TERRY PRONE: Lack of police brain training for crisis management is bang off target

SOMEONE once said that news is all about shouting out that “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive in the first place.

The shootings in New York last week had a touch of the Lord Jones about them. Two people died. Only two. In wider New York in any one day, a lot more than two people tend to die at the wrong end of a firearm. Nine other people were injured. It was apparent, within minutes, that this was not a terrorist killing. So why did the world’s media get so excited about it?

The first answer has to be location.

The closer you are to media outlets, the better your chances that your assassination/infection/famine/protest will be covered, and midtown Manhattan is particularly rich in available media personnel.

Readily available reporters and cameras do make a difference. Let’s face it, if Pussy Riot had staged their protest on the altar of the parish church in Ekaterinberg, we’d never have heard of them. Ditto, if last week’s shooter had done his deed in an obscure corner of the Bronx. But he picked the centre of Manhattan, near the Empire State Building, thereby allowing TV stations worldwide to lash up visuals of an edifice which makes an immediate emotional connection with any viewer who has ever visited the Big Apple.

The story, as we first heard it, was of a disgruntled former employee mowing down the man who had been his boss before turning his gun on the police and others, inflicting random but not life-threatening injuries on passers-by before police bullets put paid to him.

After a short interval, the top man in charge of the NYPD talked to media to lay out the sequence. He was authoritative, vivid, lucid and, as it turned out, completely wrong. The shooter didn’t produce a second gun out of a back pocket and threaten New York’s finest, together with the lesser breeds unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity and in the path of his bullets. New York’s finest shot the life out of him and it was they who wounded a bunch of other people. Nor had they been threatened by him in any way.

At that point, interest in the story waned. Which is precisely the point at which it should have grown. It waned because of the lack of obvious links to the Batman cinema killings or al Qaeda.

It should have grown, because the incident represents, in microcosm, several unacknowledged factors about the human response to crisis, one of which is that the training of armed police forces is grievously inadequate. They are trained in shooting straight and required to update and prove their skills in this area, although the injury score in Manhattan might suggest the training may have some way to go. They may have brought down their man, but they winged rather more of the wider populace than might have been expected of lads who’ve spent long periods in the shooting range, hitting the legs or heart of a human outlined on paper.

The central problem, however, is not police marksmanship or lack of it, but their incapacity to manage their own brain when the unprecedented happens.

In that area, the training is less than adequate. Sometimes, it’s non-existent, either because of unjustified faith in their natural abilities, or because police forces don’t believe those abilities can be improved.

YET aviation is now one of the safest forms of travel because, using simulators, pilots are presented with a multiplicity of crises at one time and forced to control their responses to the challenge.

For similar reasons, the manufacture of pharmaceuticals has become an extremely safe industry in which to work and near which to live, because most of those who make the medicines that keep the rest of us functional undertake regular crisis training so that, in the event of their plant experiencing an explosion, fire, spill or emission, every employee clicks into correct action.

Some of these companies do what are called “desktop” exercises, where a group address a disaster scenario handed to them on paper, whereas some do full-scale simulations.

Having worked through both with many companies, I would have no doubt that the full-scale simulations are immeasurably more productive. Simulations start with a smirking shared knowledge that this is all pretend, but tend to become very real very quickly, with individuals making the kind of choices, good or bad, that they would be likely to make under pressure.

Aviation does it. Big pharma does it. The electronics industry does it. Yet many police forces train for individual skills, rather than giving their members the chance to muster those skills in a complex, pressured yet safe environment. They seem to believe the rational brains of the officers will automatically deploy when all hell breaks loose.

The problem with that approach has been summed up by a man named Gavin de Becker, who has made a fortune by, among other activities, protecting rich people against kidnapping. He maintains that what he calls “the wild brain” operates in sharply different ways to the operations of “the logic brain”.

He points out: “The logic brain is plodding and unoriginal. It is burdened with judgement, slow to accept reality, and spends valuable energy thinking about how things ought to be, used to be, or could be. The logic brain has strict boundaries and laws it wants to obey, but the wild brain obeys nothing, conforms to nothing, answers to nobody, and will do whatever it takes.”

In the case of the Manhattan shootings, “whatever it takes” involved one death and at least eight injuries of varying severity.

The consequences will be investigations and possible punishments of the officers involved, accompanied by commentary to the effect that in the circumstances of a violent incident in the middle of a busy city, what happened was inevitable.

That commentary would be mistaken. Airline pilot training shows that, even in threatening situations demanding split-second response, the human brain can be forced to move beyond instinct. Anger management work shows that, even in the same short period, the “wild brain” can be forced to move beyond stereotype.

Dr Aaron T Beck, who did seminal work on the cognitive roots of anger, hostility, and violence, was able to demonstrate that, in the case of one wife-beating and generally violent man, his reaction to a comment was, within micro-seconds, a self-demeaning thought, a hurt feeling and the decision to extinguish the other individual for lack of respect. It proved possible to teach ways of stopping this process in its tracks.

If NYPD officers were trained to better process information in a crisis, they wouldn’t have shot a man they wrongly believed had threatened them, and damaged a bunch of innocents into the bargain.


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