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The Survival Mentality
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 08/02/2010

Life ring I can remember back in the early 1990’s when I was a rookie police cadet going through the academy. At that time everything we did in training was because of officer survival and obtaining the street survival mindset so that we would not become a statistic on a wall plaque somewhere. We were constantly drilled on how to act and to do things a certain way, how to become proficient with our weapon systems and how to, at all costs, go home at the end of our shifts. I have since changed careers into corrections and the same outlook on officer survival and the survival mindset has not been grasped by our administrators or officers. I believe the total outlook of corrections administrators as it pertains to officer survival training I believe is one of “sink or swim” or “It’s not that serious.”

I told an administrator just a few days ago that I honestly felt that our new officers are being trained how to do their jobs by the inmates within our institution and not our administration. We often wonder why officers react and operate as poorly as they do, but yet we never question how they are trained or if the training that they do receive is getting the job done. We will spend hours upon hours each year learning how to do CPR and how to cut down a suicidal hanging inmate but yet the real information and education officers seek is left to learn OJT, who provides this training, and how long it takes, is debatable.

When I was a police officer, I was extremely confident in my ability and knowledge to bring stability into a chaotic situation. I was knowledgeable in the use of force continuum as well as when and how much force to use. Since I have changed careers I often wonder how those clearly established and well trained unmistakably defined areas have become so blurred and cloudy. Individuals who have no idea of what they talk about have become the experts and information dispensers of the agency.

Administrations have become so weary and insolent of how their officers will react that they have been systematically conditioned to hold corrective reactions until a supervisor responds and guides them through the situations. Is it no wonder that our officers slowly act and react the way that they do when they are constantly instructed not to make any decisions or actions until someone with authority says that they can or should. How about obtaining the proper mindset that we will train our officers to make the right decisions and give them the proper knowledge to react appropriately so that they will not become a liability. Give our officers the survival mentality of what to look for and how to respond to violent situations, properly de-escalate aggressors, and restore order so that they don’t get hurt or disabled. “Sounds like a great prospect, doesn’t’ it?”

So let’s talk about that gut tingly, heart racing feeling that we get when confronted by aggressive individuals or the stress that we feel has just been lifted from our shoulders when we drive out of the parking lot to go home. Stress is an element of everyday life and no one is immune from it. Select occupations, such as the military, corrections and law enforcement take on different levels and types of stress that most individuals in other occupations never experience. These types of stress may include the fear of personal injury or death, close combat encounters, deadly force issues and the fear of the unknown. These stressful encounters cause uncontrollable anxiety and emotions referred to as survival stress, combat stress, and sudden stress syndrome. Regardless of what it is called, it can be defined as, “the perception, real or imagined, of an imminent threat of serious personal injury or death, the stress of being tasked with the responsibility to protect another from imminent serious injury or death, under conditions where response time is minimal.”

Corrections work can be accurately described as, “long stretches of boredom, interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” Days, weeks and even months can go by without even a hint of danger, however we all know that the tables could turn at any given moment. A momentary lack of concentration or a split second of complacency during these moments could prove to be deadly. Do you ever go home after your shift and just feel as if you are drained of all energy but yet your daily activity for the day was little or nothing to recall. When you work in law enforcement and corrections your body goes into what can be called a state of hypervigilance during your shift. Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.

You are constantly scanning your pod for problems, hectic encounters with inmates, though minimal, and keeping in a state of high reaction takes a toll on your body. Even though nothing happened today, you were ready for it to pop off and staying in a high state of mental readiness is exhausting. Simply put, hypervigilance is a way to describe a person in a state of fight-or-flight.

So what is the survival mentality and is it just a form of paranoia? The survival triangle is based with three sides, Skills, Tactics and Attitude or the will to survive. One side cannot function without the other. All correctional training must support all three attributes before it can instill the proper and desired effect. The belief system that most officers now have very likely does not allow them to perform at their optimum level. Once they adopt a firm belief, it becomes a fixed attitude, creating a reality. The key to your mental attitude is your belief, and that your beliefs in turn determine the way you perform in defensive tactic situations. You must think belief if you want to win out within your institutions. Believe in your abilities, for you are who you think you are. You have the necessary skills and abilities to overcome any adversity. Your powers lie in the thoughts that you hold. As man thinks, so does he become.

Belief + Potential + Action + Results = Survival

Every strength is a potential weakness and vice versa; if you cannot see your weakness, you cannot change it; only through training will you learn your weakness; being aware of your weakness will allow you to remain master of yourself in any situation; become acquainted with every aspect of force management and seek additional defensive training. You cannot control the situations in which you find yourself in; you can only control your own responses to those very situations. You will find that if you can control your own emotions and remain calm and collected you can generate a calming effect on those around you to do the same.

The survival mentality is not just paranoia or the expectation or anticipation that something bad will happen to you during your shift. Survival mentality is the knowledge, skills and attitude that you will predict, triumph over and prevail if any such situations ever arise. All of my articles that I write are geared toward giving you the knowledge and foresight so that you will observe, anticipate and react properly to situations that are not so favorable. I want you to have the awareness to realize when situations may go bad, how to react appropriately and respond accordingly with the necessary and appropriate force. You must mentally rehearse and always visualize yourself winning or never being killed. Part of this rehearsal is training yourself to never give up in the event that you find yourself in a bad situation. By anticipating stressful situations you can prepare for them by rehearsing the solutions in your mind before they ever happen.

The Warrior Officer Code

Remain calm. Never show fear, surprise, or hesitation, unless it’s part of a deceptive tactic in order to fool your opponent.

Clear your mind of all self-doubt. Believe in your survival instincts, your tactical knowledge, your equipment, your firearm, your partners, your agency, and believe in yourself.

Be positive. Complete each task safely, effectively and without interruption. Be persistent and you will conquer anything. Never give up or quit. Winners will always see themselves in first place.

Hold nothing back. Fight as if your life depends upon it – because it probably does. Failing to make and hold eye contact or a timid physical presence in stressful situations signals weakness. Many antisocial criminals fear or respect an overwhelming force or the appearance you present that overwhelming force.

Center your thoughts on a single purpose. Focus on completing one task at a time, without rushing or making mental or physical mistakes.

Use your opponent’s energy to defeat him. Use his movements to put him on the ground; use his aggression to force him to make mental and physical mistakes.

Take advantage of every opportunity. Be aware of new ways to defeat your opponent or to finish an assignment. Take advantage of every opportunity to get new training and seek new areas of knowledge.

Concentration, is not just paying attention to your surroundings but rather seeing what is not there and sensing what is about to occur. It’s about knowing your opponent on the streets or within your correctional facility and lastly, and most important, it’s about winning.

Never permit outright disrespect or verbal intimidation without immediate challenge. To do so makes you appear weak in the eyes of those who contemplate violence against us.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page

Other articles by Barnhart:


  1. scottwadams on 08/04/2010:

    I've got to say you've pretty well summed it up, Tracy...all the way around.

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