Playing with Emotion

Police trainers have a duty to face, & address, the downsides of anger in police training

By H.K. Slade  |   Aug 29, 2017
Anger can be used to motivate, but it might be imparting the wrong lesson.

I remember almost every football coach I’ve ever had telling me to, “Get mad! Get angry!” at one point or another. It was a good life lesson at the time. It taught me how to use that anger to push passed the point of what I thought I could do. It taught me how to dig into the hidden reserves that we all possess but few of us ever learn to tap into, the much talked about 40% rule.

Today I am no longer a football player, or a boxer, or wrestler, or any type of competitor. I am a police officer. Although there are many parallels between competitive sport and police work, there are areas where the lines get blurred and it’s hurting us as a profession.

Somewhere after my 40th birthday, a light bulb went off in my head and I realized that I have never in my life been proud of a decision I’ve made out of anger. It sounds like common sense. As I look around today, however, I see how we may be inadvertently training recruits to do just that: make decisions out of anger.

Understand right of the bat, I’m casting no stones. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone. When a recruit or student is having trouble overcoming a physical challenge, I’ve been right there repeating the same lines that got me through my toughest physical challenges: “Get angry! Get mean!” My intentions are good. I want that recruit to learn how to push passed the barrier of what they think they can do. But what does that recruit actually take away?

Too many of police officers, I believe, are learning that when a situation gets tough, anger is not only an appropriate response, it’s the answer: Get angry and power straight through it.

The Cost of Letting Anger Drive

I teach at a Krav Maga school. I love the school and I respect the system, but I hesitate recommending Krav training to officers sometimes because the basis of Krav Maga is taking natural startle or panic responses and turning them into deadly or crippling counter attacks. A stranger’s hand on the shoulder may lead to a punch to the throat. A push can lead to a kick to the groin. Adrenaline is turned into aggression through repeated drills and training. It was designed for military use in a country surrounded by enemies. If that type of training isn’t filtered through an officer’s knowledge and reason and that officer just responds out of anger and fear, bad things will happen.

When an officer fights out of fear, and when they practice fighting angry, they will most likely use more force than the situation requires. We have all seen that.

There’s another side to it I’d like to point out, though. When an officer only trains angry, he or she is not learning to fight at the height of their ability. They waste energy. They overexert, overcommit, and overbalance themselves in a struggle. Their breathing falls apart. They miss little things like weapons and multiple attackers. Angry fighters may be a little stronger and a little more durable initially, but when the adrenaline fades, the body takes all that back with interest. When I see a guy in the gym blaring angry music, slamming weights around, and yelling every time he does an exercise, I already have a good idea how he will do in a real fight.

He is not the guy I want as my check-in.

A Solution

There is a solution. It’s as simple as setting the context for the instructions we already give.

It’s okay for an officer to be angry. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to be afraid. Great officers feel all of that during a shift—sometimes all at the same time. Recruits need to know that those feelings are natural, even healthy. What is not acceptable is letting anger, frustration, and fear make decisions.

Imagine a steam train. Anger is the fuel—the coal, if you will—that can drive that train forward. The more coal, the hotter the boiler, the faster the train can go. But there must be an engineer working the brake. There must be someone looking ahead, deciding how much speed to take into turns, how much fuel needs to be held in reserve to finish the trip, and how much heat the boiler can take before it bursts.

If a recruit is struggling to pound out those last pushups or to push through the last mile of a run, tell them to get angry. But then also tell them what to do with it and why. How this can play out: “Get mad! Get angry! Now take that anger and use it to finish this run because you may have to run a tourniquet to your partner one day and you need to know you can make it.”

The goal becomes to manage emotions, rather than eliminate or surrender to them.

Conclusion

There is a fine line police trainers need to walk in today’s society. On one hand, we have the responsibility to make sure our students survive a deadly encounter. But just as importantly, we must ensure they don’t survive it only to go to jail. “Going home safely at the end of the night,” means both that you lived and that you acted lawfully.

Officers have emotions. Trainers need to acknowledge that we have been angry and scared on the job and let the recruits know that it’s normal when it happens to them. We also need to constantly remind them that fear, and most especially anger, don’t get to drive the train.