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Following their significant use of force, some law enforcement officers state, “I was in fear of my life.” Resultant criticisms of the use of force can be centered on the officer’s use of the word “fear.” When commenting on a law enforcement use(s) of force, persons uninvolved in the use of force may opine that the involved law enforcement officer(s) were unnecessarily or disproportionately frightened. Of course, some opinions may be based on an unrealistic and/or incomplete understanding of field encounters and how violence is presented and executed, law enforcement training, their own ability to confront and defeat a violent subject, general human performance capabilities and limitations, and a limited understanding of the function of the brain, and specifically, the sympathetic nervous system.

Physiologically speaking, “The fear response serves survival by generating appropriate behavioral responses, so it has been preserved throughout evolution (Olsson and Phelps, 2007).” Though descriptions can be oversimplified and incomplete, a fear response may be instinctually automatic and initiate the “fight or flight” reaction to a perceived threat of death or injury, resulting in a release of adrenaline. Dr. Michael Asken has summarized fear as, “our emotional equivalent of warning lights (Asken, 2009).”

Associated with the fear response are automatic physiological changes to the body in preparation to survive and respond to the perceived threat. Elevated heart rate, blood vessel constriction, increased muscle tension, sweating, increased blood glucose, and hyper-alertness are among some of the body’s immediate adjustments. With these physiological changes, the consciousness realizes an emotion of fear (Wikipedia). When observed in a law enforcement use of force, some law enforcement officer’s physical techniques may appear simple and brutal. The presentation of a firearm, non-sensical speech, and lalochezia (stress-related profanity) may also be observed. Though the law enforcement officer may be incapable of fine and complex motor skills, the officer’s brain what will do what it must to survive when confronting what it perceives as threat. The officer experiences what his brain has identified as a potential threat to survival. The officer feels “frightened.”

Fear can also manifest from a lack of experience (threat of the unknown), anxiety (occurring from sources unrelated to the immediate threat), and a fear of failure when the brain perceives it is unprepared to effectively deal with the threat (lack of training, self-doubt), (Asken, 2009). Dr. Asken also noted, “A [adrenaline] dump that is untrained and unrestrained is more likely to be unpredictable, unwieldy and unproductive to survival and success.”


Is the emotion of fear an evolutionary adaption?

Can a law enforcement officer be expected to perform outside of human evolutionary adaptations? Why, or why not?

In the analysis of a law enforcement use of force, is it reasonable to expect a law enforcement officer to operate outside of human performance capabilities and limitations?

Can anxiety related to societal sources influence a fear response? Why, or why not?

How may field experience and observation influence a law enforcement officer’s fear response?

Can the emotion of fear be eliminated, mitigated, or unaffected by training?

Can outcomes be influenced by training? Why, or why not? If so, what specifically and to what degree?

How may the selection and retention of law enforcement officers influence uses of force initiated by a fear response? Is there a financial cost to each? Is the general public willing to assume that cost?

Do you believe the general public would finance the training required for better use of force outcomes? If so, to what extent? If not, what should be the public’s realistic expectation?


Asken, M. (2009). Warrior Mindset; Mental Toughness Skills for a Nation’s Peacekeepers. Warrior Science Publications, United States.

Edmundson, L. (2012). "The Neurobiology of Fear". Serendip.

Olsson, A.; Phelps, E. A. (2007). "Social learning of fear". Nature Neuroscience. 10 (9): 1095–1102. PMID 17726475. doi:10.1038/nn1968.

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