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Understanding, anticipating and controlling fear
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 06/30/2008

Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures. In his monthly column, he discusses everyday issues affecting corrections professionals.

Fear is the natural, automatic response to one's perception that he/she is in a dangerous situation. The key here is the officer's perception based on the degree of "preparedness" training. An inexperienced officer may experience fear when in fact no threat of danger exists. Even a seasoned officer may become fearful if his/her emotional or mental faculties are in any way diminished, impaired or distracted.

Reasonable fear is common to all officers. It can be triggered by legitimately dangerous situations: conducting a building search at night for an armed suspect, facing an armed attacker, or being confronted by a mentally ill person predisposed to violence. Therefore, reasonable fear is a survival technique. It can be thought of as a way of your mind sending warning signals to the rest of your body.

You can expect an adrenalin dump when the individual you are engaged with tells you in not so many words that he is not going to do what you say; in essence, “Make Me!”

However, there is a distinct difference between controlled, legitimate and manageable fear, and uncontrolled panic. Uncontrolled and inappropriate fear is not only unreasonable, but also dangerous to the officer and everyone in his immediate environment.

It is this sort of fear for which officers make take inappropriate action or use excessive force. For situations like these, the legal ramification can be enormous for law enforcement, a correctional agency and the community.

It is essential that officers and their supervisors develop techniques to distinguish between these two types of fear, to determine how fear affects a trained officer's responses, and to evaluate what preventive steps should be taken.

What is Fear

Fear is a system overload stimulated by your perception of the perceived danger or threat. It is an emotional response to a perceived threat. Officers may incorrectly perceive fear and have a constant apprehensive approach to the day. The human body copes with stress through two main hormones, DHEA and Cortisol. An imbalance of these forces puts your body in a great disadvantage for handling stressful situations.

“Fear is the instinct of self preservation to danger. All animals feel fear. Of all the emotions that we possess, fear is the most important to our survival.”
Lord Morgan, Anatomy of Courage.

“Fear is a neural circuit that has been designed to keep an organism alive in dangerous situations.”
Dr. Joseph LeDoux
There are many stages involved. There is a perception of a threat, an awareness or perception of vulnerability, the evaluation of the threat itself, the decision to take action, the action itself, and then the attempt to go into survival mode.

Unreasonable fear is a fear generated in the officer’s mind that has no direct correlation to the facts or situation at hand. There are seven general causes of unreasonable fear such as: Fear of doing physical harm
This can be caused by other types of disorders or anxiety when the threat may or may not be there - fear caused by cultural background, family influence, and religious influence. Although a reality, many people involved in combative training have not “really” internalized or thought about having to take a life or seriously injure another person.
  1. If the level of force is justified, the officer may use anything capable to deliver the necessary force.
  2. Potential injury to the aggressor should not deter the necessary lawful use of force.
  3. The individual aggressor always dictates the amount of force to be utilized; therefore the individual is responsible for any injury that may occur while resisting.
  4. The officer must overcome the individual’s resistance quickly to minimize the potential for injury, or degree of injury, to themselves or the offender.
Psychological fear
Psychological fear is created by factors that cause a system overload (i.e., noise, situation, number of people). If one does not come to grips with this issue and mentally prepare for altercations, he will fail to act, or act incorrectly.

Build a phrase or affirmation to use when you start to feel this fear. This acknowledges its onset, and begins your action to manage it.

This might be as simple as telling yourself, “Breath. You can do this,” or “One step at a time.”

There is more than one word for “fear.” One of them is “excitement.” Another is “challenge.” Some officers prefer “exhilaration.”

Be aware that what others may report as “scary” may not seem so to you. Hold to your own judgment and don’t let dramatic reports throw you off until you have been able to see what your natural reaction will be. Your goal is not to be without fear, but to manage it.

Positional Fear
This comes from lack of preparation, training or being not personally suited for the task. Some individuals freak out if they find themselves on the ground or in a headlock.

Training will correct this. It can also occur when the brain receives contradictory information from its motion sensors - the eyes, the semicircular canals, and the muscle sensors (nerve endings in muscles and joints that provide information about body position).

Racial Fear
This is caused by lack of contact, rumor, gravity to one’s ethnic group, politics and power, or lack of power. These, however politically incorrect, are still real. Even with the strides taken forward as it relates to racial equality, there is still an invisible divide that moves us to congregate among those of same race. Our laws may be color blind, but our fantasies, fears and imagination most emphatically are not.

Cultural Fear
This can be characterized by a lack of exposure, failure to understand, mannerisms, or a “haves look down on the have not’s” feeling of resentment and rejection.

Fear of Peer Disapproval
A desire to be accepted leads to a fear of being rejected, which, in turn, can create a system overload. You may feel as if you are being graded on your courage and dynamics of profession. We all want to admire a superstar and the one who is above the bar, but don’t let this desire lead you into something that is wrong and unsafe.

Fear of Physical Harm
This is the type of fear is one officers often fail to articulate. We cannot always control our work environment but we can control our responses to that environment, such as controlling breathing, remaining calm and professional, using our instincts, and knowing our limitations. John Wayne is no longer among us and Dirty Harry would have been sued out of the agency. It is okay then to document the reason behind acting like you did because you were afraid. It makes you seem human and not robotic.

Psychological Intimidation
This includes non-verbal cues that indicate the subject’s attitude, appearance and physical readiness. It is often referred to as the “body language” of the subject, which influences an officer's decisions on how to approach a subject, or what level of force to use if the subject starts to resist a detention or an arrest.

Non-verbal intimidating actions may include, but are not limited to: clenching the fists; widening the foot stance; or wearing a blank expression, which may warn officers of an individual’s emotional state.

These often warn an officer of a subject’s potential for violence even though he has offered no verbal threats. A subject’s non-verbal intimidation should be used as information to mentally prepare officers for attack, not as justification for the use of force.

A certain amount of agency participation and cooperation is required to address the issue of unreasonable fear, while individual action will also be necessary. Therefore an attempt should be made to establish a "normal" mode of behavior.

It is the responsibility of the department to create the environment that encourages honest, candid discussion among its members. It may be necessary to provide professional counseling services to officers who cannot openly discuss their fears. It should offer support to anyone requiring professional counseling without attaching any stigma or reprisal.

It is often the field training officer who will be in the position to first observe the new recruit in action. He or she will be able to identify possible symptoms and suggest corrective actions, additional training or guidance before the problem becomes entrenched.

Other articles by Barnhart:

The makings of a warrior, 5/27/08

Survey of violent youth, Part II, 4/14/08


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