‘A Gap to Fill in Law Enforcement Training’

A new emphasis on mental and emotional health should help officers of all ranks

When rookie officers are going through their police certification process, often it’s physical fitness that is the focus, to ensure they are up for the challenges of the job.

Now, in Dallas, Texas, both new and career officers will soon be going through a unique training process for their brain health.

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Over the next 18 months, several hundred front-line officers will go through “SMART” training: Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training. It’s a program being offered to police through the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Brain Health with a goal of helping them improve decision-making, judgment and emotional management on the job.

“You don’t go do pushups and sits-ups on the battlefield. You do pushups and situps over here, so that you are stronger, and have more strength and endurance and flexibility when you need it,” Jennifer Zientz, the Center’s head of Clinical Services, told the CBS affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth.

Split-second decision-making in this profession can mean the difference between life and death.

“There is much work to be done in understanding police officer performance under tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving circumstances,” said one consultant.

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It was the massacre of five Dallas police officers in July 2016 that prompted Dallas-area philanthropist Lyda Hill to donate the funds for the training.

“Following the devastating day of July 7, 2016, in Dallas, where five law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, I knew I had to do something to help those who take care of us daily,” Hill said in a statement provided by the Center for Brain Health. “I hope this effort gives the Dallas Police Department the foundation it needs to consistently make the brain health of its officers a top priority.”

Dallas officers, however, are far from alone in needing perhaps some additional training. The brain health of those who take an oath to protect and serve has become an important issue nationwide, especially as law enforcement falls under a growing amount of scrutiny.

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“While I lack enough direct knowledge of SMART, I can say that the science of how humans function, to include judgment and decision-making, is a gap that needs to be filled in law enforcement,” said Dave Blake, a police practices consultant from Brentwood, California.

“There is much work to be done in understanding police officer performance under tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving circumstances. If SMART has been empirically proven to translate effectively in the real world that police officers operate within — then I fully support it,” he told LifeZette.

Related: Why Police Wonder: ‘Will I Make It Through This Shift?’

Blake adds it is not how well an officer has become proficient with his or her tools (handgun, Taser, etc), but rather how well officers can control their minds during high-stress encounters. Acute stress, he added, can cause human error in even the most well-trained of individuals.

He hates to see departments — which want to do something good to help their officers — waste their money on programs that don’t work, though; and he fears many don’t work purely because they can’t afford to give officers class time. Otherwise, a lot of departments don’t have the money for such programming.

“The only empirically proven method I’m aware of that translates to the real world is the mental toughness program developed for the Navy SEALs,” said Blake. “This includes key principles of psychology such as: visualization, goal setting, stress inoculation, and positive self talk. It sounds like SMART may have these aspects built in, which is a good thing.”

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