Fight or Flight: APD puts community members to the test on use of force

Your heart is racing, blood is pumping, adrenaline is rushing through your body, most all of us have felt this whether it's a near accident or even getting in front of a large crowd to talk. It's called “Fight or Flight, an actual syndrome causing physical changes in the human body when people are faced with what they feel is danger. A situation our law enforcement could face on a daily basis. It may seem like a simple concept when you're put in a life threatening situation, you look for a way to get out or fight back.  But in that moment, something else is going on out of anyone's control; doctors call it a bodily response, something we've evolved as humans to do to deal with threats.

"Let me see your hands, give me your other hand, he's got a gun (shots fired). Dash cam caught the terrifying moments when Austin Police Officer Armando Perez was shot by a car burglary suspect after only a minute to responding to the call. Wounded, within seconds he had to make the decision to fight for his own life and those around him and returned fire, killing the suspect.

Sgt. Christopher Davis has been working for APD for nearly 12 years and has seen the dash cam video, ”That officer was still able to do what he was able to do and ultimately that was to go home at the end of the day for that particular shift.” He said in those split second moments, the training of Officer Perez kicked in, ”Just the  mindset and willingness to win is something, a resolve that we see that's something that is taught here at the academy that will to win, that's  what he demonstrated out on the street.

With response to resistance a normal person will immediately think with emotion first, then act and lastly think. As officers they are trained to first think, then act, and lastly emotion can come in. In the APD academy cadets log nearly 1300 hours of training in a 32-week long course. More than half of that time is given to use of force training. But what many may not know is what officers and anyone really goes through when we are put in what we think are life or death situations. Dr. Art Markman is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas. “We are engaging the sympathetic nervous system and that's they call that the “Fight or Flight” system. 

“Fight or flight” a physical reaction in the human body when something is terrifying mentally or physically, “This is the bodies reaction to protect itself, so the brain is engaged and focusing attention on  specific things that might help you to deal with the situation, there are chemicals that are released,” Dr. Markman said.  The term “Fight or Flight was dubbed back in the 1920s when doctors realized the reactions that happen inside the body to help deal with threatening circumstances. “All systems are just trying to get us away from something really dangerous, so we have a lot of responses that are designed to help us get away from a bad thing,” Dr. Markman said. But getting away isn't an option for law enforcement. “If you're a police officer and elected yourself to put yourself in harm’s way as a result of your job.”

That's why officers go through extensive training to help them respond and know what their body is going through. Sgt. Christopher Davis has been with APD for nearly 12 years. He said training gives the brain options when choosing a survival response. “Training, training, and more training is what keeps an officer level headed when they are stress induced that could potentially put their life or somebody else’s life in danger,” he said.

With the national discussion on officers and use of force becoming more heated every day, APD along with many community organizations are coming together in hopes to make change. “I see the intersection between social justice and the way that people are with mental health challenges are also disproportionately treated by the police. Candace Aylor and Bob Clark are part of the Austin Justice Coalition and just a few of the community members who took part in a “Use of Force” training class by APD. APD held the class in hopes for people to understand what officers go through. The first part of the class starts with videos and discussion that actual cadets are given on use of force. Then it’s onto simulators and scenarios.

Many come to recognize very quickly, something happens when you're scared impairment, “I'm mostly frustrated that I didn't hear that the man had said he was going to turn the gun on himself, because I feel like maybe I would've been able to talk that situation down,” Aylor said. Sgt. Davis said many times when people are put in situations they will have impairment; they may not see or hear certain things. “It's part of the training, it comes into play to limit those factors, so they don't impair you so you cannot react,” he said.
The intensity only escalates as community members take part in staged scenarios, APD officers may encounter.  “My heart is racing, that's that fear. That tangible fear and people have that tangible fear all the time, there going to  be up and their adrenaline is going to be up like that, that's intense, definitely intense,” Aylor said,

It seems what APD hoped to achieve by holding this class, happened. “That’s a lot to take in because there's a lot of information to be assessed in a short period of time to reach a conclusion. Unless you're ever put in that situation it's hard to, it's difficult, it's a difficult situation,” Clark said.  “I have a feeling that people that see a lot of things that are really terrifying in the media or the perspective of how terrifying things can be perceived right now that this may be what they're feeling like right now, that they are thinking that they are in danger all the time,” Aylor said.

Sgt. Davis said as law enforcement they just have one goal in mind. “You never know what that next call, what it's going to entail, what it's going to be about, ultimately, yes you want to go home at the end of that particular shift, but the goal is actually to help people.” And their worst fear isn’t losing their own life, it’s taking someone else’s, “Ultimately you don't ever want to have to use deadly force, I mean that's the last option something every officer when comes on shift they hope they don't have to use deadly force,” he said.

APD holds many different types of classes for community members. The “Use of Force” class is held once a year when cadets are not training. They also have a “Citizen's Academy” they hold multiple times a year, for more information, you can click here.