Vigilant…Or Hyper-Vigilant?

The violence against law enforcement in 2018 has been on the rise and in cities large and small, on crowded streets and lonely highways, in small and dark rooms, and in cold alleys and border canyons, death comes to this job about every 54 hours, year round. Bottom line: This has always been a dangerous job, mentally and physically.

In the hours, weeks and months that follow the killing of any good and hardworking cop in this country, there may be the tendency among some surviving officers to take out their rage, sadness and frustration—aimed though they are at the cowardly murderer—on suspects who don’t comply when asked.

Most cops, of course, remain professionals despite the rigors of the profession. But, in my experience, a small percentage of officers may deal with their anger by losing sight of their professionalism, ethics and training. The actions of these few, unfortunately, reflect upon us all.

There is a price to pay for too much vigilance. You can care too much about this job. In the time following the murder of a cop in your department, it’s hard not to want to give a little “curbstone payback” to everyone with a big mouth.

A Personal Example

About 25 years ago, I was standing in front of a gang member’s house in southeast San Diego, preparing to arrest him for his warrants. He stood with his crew, and I stood with my partner. The gangster said: “I can see why Sagon did what he had to do.” This was a not-too-subtle reference to the murder of San Diego Police Agent Tom Riggs at the hands of a gutless specimen named Sagon Penn. Our collective blue blood began to boil.

You’d think that making reference to Sagon Penn’s “reasons” for killing a San Diego cop during an arrest by other San Diego cops wouldn’t be good for the suspect’s physical health and well-being. Suffice it to say, we held our tongues and our fists, and he made it to jail without falling out of the car on the freeway or getting “shot while trying to escape,” as they used to say about prisoners of war in Germany.

(Penn turned himself in at a San Diego police station for the 1985 murder of Tom Riggs, the wounding of Officer Donovan Jacobs, and the wounding of a female civilian ridealong. Penn was tried twice and acquitted twice. This was a classic example of “jury nullification,” weakly based on the race of the officers vs. the overwhelming evidence of the suspect’s guilt. Penn committed suicide on July 4, 2002, at the age of 40.)

The larger point here: Like it or not, you must continue to do your job with professionalism, appropriate courtesy and a rock solid sense of ethics—even after a cop gets killed and just as you did it with before the cop was killed. You don’t get a license to KATN (Google it) just because you’re hurting personally and professionally. In fact, it’s the hallmark of a true law enforcement professional to be able to do what you’ve done throughout your career: Suck it up, do your work, take care of yourself and your partners and go home. You don’t have permission to lose control, unlike the street lizards you contact.

Just Like War

One of the best old-school nonfiction books on police work is called City Police, which was written by a sociologist and former newspaper reporter, Jonathan Rubinstein, who joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 1971, and worked as a cop to research his book.

He spoke of reporting to work the night following the murder of an officer in the city. During their briefing, the patrol sergeant said to his troops, “It’s bound to be quiet tonight. Pay attention out there, but I’m guessing the crooks are gonna tuck themselves away for a few nights because they know we’re in a bad mood and ready to bring in every guy with a swinging pair.”

What Rubenstein was observing, whether he knew it or not, is hyper-vigilance: Police officers who’ve experienced the loss of one of their own often feel “at war” with the criminals who committed the murder. Although roughing up suspects who are uninvolved does nothing, it makes us feel like we’re on our toes, ready for anything.

In our wartime era, we can observe hyper-vigilance among soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, some of whom have made so many trips to Iraq and Afghanistan that they’ve lost count. These brave men and women find themselves trapped in their own hellish version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” They’re either at war; preparing to stand down for several months, which often involves training for more war; or, if they’re lucky, they get a whole year off. Then they go back to preparing to go to war again.

If they’re reservists or in a National Guard unit, they’re expected to go back to their civilian lives and jobs as soon as their deployment is complete—as if you could flip a switch in their brains to make this transition seamless. Why are we surprised when they step off the plane from a combat position and re-enter the civilian world, where the chances of getting shot or blown up are thankfully quite small, and they can’t lose their war faces?

Many of them say different versions of the same thing: “Why bother to stand down, physically, tactically or emotionally, if they’re just going to send me right back over there sometime soon? Why should I gear it down if I can just stay on point and vigilant until it’s time to redeploy? I don’t want to get too comfortable, too complacent or lose my edge. When I go back to the fight, I don’t have the luxury of time and I can’t just ease slowly back into my former war mode.” Cops are no different. Following the line-of-duty death of an officer, they can share many of these feelings and symptoms of hyper-vigilance.

A Little Goes a Long Way

A wise sage once described the Strength-Weakness Irony: “Your strength, taken to an extreme, becomes a weakness.”

Vigilance is a powerful weapon, except when it’s taken to an extreme. Returning soldiers treat a trip to the coffee shop as if they’re expecting an ambush from above. Similarly, after the death of one of their colleagues, some officers start to treat every normal contact as if they’re dealing with a potential cop killer.

Remember: Not everyone is bad and not every situation is dangerous. Ask yourself the same questions you always do when speaking to known bad guys, or unknown strangers who may or may not turn out to be bad guys: “Does this person want to hurt me or my partner? Does this person want to flee? Do I see signs that this person will cooperate with this contact, report or arrest—or not? Am I handling this encounter with assertiveness that I can ramp up to aggressiveness if need be?”


Don’t get me wrong, it’s OK to miss our fallen colleagues. It’s OK to feel angry toward people who press your hot buttons in the field—just don’t let them know it. And don’t take them home in your head with you.

The bottom line: After the loss of a colleague, you may feel like you‘re wearing black tape across your badge long after the incident. But don’t let your emotions blind you to the realities of your job. Instead, focus that energy and emotion on keeping yourself and your partners safe. After all, every 54 hours or so, another officer, deputy, trooper or agent pays the ultimate price for a safe world.

Hyper-Vigilance Symptoms


The symptoms of hypervigilance in both soldiers and police who have been in deadly force confrontations are easy to see but difficult to treat. They include:

• Anger issues

• Anxieties

• Sleep problems

• Diet and sexual disorders

• An inability to relax or think about pleasant things, even when exhausted

• The need to approach every situation in polite society as a tactical problem to be solved


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