FEAR, Society and the Police

There are many definitions and stages of fear from simple startle reflex and phobia to blind running in terror and panic.

To understand fear, one must examine it in several contexts from fear of a small insect to vicious animals, and even figments of man’s imagination. Imagination often drives the mechanisms that trigger fear. Fear can be a life saver or a killer. Understanding fear and accepting it as an emotional response opens a means of overcoming it.

Fear has been defined as “an emotional reaction to a perceived or actual life or death threat often resulting in irrational actions.” Fear is when you dread the consequences of having something to lose. A sense of fear comes with anguish, defensiveness, and isolation, causing overall negative outcomes. To most observers, courage is the opposite of fear. That can easily be understood as in most circumstances it is true. Another realistic definition is that safety is the opposite of fear since people want and need to feel secure. Additionally, fear is also routinely defined as a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc. whether the threat is real or imagined.

Fear and courage reside side by side in the psyche of a police officer, though a very fine line does separate fear and courage. Acting with bravado, an officer can mask his fear. But on occasion, the line wavers leading to irrational actions. It can turn an otherwise stable officer into a control freak, demanding that his commands be instantly obeyed or else it leaves the officer with a perceived loss of control, causing unreasonable reactions, making him feel insecure. This, in turn, perpetuates a negative feedback cycle because the more insecure he feels, the more aggressive and unkinder he becomes, even callus, leading to unreasonable and unnecessary force. Fear is a very important factor in intractable conflict. Emotions like fear can often cause extreme and seemingly irrational behavior in people, which can result in escalating conflict.[1]

Police risk their lives every day to protect citizens.  It takes great courage to be a police officer, facing danger from criminals and gangsters, mentally ill persons, and the emotionally upset. Day in and day out, they are expected to control fear and anger despite the challenging circumstances they face. But we neglect to remember that fear erodes confidence. What more is that the modern world has complicated policing matters in the fact that everything officers do and say are caught camera in images and sound. Hence, they must walk a fine line of being correct in their decisions, especially when in life threatening situations when they have to make split second decisions on the appropriate use of force in deciding whether to defend their life or not. Those moments are recorded and replayed over and over, second guessed by people who were not there and are only seeing a portion of the incident out of context.  One moment of an officer showing fear will define him for the rest of his entire life.

“Why did they shoot him? He was only holding a knife?” The general public is unaware of repeated tests in martial arts studios and police training academies showing that a person with a knife standing within twenty-one feet of a police officer is a very viable threat to the life of the officer. In numerous test situations, armed attackers with bladed weapons reached the officer before the officer could dispel a shot from his weapon. Yet if the officer uses lethal violence, i.e. shooting the attacker, he will be severely criticized for “being in fear for his life” and taking deadly actions against a an attacker who was seemingly only armed with a knife.

In a dark alley or yard, maybe on a nighttime street, it is extremely difficult to see and evaluate what a person has in his hand. Is it a gun, a knife, a toy, a phone, or a bottle of soda? The officer is in a high-stress situation and any delay in reacting or taking mitigating action could easily lead to him being killed. Given those circumstances and add the adrenalin pumping experience of driving to the scene at high speeds with red and blue lights flashing, sirens wailing, weaving through and evading accidents through congested traffic, the responding officer will already be in a high-alert emotion.

Fear is a ScorpionEveryone has fears. Fear is a scorpion residing in the brain. A scorpion’s appearance is fiercely frightening and the venom of its sting is capable of paralyzing its victim. Fear hides in the brain until stimulated, attacking its victim with the potential to paralyze. You must give credit to a security officer working alone in a warehouse, an office building, or construction site. It takes a great amount of courage working alone to walk the dark halls, alleys, and passageways at two o’clock in the morning, with dark clouds overhead, very limited lighting, an occasional crack of thunder with rain beating against the windows.

Perhaps a police officer must enter a strange dark building looking for a prowler. All he knows is that there may or not be anyone in the building. Armed only with a flashlight and his sidearm, the officer walks around searching the darkness for someone or something unknown. He is at a serious disadvantage because if there is anyone, or any creature hiding in the darkness, it can see the officer and know where he is by the movement of his flashlight. This is indeed a very frightening moment for the officer. Fear can create monsters where none existed before.

Fear tricks us. Like a flash invading the mind, it knocks at the door of your mind. It says “let me in” and finding no resistance it crushes all instincts except survival and avoidance of pain. The antidote to mind creeping fear is one’s own courage, perhaps even anger. Not the thinking of the fear or its origin, not the assessing of it but the response to it. How it is responded to, erases it, or makes it become so overwhelming that it controls all rational thinking.

As the control center of the body, the brain functions as the director of traffic for all the senses. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, taste and perceive sends messages to the brain; it is all seeing and knowing. However as efficient as the brain is, it has bifurcated qualities. On one hand it allows us to gain knowledge and learn, make decisions, interact with others, and a thousand other things. It also gives us a gift in that some memories fade and allows us to forget traumatic events and unpleasant occurrences.  On the other hand, the brain is not infallible, it has a weakness; it can be hijacked by fear, stifling cognitive reasoning and clear thinking.

Fear is dreadful and is capable of sucking all resistance from the brain. It can cause a person to fold up into a fetal position or stand and watch a bus bearing down on him until he becomes like a mosquito on the windshield. When fear controls our lives, safety and security become the main focus of all our activities.

We all face our own struggles day to day and must meet whatever it is. We must meet it on our own on our personal battlefields. For a youth, that battle might be the fear of exams or being bullied in school. For an adult, it could be facing that daily commute to go to a job that is anything but inspiring. It might be not having a job at all or failing to achieve one’s dreams or goals. A new mother may fear yet another day with the same routine, over and over again. A family to may be dealing with the looming specter of an allergy or something worse. However small and insignificant these things may seem, they are our own battles and fears. And it’s crucial that we fight on daily”


Dale L. June (MA) former U.S. Secret Service Agent, Presidential Protective Division at the White House serving under three U.S. Presidents. As an author he has written the books, Introduction to Executive Protection:  Protection,  Security  and  Safeguards:Practical   Approaches   and   Perspectives;   Terrorism  and Homeland Security: Perspectives, Thoughts, and Opinions; The ReEvolution of American Street Gangs; What They Didn’t Teach at The Academy: Topics, Stories and Reality Beyond the Classroom and the best-selling, An Introduction to Celebrity Protection & Touring.  His newest book, Fear, Society And The Police, has just been released.  

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