The Parkland Massacre: Why Did the Deputy Freeze? Or Did He?

Mar 5, 2018

There were so many mistakes leading up to the Parkland school shooting it’s hard to know where to begin. Or how to separate opinion from fact. Humans are meaning-making mammals. We crave order, safety, and predictability. We like to think we’re in control — strong, brave, fearless in the face of death. Truth is, how we’ll behave in a crisis may be very different than what we imagine or hope for.

When violence strikes, as it did in Parkland, our illusions about control are shattered, so we do the next best thing — hunt for a villain. When we find one, and in this case there were many, we point our fingers and pile on, often prematurely, in the vain hope that once the perpetrator, the guy who dropped the ball, is banished, we can breathe easy. We know what he did wrong and we’re certain we never would have made the same egregious error. He’s flawed. We’re not.

I don’t know Scot Peterson, one of – now we know – several deputies who stood outside while the shooter went on a rampage. All I know is what I’ve read in the news. I’m not joining the critics who are criticizing his actions. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see what he saw or hear what he heard. What I want to do, based on my 30-plus years as a police psychologist, is to stop the rush to judgment and contribute to the conversation by raising some seldom-spoken of issues unique to law enforcement.

It’s important, first of all, to understand the physiological mechanics of extreme stress. In simple terms we humans are hardwired to respond to threats to our survival — real or perceived, our body doesn’t know the difference — in three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. These responses produce thousands of involuntary chemical reactions. Our senses distort. We get tunnel vision or tunnel hearing. Time compresses or expands. We hyperfocus on the threat and are blind to everything else.

Learning to control one’s stress, especially in crises, is a perishable skill, one that requires reinforcement. Routine, repeated training that closely simulates high-risk situations can overcome our instinctual risk-adverse responses. Many first responders have had such training. Combined with mental preparation and personal attributes of bravery and dedication to service, they are willing to face risks that the rest of us can’t or won’t.

Here’s a personal example: When I was considerably younger – and I believed myself to be brave, strong, and gutsy — I was walking along the beach in Monterey, California. It was a rainy, blustery day and the ocean was churning. I was wearing jeans, hiking boots, and a yellow rain slicker. A young girl, dressed in a fake fur jacket, ran into the surf. She fell and the weight of her wet jacket kept her from standing up again. Her mother ran into the water, a pocketbook dangling from her arm. I ran in the water after her, thinking I could help. Fully dressed, in up to my hips, I was no match for the undertow and the waves. As mother and daughter struggled to safety, I turned back.

Did I deliberate about getting out of the water? Consider my options? Not for a second. I was in survival mode. The alarm system in my brain, known as the amygdala, was on high alert. And when the amygdala goes on, the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking, deciding, judging, deliberating part of the brain, goes off. This is involuntary. I didn’t get to vote on it. Neither do you.

Is this what happened to Deputy Peterson or the other deputies we now know didn’t enter the building? At 54 years old with 33 years of service, Peterson was older than many cops. Was he concerned about his fitness? Did he believe himself to be outgunned or outnumbered? Did he fear being injured and becoming yet another victim who needed rescue? Was he reverting to training that mandated him to wait for back up? There are more questions than answers.

I feel confident about one thing: Deputy Peterson is almost assuredly suffering mentally and emotionally. Nearly every police officer I know does, at some point in a 20-to-30 year career, oscillate between remorse for actions taken and remorse for actions deferred. It’s an essential dilemma facing law enforcement officers (LEOs) and many other first responders. I’ve worked with officers who killed unarmed suspects after mistaking a cell phone or a metal comb for a weapon. Their torment is terrible, their moral pain bottomless. I’ve also worked with LEOs who tormented themselves for real or imagined inaction — not shooting quicker, wounding the suspect instead of killing him, losing a fight, losing a gun, failing a victim. Police psychologists have several terms for this brand of self-torture — magical thinking, second guessing, and the tyranny of the myth of perfection.

Cops want to be seen and see themselves as exceptional. At the same time, they want to be acknowledged as fully human. To see oneself as always brave, prepared, in control, able to solve problems and protect the public, are necessary, but unrealistic beliefs. Without them, LEOs wouldn’t be able to function on the job. It’s not just LEOs who hold these beliefs: The public has bought into the myth that cops are beyond human and don’t feel pain, fear, exhaustion, doubt, even compassion. The truth is that good, well-trained cops feel all these things. And they don’t always get the shooter. Reducing the conversation about any officer’s actions to a debate between courage vs. cowardice is too simplistic. Courage exists in relationship to caution. To quote psychologist Charles-Hampden Turner, an exceptional thinker and teacher, “Courage without caution is recklessness and caution without courage is cowardice.

Following a major incident, precise, thoughtful, thorough, and objective after action reports are critical to building public trust and generating organizational and tactical learning, as is discipline, up to and including termination. This is different from jumping to conclusions, snap diagnoses, name-calling, finger-pointing, and a rush to judgment. All of which feels like a betrayal, especially coming from the law-enforcement family that no doubt once promised to have Deputy Peterson’s back. Police officers have a lot of power and must be held to high standards. Nothing about this tragedy changes that. But let’s also consider that the degree to which we hold them to high standards is the degree to which their departments and their communities own them support.


Subscribe to the Blog

Ellen addresses the world of writing and psychology. Don’t miss a single post.

Sign up for my newsletter: