Prepared vs. Paranoid

Striking balance is our professional challenge, and it's one that human beings famously struggle with

By Scott Hughes  |   Aug 27, 2015
Photo Courtesy the St. Louis Police Foundation

“At any time or place, by anyone, and for any reason.”

What does that mean to you? How often have you thought to yourself: This could be the one?

Officers need to be prepared—not paranoid—but prepared, to properly respond to ever-changing dynamic situations. This is no easy task. Balance, context, discretion—officers must are arrive at the appropriate response—neither over- nor under-reaction—in mere moments. They must operate within the confines of laws, policies, procedures and general orders, all in split seconds.

Understand that today, perhaps more than ever, we are being “challenged” at a level unlike anything we’ve ever seen: citizens shoving smartphones in our faces and recording every interaction; motorists taunting, challenging and even provoking us with the hope that we will overreact; protestors cursing us; activists posting our interactions and information online in the hope of humiliating us and our profession—and worse. A lot worse …

Of course the majority of these individuals have no idea what we actually do for a living and wouldn’t last an hour in police academy scenario training. Not only that, but most of the public—the vast majority in fact—support us in our mission. Still, this doesn’t stop some media outlets, politicians and, unfortunately, police administrations from overreacting to the claims and reacting improperly despite the facts.

So, with all the attention these “high-profile” cases receive and cops watching fellow officer’s careers’ get turned upside down, how is it possible to be prepared, but not paranoid?

Finding Balance

Paranoid—that the next knee strike which doesn’t “look good” may get me charged with assault; that the next interaction will not be captured on the body camera at the perfect angle (and I will get indicted?); that an administrator who doesn’t understand use of force, biomechanics, stress perception, case law, etc. will fail to support me and throw me to the proverbial wolves.

So how do we avoid paranoia?

I offer this: Begin by understanding the realities of policing in today’s environment.
Realize that you are always being recorded. There is nothing wrong with people taking video of you just as there is nothing wrong with you acknowledging the individual recording you.

The key is: Don’t let someone else take control of you and your attitude. Don’t start issuing orders to take control of a situation you can’t control and shouldn’t be worried about.
Be prepared to respond calmly and professionally. This requires you to be on top of your case law, vehicle code and state and local statutes. This will help you to respond rationally to those challenging you irrationally.

For example: Pennsylvania v. Mimms and Maryland v. Wilson clearly establish that officers can ask both drivers and passengers to exit the car on a lawful traffic stop. So be prepared the next time somebody says: “I don’t have to get out of the car!”

You might respond: “The United States Supreme Court has given me the authority to order you out of your vehicle while I conduct my traffic stop. Failure to do so could constitute a failure to follow a lawful order. This failure to comply could result in you being arrested instead of receiving a ticket or a warning.”

Now, I understand there are some motorists who just don’t get it and no words, regurgitation of case law, or threats are going to result in compliance. But it’s certainly worth a try. Besides, how professional do you look and sound now! (Note: Some jurisdictions may not arrest or detain for a motorist who fails to exit a vehicle. Always follow established policy and procedures prior to taking enforcement action.)

In Sum

While the majority of the people we deal with are not combative or attempting to incite, these orchestrated confrontations are happening more and more. Every police officer who I have had the pleasure of instructing across this great country has heard me say: “Each of you in this room has to do their part to educate the public on why it is we do what we do!”

Again, in order to do this we have to educate ourselves. Be prepared for both confrontations and honest inquiries. Be calm, rational and patient. Listen and if you can’t listen, then simply wait. Hone your communication skills.

Finally, it’s up to you to learn your craft!

Know what you are talking about. That requires reading the latest case laws and staying on top of current events and legal statutes. Accept that human beings are emotional and your ability to communicate rationally may be the difference between a great career and no career at all.

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Scott Hughes
Chief Hughes holds a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership from the University of Charleston and is a graduate of The Supervisor Training and Education program as well as The Police Executive Leadership College. Scott is also a graduate of the 133rd FBI-LEEDA Command Institute and is a certified Law Enforcement Executive (CLEE). Chief Hughes is an active member of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police where he serves on the education committee.