Thank God for Alphas

Scene 1:  I’m a patrol officer on duty with my partner. We see a man on a motorcycle roll through a stop sign in a semi-industrial, semi-residential neighborhood. We follow him for about a block before pulling him over. My partner and I get out of our cruiser and approach the man. He gets off his bike and immediately starts arguing. I’m the “contact” officer, the one in charge. It’s my job to control the situation. I explain to him that he rolled through the stop sign; he denies it and continues to argue. I try to get him to calm down but he doesn’t hear me, or doesn’t listen. Still angry he says, “I suppose you need to see my license and registration,” and he reaches toward one of the pouches on his bike. Next thing I know, he’s shooting at me and my partner. We get off several rounds before he escapes, unhit.

Scene 2: My partner and I have been dispatched on a 911 call to a hostage situation in an office building. We’re first responders. We know the suspect has taken a man hostage. We know he is armed and angry. We enter the building, spot him in a windowed office at the end of the corridor. We can see through the window that he has cornered the hostage. Obviously terrified, the man has his hands up around his shoulders in the classic “I give up” stance. The suspect is shouting at him, out of control. Every so often turns toward me and my partner and shouts something at us, but I can’t quite hear what he’s saying. I freeze, I can’t even speak, can’t even think what to say. Worse, I can’t even think of what to do. My partner takes over, commands the suspect to drop the gun and come out. The suspect turns back toward the hostage, drills half a dozen rounds into the man’s torso, then turns and shoots out the window toward us. We return fire, and manage to take him down, probably too late for the hostage.  

This past weekend I joined about 150 of my peers at a Writers’ Police Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was held at a police training academy, and we had the opportunity to join classes that are taught to actual recruits and led by experts, most of them former law enforcement officers in a variety of skills and functions, from patrol officer, to sniper, to under cover cop. One of those classes was Firearms Training Simulation, or F.A.T.S. You’re in a darkened room with your “partner” for the class and two instructors. After giving some basic firearms instructions (how to load and unload the weapon), they run you through several situations typical for patrol officers.

The scenarios I described above were the actual ones in my class, where I played the officer in charge. Had I been a real recruit, I’m pretty sure I would have received an “F” for the day. The only thing that might have saved me is that, surprisingly, my shooting was pretty good! And to give myself a tiny break, we didn’t receive training in how to respond, although we did receive reading material on use of force. It wasn’t enough, not for me anyway.

After the first scene with the biker, the instructor (probably laughing inside), explained the responding officers have to take charge of the situation at the outset. Responding officers not only have to demonstrate alpha behavior, they have to be the top alpha, top dog. They cannot allow the suspect to take control because that could possibly endanger themselves and the community. (I know, you’re probably thinking, uh…yeah, you dummy!) The appropriate response would have been to tell the biker to stay on the bike (presumably while I wrote the ticket). Had that failed, his anger should have set off red flags in my head. I should have known he might have been reaching for a weapon when he said he was getting his license. I should have seen the weapon come out of the pouch, and I should have had my weapon firing before he brought his to aim. I did none of those things. Instead, I said (after he was already off the bike and was arguing, flapping his arms around), “Uh…we don’t want any trouble here, sir.” (Yes, I really did say that. And stop laughing!)

Afterward, the training officer demonstrated what the appropriate response would have been (and believe me, that picture in my head is going in a book somewhere!). When I acknowledged where I’d erred, he said, “Some people are meant to be police officers, others are meant to call the police for help.” There was no doubt to any of us in that room which category I fall into!

As far as I can tell, alpha personalities are quick thinkers, quick reactors. They’re decisive, even when they doubt, even (or especially) when their own lives are at stake. In contrast, as for my performance in that training class, forget about coming to a quick decision, I wasn’t even able to think of my options! And that’s not abnormal for me. My mind will often take a circuitous route from an inciting incident to a solution. Like the little boy in the “Family Circus” cartoon who runs out the front door to get the mail at the curb, but ends up taking a tour of his neighbor’s yard first, my mind meanders around, aimlessly, before it can start solving a problem. Sometimes it takes me a minute, sometimes it takes me days, and sometimes I never do find a solution! It’s like I have to sort all the pieces of the puzzle–edges in one corner, inside pieces in another–before I can begin to put them together.

I knew that about myself before I went into that F.A.T.S. room. I even remarked to everyone that I’d probably look like an idiot, and I don’t think I disappointed! But I tell myself that those instructors probably saw more than their share of people like me over the course of the academy. They saw plenty of people like me who didn’t know what to say or what to do. They see people like me every day in their real-life scenarios, actual situations where they’re facing down an armed man at a simple traffic stop, or someone who’s in a drug-induced, or natural, psychotic state. They can’t rewind the film and watch what happened like we did in that training room. They either go back to their families after the incident, or they don’t.

All I can say is, thank God for people who go into law enforcement or the military, or emergency medicine or firefighting. Thank God for those who are willing to put their safety on the line for the rest of us. Thank God for alphas.

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