved when we “take it personally” or let someone get “under our skin,” or “push our buttons.” There’s a great temptation to take it personally when someone flees from us, or says or does something that unlocks our inner rage.

Most cops carry around a bit of pent up frustration that’s looking for a home. When one of our contacts has a bad attitude or runs or gets too close to us, they provide us a home to place our frustrations. What many of us fail to realize: that bad attitude or foot chase is also a trap for us to fall into—a fuel source to spark.

Following are some before, during and after tips to help you avoid putting your ego in the mix.

Before ego has reared it’s ugly head during a citizen contact, develop a personal commitment to keeping it out of the mix. Hopefully, you agree with the idea of keeping the ego out of the mix. But have you really made a conscious commitment to work on this?

Part of this commitment involves becoming aware of your triggers. A trigger is anything that, for whatever reason, sets you off. It’s a good idea to know what your triggers are so that when your moment of truth comes (e.g., someone is pulling one) you can get yourself out of it. A good practice is to establish with your beat partner a code word for: “You need to step in now, because I’m about to get myself in trouble.” I used to have a partner who would just simply stop talking altogether when he was triggered. That was a sign to me to take over the communicator role.

But what if you’re working alone and you suddenly realize you’re ego’s involved?

It’s a great victory to make such a realization in the heat of a verbal battle. In fact, our communication should never be a battle. We have an answer for everything. We know if the driver refuses to sign the citation we can take them to jail. If they don’t leave, they’ll be trespassing. Etc. The realization that we’ve unwittingly entered a “pissing match” gives us freedom to pull ourselves out of it.

One way is to simply explain (being mindful of the tone and inflection in your voice) what you’re response will be if X, Y or Z doesn’t (or does) happen. Don’t be personally invested in what your contact does.

What if you don’t realize you were in a pissing match until after you clear the scene? All is not lost. If you realize at a later time that you, indeed, provided the spark for what turned out to be a little fire, you can learn. Failing forward is all about learning something from your mistakes with an eye toward not repeating them.  If not making mistakes were a pillar of law enforcement none of us would have jobs.

Bottom line: The goal isn’t to not make mistakes, but rather to try and not make big ones, and not make the same ones over and over again.

Conclusion
Media executives make a lot of money by fanning little flames into fires. Let’s make a commitment to not giving them flames. We can deny them the flame by not being the spark.

Be safe!

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Jeff Shannon
Jeff Shannon worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of police stress. He is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice specializing in treating first responders. In California, he is a certified Master Instructor through the California Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST). Jeff consults and provides training to law enforcement agencies through his company, BlueResilience (www.blue-resilience.com).
Jeff Shannon

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