What Was Your Scariest Moment On the Job?
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“What was the scariest moment you ever had on the job?”
When PoliceLink posted this question on Facebook and Twitter, it really gave me pause. I started my law enforcement career as a dispatcher at age 17, became a cop at 21, and retired as a sergeant two years ago after 29 years on the job. I’ve had plenty of frightening moments in those thirty three years, but “scary” is a relative term. I was just as scared when I was a brand new sergeant and my team and I got shot at responding to a domestic as I was when I realized I had hit “reply” instead of “forward” on a particularly inflammatory inter-departmental email about the boss who had just sent me the original email. Like I said, scary is relative. What scares you?
Our family and friends often believe that “danger” is the most stressful and frightening thing about our job. As most police psychologists will tell you, it’s actually the “administrative stress” that wears at us. As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin says, “It’s not the a-holes on the street, it’s the a-holes in the station;” and some of those people and situations can be downright scary!
As one reader responded, “having to explain to the undersheriff where that hole in the ceiling came from’ was certainly a frightening moment in his career. Being called into Internal Affairs, having your butt chewed by the sergeant, or getting into an on-duty fender-bender that’s totally your fault are just a few of those things that scare us.
Fear is different on the street. It can actually be a great motivator and trainer. One reader talked about deploying stop sticks during a pursuit and watching the suspect lose control, hit a cement barrier next to him and then hit his patrol car. Another wrecked his cruiser driving 110 mph in a pursuit. I’m guessing that once the dust settled, these crimefighters learned the valuable lesson that it’s not just thugs with guns who kill us.
Vehicle-related incidents kill us with frightening regularity. How about when we’re assaulted by someone with an edged weapon? Even when we win, we learn to be alert to knives, fists and feet, not just assailants with firearms. When we respond to a “run of the mill” domestic and the shooting starts, we remember that there is no such thing as a “routine” call. Having the heck scared out of you can be a powerful training event, pay attention to those unexpected lessons, and share them with your co-workers.
Many of our respondents talked about situations where they felt totally out of control. Several found themselves in spontaneous riots while trying to make arrests; others were involved in foot pursuits and lost their radios, batons, sometimes their partners! Many told stories of equipment failure. One talked about spotting an oncoming tornado that was snapping high tension wire; how fast can you safely drive in the opposite direction of that?!
Correctional officers have many frightening moments dealing sudden attacks by inmates who are already known criminals and now want to take out a cop. Several others discussed how frightening it was to be the rookie passenger in a cruiser during a high speed pursuit. Ironically, one of my most frightening moments on the job was being the FTO and passenger during a pursuit; I still have nightmares about that one! Cops like to be in control, and a lack of it can be ridiculously scary.
Animals also seem to be a big cause of fear among cops. My husband, Dave “JD Buck Savage” Smith, remembers that his very first call as a rookie in Tucson, AZ was “mountain lion in the back yard.” How do you train for that?! One of our readers was attacked by a rabid raccoon, and many were attacked by various breeds of dogs. Another was nearly killed when a moose stepped into the roadway! We’ve had officers in the US killed when they’ve struck cattle, deer and other large animals, or they’ve swerved to avoid a dog or cat.
Not only do we need to train for armed assailants, we need to visualize and train for those unexpected and unpredictable animals that may come our way, whether we’re on foot or in a vehicle.
Sometimes our most frightening moments occur when we’re off duty. Remember, ten percent of police officer murders occur when we’re not working! Several of our respondents told stories of being car jacked or robbed at gunpoint. Do you carry off duty, and do you train mentally and physically for potentially violent off duty encounters?
Cops love to tell “war stories, “ but what struck me about so many of our responses was that bone-chilling fear came from concern for the well-being of our friends and family. One officer was bitten and potentially infected by a life-threatening disease, and yet his concern was primarily for his wife and son. Many spoke of life and death struggles to save their partners, not themselves. Warriors tend to be pretty damn selfless.
When we look back on our scariest moments, they are often also some of our greatest adventures. The key is balancing the risk with your training, tactics, and strategies, such as wearing your vest, carrying an off duty weapon, buckling your seatbelt, and telling yourself on every call, during every shift, “Not Today!” Continue to tell your stories, embrace the “cop humor” that we all need, and keep reaching out to each other. Law enforcement is one big, crazy family, enjoy the adventure and stay safe!