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How our ‘sixth sense’ can improve officer safety

The easiest way to explain it is when someone feels they are in the face of danger, those little hairs on the back of our neck, arms, or legs will stand up on edge


A correctional officer is seen in one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, written in a personal capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, or any other governmental agency.

Whether you work behind the walls or on the outside, officer safety is the number one priority for each and every day. Regardless of the shift we work, or the location of our assignment, every single time we walk out of the door, we need to have a heightened level of awareness that things could go wrong at any moment.

The main goal of each moment is to possess the ability to make it home at the end of our shift. The only way to ensure we meet our goal is to always default on our training and experience. If you find yourself lacking in experience, that’s not an issue. Simply being aware of your surroundings and knowing how you can better prepare yourself in the event of an emergency will put you a step above the rest.

People often wonder why some individuals possess what is commonly known as the “sixth sense” while others seem to be lacking in that area. Personally, I do believe in the “sixth sense” — I’ve experienced it on numerous occasions throughout my career.

When You Get That Feeling

The easiest way to explain it is when someone feels they are in the face of danger, those little hairs on the back of our neck, arms, or legs will stand up on edge. An uneasy feeling will begin to rush over the body. That uneasy feeling is trying to tell us something. Nine times out of ten, that feeling we are experiencing means that something bad is about to happen. It is up to each of us to remain situationally aware of our surroundings and be ready to act at a moment’s notice if danger presents itself upon us.

One of the most important issues that is often lacking during training is the ability to work under extreme conditions. When those hairs stand up and our “sixth-sense” is activated, this typically begins the initial process of an adrenaline dump, or activation of our sympathetic nervous system.

Unfortunately, there are far too many times where we don’t experience that true dump until we are out of the academy, and already working in the field. Sure, we train hard while obtaining our certification. We show blood, sweat, and tears at times. But things become very different when you are faced with danger in a situation where your co-workers are nowhere to be found. Knowing in advance that there are certain changes that the body undertakes during an extreme situation can be the different between life, serious bodily injury, or death.

Physical Effects of Stress and Fear

People experience various signs of impairment during emergency situations where the nervous system has turned on the “fight or flight” syndrome. Some individuals will experience what is known as auditory exclusion. This is when an officer will begin to lose hearing, but still has access to the remaining senses. Vision problems are also another common experience in the heat of the moment. More often than not, people refer to this as “tunnel vision.” Another includes a decrease in fine motor skills. Most people will experience at least one, if not more of the three potential hazards mentioned above.

You should only let your guard down if you are in the comfort of your own residence, alarm system turned on, feet up on the couch, and the family dog by your feet. At this point, it would be alright to lower your sense of awareness to help unwind and release some of the stress that this line of work can have on us. Otherwise, from the moment you walk out of the door, to the moment you are back home, you should be prepared for anything and everything that could come your way. Sometimes basic training isn’t enough.

Get Training

It’s always a good idea to seek out additional or advanced training from your department, or another entity that offers certified courses. The only way to stay on top of our game is to stay one step ahead. Training is available that can help us learn to identify potential hazardous situations before they occur. Don’t wait for your agency to send you for training, seek out opportunities on your own to help you become more aware of your surroundings. It could mean the difference between getting to go back to work the next day, or never working again.

You can also do some reading on the subject when in the above scenario of relaxing on the couch at home. Two books in particular are important in this area. Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear and Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley.

Criminal justice practitioner with over sixteen years of experience working in multiple facets of the justice system. John began his career in 1998 working in the probation field in Massachusetts. He relocated to the State of Georgia where he initially worked as an adult probation officer in Atlanta. After having an opportunity to attend the police academy, he worked as a law enforcement officer, where he focused his training on advanced field sobriety and traffic enforcement. John has a wide array of experience, and has previously held the position of corporal, as well as being a certified field training officer. He was assigned to the criminal investigations division and worked as both lead detective and as a crime scene technician. In 2009, John relocated to Charlotte, NC to work as a probation and parole officer. In 2014, he was selected to join the administration, and he currently holds the position of Assistant Chief of Special Operations for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. His main responsibilities involve the development and implementation of a field training program. John is a certified criminal justice general instructor for the State of North Carolina.