Blue Line

Performance ritual for street policing

January 28, 2015  By Robert Lunney

Hill Street Blues was an American serial police drama that aired on NBC in 1981 and ran for 146 episodes on prime time until 1987. The quintessential cop show, it was the precursor of many police dramas to follow.

The early part of the series featured actor Michael Conrad in the role of veteran cop Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, who ended the introductory roll call to each week’s show with “Let’s be careful out there.” The wisdom of this mantra was not lost on a generation of real life squad sergeants who soon developed their own trademark sign-offs. And thus another ritual was born.

The role of positive rituals in policing is described by Ottawa University Professor Judy M. McDonald in her book . Professor McDonald makes the connection between mental readiness and performance excellence in sport as transferable to front line policing. Another reference is , by Dr. James E. Loehar and Peter J. McLaughlin, listing the influence of positive ritual as a key success factor.

Rituals are a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. They are comforting and reinforce individual and group intent. Watch an NHL club emerge from the locker room prior to the start of a game. They exit in a pre-determined order, often led by the goaltender. The captain stands by the door, recognizing each player in turn with a nod or touch on the shoulder. All rituals are part of the preparation for action. It is the same in all premier sports.


Viewed as a performance style, policing has much in common with team sports. Uncertainty of outcome is a given and each squad member knows that he or she must depend upon others to back them up and provide advice, support and cover when needed.

While there are outstanding individual performers, as on any team, no one succeeds without the contribution and backing of others – partners, squad mates, supervisors and police staff. It follows that officers and squads can benefit from the impact of positive rituals in their everyday routines in much the same way as premier athletes.

Preparation for a shift (think game day) begins at home with a properly chosen diet at the right time. The drive to work is an opportunity to run through a mental check list and think about the challenges that may be encountered during the shift. Preparation in the locker room is another opportunity for a positive ritual: The order in which one dons uniform and equipment; the banter with mates; and the safety checks.

The squad meeting is another ritual, following a familiar routine of briefing and inspection led by the sergeant until the squad disperses onto the street. Positive rituals reassure and contribute to a sense of teamwork and unity.

Be clear, however, that ritual differs from superstition. Superstitions depend on something beyond your control and are negative. Not all rituals are positive. Smoking cigarettes, drinking too much coffee or relying on tranquilizers or other drugs diminishes intensity.

In a broader sense rituals extend to diet, exercise, leisure time and thought patterns. A healthy diet and an exercise ritual contribute to fitness and the capability to meet physical and mental challenges. Music can be part of preparation, either when driving to work or cranked up in the locker room. And always there is the “What if?” agenda, the ritual of mentally preparing for both the conceivable and the unexpected challenges that could occur at any time.

Ritualistic habits can get you through the common challenges of dealing with stress, such as the practice of psyching one’s self up or down as needed or the ability to relax during a few minutes of down time or recognize when a few moments of deep and measured breathing will relieve tension and help you think more clearly. Finally there are the mantras or maxims that should be at everyone’s disposal – those very personal and meaningful key words or phrases repeated in the mind to get one through a testing experience.

If you have experience in sport, you know how the silent repetition of a catchphrase can keep you going despite adversity. Mantras and positive rituals are like an insurance policy. Thoughtfully planned, honed and habitually practiced, they ensure higher standards of group and personal performance.

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