Psychological CPR and Survival

A few years ago an experienced police officer told me of an incident he had where he should have used lethal force, but didn’t.  He hesitated.  At the very moment when he could have been killed, instead of justifiably using his weapon, he froze.  What caused him to hesitate?  He told me later that he feared the what would happen to his job.  “I could have died that day,” he said regretfully.  “I was more scared of what my department would do to me than what the guy with the gun could have done to me.”  However, he learned a valuable lesson, and added, “I decided after that experience that I would never hesitate again.”  

We may come close to dying before we really decide to kill.  We may get lucky and live.  We may think next time I won’t hesitate or next time I’ll be more aggressive.  Naturally, that learning is part of gaining experience.  What we fail to put into the equation, however, is that there may not be a next time.  We may not have a future alibi.  We may only have one chance to get it right.  All of our training and experience boils down to a split-second decision that will undoubtedly come when we least expect it.

The more experience we gain, the less willing we are to take chances.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  From the moment of tactical infancy to warrior adolescence we can make up our minds who will win the fight and how it will be won.  So, where do we gain these lifesaving tools?

A few years ago, I came up with an acronym to help teach psychological preparation for winning dangerous confrontations.  I used a familiar acronym: CPR.  Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is the act of manually keeping someone’s heart pumping.  When first responders and emergency medical personnel perform CPR, it has been known to save lives.  Psychological CPR can save lives, too.  Here’s what the psychological tactical CPR acronym stands for:

·  Confident attitude

·  Pre-determined tactics, and 

·  Rapid response

Confident Attitude

Confidence is gained through experience.  As in other areas of life, we gain confidence by accomplishing and recognizing positive steps.  As police officers we must have confidence in our knowledge and ability.  We must have and maintain technical and tactical proficiency.  

Our attitudes need to be such that we can survive and win any confrontation—including the ones we have no control over.  Surviving also includes emotional recovery following the exposure to various traumas and stress.  Sometimes we’re put into situations where we need to regain confidence.  Such readjustment can be difficult, but possible.

Humility allows constant learning and promotes individual confidence.  On the other hand, arrogance hampers team growth and thwarts personal progress.  Likewise, cockiness and overconfidence can be outright dangerous.   

Having confidence in supervisors, department leadership and organizational policy is important, too.  The job of police administrators is to give those on the front line the right tools and create an atmosphere that allows successful job performance.  While we cannot control others, we can control our response, our actions and our attitude.  

It is helpful to be prepared for what happens legally and administratively following the variety of stressful encounters that we may face. For instance, an officer involved shooting.  We can find great comfort if our legal resources are already in place.  Such preparation can bring a greater degree of calmness and confidence, both before and after a critical incident.  Having the support of experienced officers can help tremendously.  They understand like no other person can. 

Family, friends and other emotional support systems are vitally important in helping maintain and increase self-assurance.  Knowing and trusting the men and women coming to back us up, can comfort and calm us in troubled times, too.  Nourishing wholesome relationships can give us the right degree of emotional balance and stability during both routine days and extraordinarily difficult ones. 

Inevitably, we are each individually responsible for controlling the levels of our confidence.  Others can help teach, mentor, train and advise, but no other person can control or shape our confidence.  No one can take away our confidence, and no one can mandate we gain confidence either.  We each must strive to create a confident attitude through positive daily habits, a healthy physical and emotional lifestyle, and by possessing a never-quit attitude.  

While the law enforcement profession is honorable and desirable, there must be a life outside of police work.  In those near-death moments, those who have the will to survive may think of the people that matter most to them—the reasons why they’ll fight to survive even when mortally wounded.  To point, two of my friends told me they thought of their children as they were about to die from major physical trauma and the loss of blood.  Thinking of their children gave them hope to stay in the fight.

Take time to evaluate and reevaluate priorities.  Why do we want to live?  In the most intense, life-altering moment, what thought would help keep us alive and never give up?  If we have trouble coming up with reasons to live or if we’re thinking life isn’t worth living anymore, we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to get help. Unfortunately, I know a couple of great former police officers who wanted to take their lives when they were working in a law enforcement capacity.  They even went so far as to put their duty weapons to their own heads. Thankfully, they didn’t go through with it.  Sadly, I also have friends who have taken their own lives.  Going to see a professional counselor can be a great start to a new life and a way to find purpose, hope and renewed confidence.  If you’re going through hell, keep going.

Pre-Determined Tactics

The second part of the CPR acronym is pre-determined tactics.  Skilled warriors mentally rehearse what-if scenarios.  Contemplating what to do if certain situations occur gives an upper hand.  In one aspect, pre-determined tactics give officers a proactive response to policing.  In short, this type of thinking is pre-planning and war-gaming.  I’ll explain by using a baseball analogy. 

