Out of the Tunnel

The Sympathetic Nervous System (fight of flight) sucks you in; learn to work against it.


You even see it at Qualification shoots, with no stress other than the possibility of a re-shoot, some guys and gals get geeked, amped up, have an adrenalin dump or to put it in scientific terms - experience a SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) response. The result is that they enter the tunnel of limited thought and perception. What once was a big 360 degree world has now shrunk and even on the firearms training range their decision making is limited, peripheral vision is gone and performance deteriorates. That's just in training on the one way range (with no suspect shooting back...). This is not a good thing on the range (my partners and I have had officers turned toward us with loaded pistols) but limited vision and decision making on the street is even worse.

So focused, so intent, so tunneled in on the rear bumper of the fleeing suspect's vehicle you fail to see citizen's vehicles (with the right of way) headed toward the intersection you're barreling toward. So hyper-attentive to the suspect in front, you fail to see his accomplice on your flank. So intent on making your Electronic Restraint Device work on the resisting suspect that it has become your only plan, so you press the trigger again and again despite the fact it simply isn't working. All of these things are examples of the effects of the SNS response on your perceptions and cognitive abilities such as decision making.

The antithesis or opposite of the examples given above is the officer that shoots a high score on the Qual events in minimum time while exercising sound tactics or the cool-as-a-cucumber officer that has complete composure (even sounds calm on the radio) while the world around him is in violent chaos.

The Difference

I would submit that the difference between composure and loss of control is both mental as well as physical. I've known of officers that had multiple crashes after just receiving emergency calls - fights, man with gun, burglaries in progress. They simply could not handle their body's reaction to an SNS response. All of a sudden the radio call from dispatch started the cascade effect that is the Sympathetic Nervous System reaction including tunnel vision, auditory exclusion (tunnel hearing) and limited cognition and - blammo they're turning in front of another motorist or doing something reckless act like driving too fast and cause an accident.

The mental component is multi-fold:

  1. Officers don't believe it can or will happen to them. They have embraced the civil service worker mentality. It's just another (domestic, drunk, traffic violator... fill in the blank) call and nothing bad can or will happen. Ergo and therefore, all this officer survival and safety crap is just paranoia.
  2. The brain was overwhelmed because the body hadn't been there before or enough. Inactivity can play heck on your ability to handle stressful situations. Officers have had heart attacks and died just getting a high risk call. Your mental performance is directly related to how much and how well you've mentally trained. Mental disconnect equals performance wreck. Your brain and attributes like awareness, intent and focus are the prime movers in a survival situation.

The physical aspects that make a difference include:

  1. Trained Ability: By training to the level of unconscious competence you don't have to think about how to do something (draw your pistol, perform a suspect control maneuver, etc.) you just do it. The start signal or "stimulus" is given (you perceive a threat) and your trained "response" is initiated. Stimulus/Response is the way it's supposed to go, not threat - fumble, fumble, fumble. Sure it is possible that despite hundreds or even thousands of repetitions of drawing your pistol you foul your presentation in an emergency. It's possible, but it's almost a certainty that will happen if you never train at all.
  2. Just like training: Train realistically and repetitively in relevant skills and you've paved the way to peak performance. On the street when it's for real you feel the confidence of the trained professional. It may not be Heaven but you can operate.
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