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The mental health impacts of training and decision-making

As police officers, our actions in the name of public safety are scrutinized under a microscope. We use too much force, or not enough. We took our time getting to a call or we rushed and caused an accident. Our investigation was fraught with error or we over-analyzed the situation, causing us to experience confirmation bias.

April 23, 2018  By Michelle Vincent

We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Or at least this can be the perception, especially as an active member.

The two-fold question is: When we feel we can do no right, how does this mentality affect the execution of our duties, and how does our mental health affect how we act in the moment and/or perceive our actions upon self-reflection?

I am going to suggest that training is key. One article I came across found that police officers engaged in a particular training regime were significantly more likely to engage in what we would call “correct decision-making.”

Training of police officers most often consists of the study of the various statutes we engage in from the Canadian Criminal Code. It also includes the provincial acts, firearms, defensive tactics and most services include some form of psycho-education. If the focus on training was mental health-based primarily, and firearms and defensive tactics came secondary, I wonder if the most important pieces — decision-making in critical moments, for example — would be more effectively executed.

Top athletes use imagery to execute their phenomenal actions. They must be clear-minded, meditative and focused in order to be competitive and successful. How is this any different to our requirements for duty?

As much as we want our officers to have knowledge of the Criminal Code and provincial statutes, knowing where to find these components is really all that is required. Why not focus on the resilience and training components so that the very tool necessary to access effective decision-making is fine-tuned — that tool being our minds.

As food for thought, when we complete our annual requalification and participate in Immediate Rapid Deployment (when dealing with active shooter situations), how many of us are “mentally prepared” for this exercise?

We are kitted up with our Simunition firearm, our protective gear and, in diamond formation, we are released into the dark depths of the school forum, clearing out each room, waiting with anticipation for the gunman to appear, perspiration dripping down our brows, school fire alarms ringing loudly in our ears… The pressure to “make the correct decision” is tremendous and yet how much time do we spend training to start this exercise with mindfulness-based activities?

I am not suggesting our current practices in training are not amazing. I am suggesting there may be ways we can improve the art of decision-making through adding mindfulness-based exercises.

In the real world we may not have time to implement mindfulness as we attend calls — or will we? In our police service we are encouraged to visualize and play out possible scenarios as we make our way to calls for service.

Perhaps incorporating methods of mindfulness — such as suggesting meditation prior to a shift and/or listening to stressful radio calls while practicing visualization and imagery — might be an effective method of additional training for both our recruits and also in our annual requalification.

Either way, decision-making is at the forefront of the world of policing, as we can see from the most recent convictions of police officers in the execution of their duties and the international coverage of school shootings. Let’s approach this facet both intellectually and esoterically in order to provide our members with the most effective, leading-edge practices. These will support the development of the mind, which is the most important tool of all.

Michelle Vincent is a 15-year York Regional Police officer with a Masters Degree in Arts in Counselling Psychology and a background in equine assisted therapy, workplace reintegration and teaching. Her counselling practice is supervised by a psychologist with a specialty in addictions and trauma. She can be contacted at:

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