The baseball shortstop must have a plan before the pitcher throws the ball.  In order to be effective, he must know how many runners are on base, which base they’re on, and how many outs there are in that inning.  Calculating this and other factors will keep him from hesitating or fumbling if the ball comes his way.  For instance, he will know whether to turn a double play, hold the runner, or go for the easy out.  The time to consider what to do must come before, not after, the batter hits the ball. 

When it comes to individual decision making, we can increase the odds of a successful tactical outcome if we’ve already visited such scenarios in our minds.  Training is essential, and visualization is vital.  Analyze officer involved shootings.  Learn about post traumatic stress reactions. Honestly putting ourselves in those situations and asking ourselves what we would do given a similar lot, gives us the mental tools to react more appropriately in the future. 

We shouldn’t necessarily be eager to fight.  Those who long for confrontation invite trouble.  But we should be morally, tactically and psychologically ready for a deadly force situation.  We must know the use of force well.  We must be prepared, and this may mean combating any moral or psychological qualms about justifiable killing.  We won’t have time to decide whether or not to use deadly force when that fateful moment comes.  

Self-introspection and serious soul-searching should begin long before the police academy.  Unfortunately, there are too many officers nationwide who avoid that psychological visit.  They rarely, if ever, go there mentally.  This cannot be avoided if an officer expects to win a deadly force confrontation.  If we are not 100 percent ready and willing to aggressively use deadly force when warranted, then we are a danger to ourselves, our partners, our teammates and the community.

Mental rehearsal and having pre-determined tactics will cut down on lag time and response, which will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.  To point, there are things that should take us less than a nanosecond to decide and act upon.  If we visit the possibilities in our mind prior to being confronted with certain situations, we will improve our reaction time.  Of course, a little bit of luck helps, too.  But hoping something bad doesn’t happen is false protection.  Hope isn’t a tactic.  Being prepared is.

Rapid Response

Rapid response is the third and final aspect of psychological CPR.  We make a decision.  We have confidence in what decision to make, and then we respond rapidly.  The response has to be quick.  We cannot pause in the midst of a major, deadly battle.  We must act with urgency.  We cannot afford to dabble or prance around on the proverbial edge of the cliff.  While pre-determined tactics help cut out crucial seconds, we still have to act.  We cannot afford to freeze. 

There is a tacitly dangerous feeling that pervades among law enforcement, the criminal justice system and the civilian population.  We too often feel obliged to get seriously injured or have innocent people die before we feel fully justified to use deadly force.  It is often legally and tactically unnecessary to pause or hesitate.  Hesitating is dangerous.  It is precarious.  It is foolish, and it could get us killed.

This philosophy of waiting beyond the last second—beyond the point of being justified legally and tactically—will turn potential winners into losers.  And winning and losing here could be the difference between living and dying.

One of the downfalls of rapid response is an improper rapid response. We cannot afford to fight when we should flee, or vice versa (we cannot afford to flee when we should fight). Likewise, we definitely don’t want to be too quick on the trigger.  Squeezing the trigger out of negligence, fear or stress, injures and kills dozens family members, coworkers and innocent people each year.  From negligent discharges to critical mistakes in training, contrary to what was stated above, there actually is a time to hesitate.  Hesitate just long enough to be certain of your threat.  Be certain of your target.  I cannot imagine the emotional and psychological pain of those unfortunate officers who have accidently shot and killed their own teammates in blue on blue encounters.  Again, hesitate long enough to have positive target identification.  Hesitate long enough to be certain you’re actions are legally and tactical just.  Hesitate long enough to be safe and to gain the tactical advantage.  Hesitate long enough to know your backstop is clear.

Lastly, when a buddy is feeling down, or when we recognize that we need psychological and emotional help, we need to act with great speed and urgency.  Rapid response may save lives, including our own.

In sum, keep the principles of psychological CPR handy in your tactical toolbox.  Confident attitude, pre-determined tactics, and rapid response are absolutely essential to winning.  These may not be the only elements needed to win, but succeeding emotionally or tactically without utilizing psychological CPR will not be as likely.  Societies’ protectors need to get prepared psychologically, emotionally, tactically and morally in order to help win.  From on-going stresses of work and home to deadly force encounters, we need emotional balance.  Ours is the burden of making split-second decisions in, well, split seconds.  We may second guess ourselves later—certainly many others will—but we can survive.  We can survive after we survive, too.  Legal and emotional survival is as important as tactical survival.  We may not be perfectly prepared for every event or encounter, but through personal preparation and endurance, we can win.  We can survive.  We can help others survive, too.

Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey has written award-winning articles for the Washington Times,, and other publications. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS: Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival and Living with PTSD. He teaches courses on peer support, suicide prevention, and other mental wellness and resilience to public safety professionals. You can contact Jeffrey HERE.

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