Written by: Sgt. Alexandra Kitty Nelson
Stress. Law enforcement. Realistic training. Cumulative trauma. Stress injury. Exhaustion. Generally speaking, the current state of policing is pressure-laden whether managing external incidents or navigating internal politics. I have yet to meet an officer who has described their agency as a mentally healthy, nurturing environment where officers successfully weather trauma and serenity reigns. Realistically, some occupational stress is inevitable and exposure to trauma is likely. Total avoidance of trauma and stress is not a reasonable approach given that police officers exist to problem-solve and maintain the peace. We prepare officers to confront real life situations through training and realistic scenario-based training is an effective educational method. As scenario-based training has evolved, the effects of stress on physical performance, cognitive load, and decision-making have been studied. But have we given sufficient attention to what happens once the scenario is complete?
Imagine a training day in AnyTown, USA. The officer trainee has just been exposed to the sights, sounds, and smells of a traumatic incident during a realistic scenario-based training. The trauma exposure induces physiological and cognitive stress responses in the officer. By the end of their standard 8-hour training day, that same officer experiences multiple, back-to-back traumas as a part of training before flying out the door as quickly as possible to get home, off to their second job, or “anywhere but there.” Scenario debriefs focus heavily on tactics and decision-making with little room for discussion of the emotional and psychological toll to be paid for bearing witness to varying degrees of horrific situations. Persistent stress responses without resolution can lead to cognitive dysfunction and physical injury. Extrapolate those exposures over the course of a week of training…and then years of a career. Finally, after taking into account that research indicates stress responses experienced in training are similar to those experienced in real life, add trauma exposure during training to the traumas officers experience on the street. Phew!! That’s a lot!
Throughout their time as law enforcement professionals, officers collect an assortment of traumatic experiences retaining select memories of those encounters. Their internal processing of those experiences and memories varies for many reasons including their personal level of experience and psychological makeup going in to the incident along with cognitive processing and external support systems coming out of the incident. The traumas officers encounter compounded with the associated exposures to the emotions of survivors, offenders, and witnesses accumulate as encounters continue to occur. As trainers, we have learned and corrected for methods and concepts causing “training scars” over the years. I propose that attending to officer mental health during training and normalizing practical, evidence-based post-training decompression methods are additional areas where we may not be serving our officers well…or at all. We must ask ourselves if this is another training scar that needs attention.
In light of contemporary focus on officer mental health, the law enforcement profession is obligated to look inward at its contributions to stress injury. Robust training not only teaches the task but also prepares personnel for managing accompanying occupational stressors. Addressing trauma exposure and how to manage its effects during scenario-based training are opportunities to bolster resilience and train officers to use stress reduction techniques they can translate to real life. This is also an opportunity to reduce the negative impact of accumulated trauma officers inevitably amass over the course of their careers. As we realize the effects of trauma exposure in our officers, it is our responsibility as trainers and good partners to do more to create psychologically safe environments in which our students can thrive.
On Thursday afternoon at the annual ILEETA training conference (March 23rd), we will start a conversation about the psychological effects of scenario-based training on police personnel. Subject matter experts weighing in on the topic include Lynn Westover (SLC Squared – behavior pattern recognition expert), Nicole Florisi (VirTra – law enforcement subject matter expert), Von Kliem, MCJ, JD, LLM (Force Science Director of Consulting Division – human factors application in force encounters expert), and Jeff Johnsgaard (Natural Tactical Systems – realistic scenario training expert). We will identify the benefits of consciously considering student mental health in training plans, describe the challenges such consideration poses for trainers, and explore how to create trauma-informed training environments. Come join the discussion!
About the Author:
Sgt. Alexandra Kitty Nelson works as a day shift supervisor in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. She recently completed her master’s in psychology with a concentration on trauma for which she researched the effects of training on officer psychology. Sgt. Nelson coaches firearms, active shooter incident management, crisis intervention, and communication skills. She currently serves as 3rd vice president for IALEFI and Senior Associate of Content Delivery for ILET. Sgt. Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org