Rational Fear in Policing Saves Lives

Rational Fear in Policing Saves Lives

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

As a regular writer on police matters, I am in the crosshairs of many critics. Reactions to any pro-police piece on social media range from personal threats to insults to proud displays of the critic’s ignorance. One such comment claimed, “to shoot somebody all an officer has to do is say they were scared”. Versions of that claim are repeated, often along with the lament over what the critic thinks a “warrior mindset” is that creates aggression and paranoia among police officers.

Being afraid is never a justification for force or aggression. A fear that is rational, defensible, and articulable is a lawful and valid reason for the caution shown by officers.

My first “man with a gun” call sent a cold chill through my body. I was with my training officer. I don’t even remember what came of the call, I just remember how it affected me physically. I looked over at my trainer who hadn’t let me even drive the patrol car yet. He was as cool as a cucumber as he hit the lights and siren.

Of all the things I had to learn during my training as a rookie, dealing with fear was probably the most important thing. I had to learn the difference between courage and fearlessness. Good judgment does not come with fearlessness. I once had a college intern riding with me. On the first night of his ride-along, we responded to a burglary alarm at a small manufacturing facility. As I positioned my patrol car strategically to observe the south and west sides of a fenced enclosure around the facility to wait for a second unit to cover the other sides of the building, my intern spontaneously jumped out of the passenger seat, ran across the parking lot, and jumped over the fence, presumably to catch a burglar. Was he fearless? Yes. Was he stupid? Yes.

Courage only exists in the face of fear otherwise it is merely fearlessness which is cluelessness at its best and suicidal at its worst. What then is the role of fear in policing and when does it operate? The simple answer to the question of when is: always.

Although we think of fear as an emotion, it is a complex change in body chemistry triggered by the brain’s perception of a threat. That perception is based on experiences in life gleaned from living and learning. Those experiences are so embedded in the memory that all kinds of cues to that memory can trigger the body’s fear response. An amazing array of body chemistry alterations happen in response to a perceived threat.

The threat doesn’t have to be an exact replication of a previous dangerous experience. A parental lecture about the hazards of driving in the rain can create a life-long fear response in a driver on a rainy day. Even a precursor to rain such as a darkened sky, gust of wind, or a change in air pressure can cause the brain to alert the body to the threat of wet pavement. The response could be extra caution, slower speeds, a heightened awareness of other traffic, or even a decision not to drive at all. That is the value of fear. 

A police officer’s training and experience will result in multiple fear alerts resulting in a constant high level of threat awareness. They know that officers have been assaulted by all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Officers have been attacked and killed stopping to help a stranded motorist, checking on someone’s well-being, and on the most minor of calls from jay-walking to shoplifting. Critics have no understanding of the variety of situations that pose a threat to law enforcement officers. Officers know that they will be assaulted at some point and want to avoid the delay that surprise creates in taking defensive action. Imagine that you have been given the job of cleaning out several hundred old gym lockers. In the process, you come across one occupied by a rattlesnake! Now imagine the same assignment with the information that one of those lockers has a rattlesnake in it.

To an onlooker, the locker cleaner might look foolish as they approach each metal door slowly and carefully, wondering if this is the one with the snake. But to the person checking each of those units, that caution is quite sensible and might save their life! Likewise, an observer might question why an officer approaches with a hand on their weapon, or stays behind cover making verbal commands, or chooses to gather a few facts before rushing into a building. It is a prudent response to training and experience that protects the officer, the public, and even a suspect.

This is the courage that police officers must have. Not fearlessly charging into a situation, but courageously facing dangers known and unknown every day.