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Pursuit Induced Adrenaline Overloads - The Key To Increasing Officer Safety And Reducing Overreactions

An officer's worst enemy in a code three run or pursuit is an adrenaline overload. The speed, the sound of the siren blaring, and the desire for apprehension can cause an officer's adrenaline level to soar. Once the huge adrenaline dump occurs, things can go from bad to worse. Tunnel vision and/or target fixation can set in. Fine and complex motor skills diminish, and short term memory (the creative/reasoning part of the brain) can be severely hindered, leaving an officer with nothing more than long term memory and primal, emotional instincts to operate with.
The potential for an adrenaline overload during a pursuit is tremendous, particularly for younger, inexperienced officers. One study quoted on the Discovery Channel's "High-Speed Pursuit" proclaimed that officers involved in extended pursuits have adrenaline levels that exceed those of soldiers engaged in combat.

I can confirm that study's statement from personal experience. I had an extremely tough time trying to keep my adrenaline under check during pursuits during my early years on the job. My voice would go up several octaves, my radio communications would become unintelligible, tunnel vision would take over; and my reasoning and common sense would go right out the window I think back now and thank God we had those under-powered 318 Grand Fury's during the 80's. Had we had the LS-1's at that time, I probably would have died in one.

Quite frankly, at that time I was a threat to myself and others during a pursuit. I knew I had to get control of this adrenaline demon before it ended up in a tragedy. I also knew I was on my own and would have to find a solution myself. I had been a life-long martial artist and was quite adept at using controlled breathing techniques for stress control during combat. The breathing technique, known as Chi breathing, Sanshin breathing, Autogenic breathing and probably a dozen more "also-known-as names", has been recently touted in police training circles as "Combat Breathing."

The breathing is done in cycles. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four; hold your breath for a count of four; exhale through your mouth for a count of four; hold your breath for a count of four, and then restart the cycle. Breath deeply and methodically - completely filling and emptying your lungs during each cycle. This simple technique will lower your blood pressure and arousal/stress level, and minimize the overwhelming side effects of an adrenaline dump.

A lot of progressive police training classes now teach this breathing exercise, but most will not take it to the proper training level necessary to make it functional. In most cases, this technique is taught in the completely tranquil, sterile environment of a quiet classroom. This fails to give the officer a proper mental cue to trigger the breathing pattern subconsciously. An officer is going to need this technique the most, when his adrenaline and the events of the moment are overloading his short-term memory with information vital to his survival.

We now know what technique our officer's need to learn. The big missing piece of the puzzle is how to teach it so they will remember to do it when they need it the most. Well, you probably can't teach them to "remember" to do it. To expect officers to consciously "remember" to utilize the breathing technique is not realistic, nor dependable.

You can, however, make it a CONDITIONED response to a specific stimulus. Bruce Lee was once quoted as teaching "Learn it until you forget it." I believe his meaning was to learn techniques so that you could perform them without conscious thought. As he said in the movie "Enter the Dragon" while teaching a young apprentice, "Don't think; feel."

You want to make the Combat Breathing a subconscious part of the officer's tactical/survival arsenal. They will learn it until they forget about it. However under the right stimulus, they will perform it to their advantage without even thinking about it. This is the ultimate level of performance training - the ability to perform without conscious thought. While this sounds very complex, the training methodology is not. All you need to make sure is that your officers are at least as smart as your dumbest K-9.

Think back to your basic science class and Pavlov's dog. Pavlov, a scientist in old Russia, conducted experiments with what he called "Conditioned Response." He would ring a bell right before feeding his dog. The dog learned to associate the bell with food, and would salivate at its sound, even when no food was around. The scientist had programmed an involuntary, subconscious, physical response to a specific stimulus into the brain of a dog.

The modern day version of a conditioned response, used widely in police and other training circles, is called STIMULUS-RESPONSE. "Sit, Rover." Rover sits. The command "Sit" is the stimulus, Rover sitting is the response Call it what you want, but it all boils down to the concept that is credited to have been originated by Pavlov. The way to apply this to police officers engaged in pursuit or code three driving and stress control, is to pre-introduce the stimulus, and have them repeatedly PRACTICE the desired response.

While some will vehemently disagree, I was pretty sure that I was as smart as Pavlov's dog. If the dog could learn to salivate subconsciously to the sound of the bell, why couldn't I learn to subconsciously induce combat breathing when I heard the sound of the siren? Thus, turning a mental "cue," that normally raises my adrenaline, into one that would actually lower it. While I can't take credit for inventing Combat Breathing or the Conditioned Response Theorem, I do accept credit for the idea of combining the two to use the siren specifically as a cue to help lower officer arousal levels, instead of the siren increasing stress.

The methodology of this training is quite simple. You take a tape recording of a siren and play it for your cadets for five or ten minutes a day, EVERY day, at the end of the academy training day. While the siren plays, the cadets practice the combat breathing exercises we detailed earlier. To enhance this, have them watch videos of pursuits from in-car tapes as you do this. If you do this for the duration of your academy, when your cadets are on the street, they will start combat breathing subconsciously to the sound of a siren. Thus, helping them to greatly control their adrenaline surges before they occur.

"During my twenty years as a practicing clinical and police psychologist, I worked with many individuals who had survived traumatic events - combat veterans, civilians, and many police officers involved in shootings, pursuits, and other sudden, high stress, and potentially traumatic situations," says Alexis Artwohl, PhD., one of America's most respected police psychologists.

"I have studied the fascinating question of what allows some people to perform well in these life-threatening situations while others do not. There are a variety of factors, but based on my study of the scientific literature and working with numerous actual survivors, it became clear to me that one of the most important factors is THE INDIVIDUAL'S ABILITY TO CONTROL PHYSIOLOGICAL AND EMOTIONAL AROUSAL LEVELS WHEN FACED WITH HIGH STRESS SITUATIONS."

Artwohl adds, "This ability should not be taken for granted when training police officers. Controlled breathing is an age-old technique that warriors, athletes, and others have used for centuries to control arousal levels and achieve peak performance. Psychologists often call it 'autogenic' breathing and have been using it for years to teach people relaxation skills so they can control anxiety levels. Police officers should be taught controlled breathing from DAY ONE in training to the point where it becomes so automatic they do it without thinking."

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former army Ranger and paratrooper, who taught psychology at West Point; is the Author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated book "On Killing" and the highly acclaimed police training tape "The Bullet-Proof Mind." Col. Grossman has been teaching the breathing exercise and its positive impact on performance during high-speed pursuits for years and he says he has been training it to military special ops pilots for the same reason.

"All of these organizations have given me tremendous positive feedback. The idea of making it a conditioned reflex is brilliant," Grossman says. "This is a true revolution in training, which addresses a major performance problem and brings us up to a new level of professionalism."

I will close this article by saying that every Police Chief, Police Commissioner, and Police Trainer should have one item hanging from their desk - a copy of the old military poster that reads, "Your mind is your primary weapon."

Your officers' minds ARE their primary source of every positive and negative action they make. It's such a simple concept that we tend to overlook it. An officer's brain is the little voice in his head that makes his body accomplish tremendous acts of bravery under unthinkable situations. However, it can also be the primal, instinctive voice commanding the use of excessive force under circumstances of extreme stress, adrenaline overload and emotional arousal, even from officers that would not think of such an act under normal conditions. We owe it our officers to give them every tool possible, to enhance their performance and to help them keep their adrenaline demons under control. Here is the tool; the rest is up to you.
This article is reprinted with permission from the author
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