Pulling the Trigger in Real Life

Barbara A. Schwartz

We should applaud our brother and sister officers of the Missouri City Police Department for taking the time and money to put Quanell X through shoot-don’t-shoot training.

News reports quoted Mr. X as saying that the exercise opened his eyes about how fast shootings happen and how fast officers must make life and death decisions.

Whether his participation in the training will lead to a better understanding and less criticism of area police officers remains to be seen.

Those who have been there and done that when it comes to pulling the trigger in real life know things that Mr. X’s shoot-don’t-shoot demonstration could not simulate.

Activating the body’s natural response to a life-threatening situation is hard to accomplish in a training environment.

Stress inoculation has been added to police and military training scenarios, but we have yet to create a training environment that truly simulates the psychophysiological responses that an officer experiences when engaging in life-threatening combat.

Mr. X may have experienced tunnel vision, auditory exclusions, and a minor “performance anxiety” adrenaline rush; but his brain never sensed that his life was in danger. His autonomic nervous system– where the fight, flight, or freeze response originates–was never fully activated. If that had occurred, the portion of his brain programmed to detect threat and keep him safe, the amygdala, would have been activated and would have called into action other brain and body responses that a simulation alone could never initiate.

Programmed into us as part of our reptilian brain, these subconscious responses keep us alive and are set into motion without us even knowing it.

When the almond-sized amygdala senses a life or death threat, it sends signals to other parts of your brain which begin an avalanche of biological processes and a dump of hormones into your bloodstream way beyond just adrenaline.

The amygdala going off is like you pressing the emergency button on your MDT. That indicates to the dispatcher that you have an emergency situation. The dispatcher swings into action by first bumping you to see if you are okay. If you don’t respond, the dispatcher notes your location, drops an assist, and sends help to you.

Your brother and sister officers rush to your location code one.

The dispatcher is like your other brain functions that receive the fight, flight, or freeze signal from the amygdala. Those brain functions then drop an assist in your body which sends help through your bloodstream and nervous system by activating body processes that can keep you alive, like tunnel vision; and shuts down body processes that are not needed, such as digestion.

That is where the old saying “scared shitless” comes from.

Mr. X never had this process activated in his training exercise.

Another aspect that Mr. X didn’t experience, that happens as a result of amygdala activation, is how you form, record, and store memories. When the amygdala goes off the neurons in your brain that link what you are currently experiencing and what your brain records as memories can be short-circuited because those brain functions are needed to keep you alive.

Research has shown that this natural short-circuiting of memory processes may be responsible for post-traumatic stress injuries and the associated flashbacks and nightmares.

Dr. Greg Riede, who established and headed up Psych Services for many years, used to say that this phenomenon “makes you a bad witness. ”

This underlies the controversy over whether officers should make a statement immediately after being involved in shootings and whether officers should be allowed to view dash cam and body cam footage before giving a statement.

In most cases, the short-circuit can be overcome after two sleep cycles (48 hours) involving full REM (rapid eye movement) activity.

Unfortunately, many officers who have been involved in a shooting fail to sleep well in the immediate aftermath of life and death combat. This can delay their ability to recall how many shots were fired or even if the suspect was male or female.

The side effect on memory is the reason why officers should have, at the very least, 48 hours after a shooting to give a full statement and why their statement may not match dash or body cam footage.

How many times during the course of your shift does your amygdala get primed? How many times during the course of your shift do you encounter a potentially life-threatening situation?

This can leave you feeling physically exhausted, emotionally drained, angry, and sometimes exceptionally horny.

Once your fight, flight, or freeze autonomic nervous system has been primed, it needs to be deactivated to allow your body to normalize.

Engaging in a cardio intensive activity after your shift can discharge the amygdala response and keep the hormones released in your bloodstream from hyping you up into rage when you go home to your loved ones.

In the aftermath of life-threatening combat, research has shown that human touch and caring can discharge the amygdala response and help bring the body back to the neutral zone. The best thing you can do for a fellow officer after an officer involved shooting is the magic of human touch and emotional support. So, hug your brother/sister officer. Hugs won’t cost the department a cent, and a simple act of caring can ward off the effects of post-traumatic stress.

This has been a simplified explanation of complex psychophysiological processes. For further information on the topics discussed in this article consult the following resources:

  • “Deadly Force Encounters” by: Dr. Alexis Artwohl and Loren Christensen
  • “On Combat” by: Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
  • “Training at the Speed of Life” by: Ken Murray (the inventor of Simunition training)
  • “The Body Keeps the Score” by: Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk
  • Force Science website at: www.forcescience.org

Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to writing about the brave officers of law enforcement. She is currently working on a book about the topics mentioned in this article.