22 October 2010

One cop, five bullets

Is it wise to be a hero? Some people just can't help it, says CyberShrink.


Many of us will have been impressed and maybe a little puzzled, by the extraordinary story of a Balfour policeman who has been having a remarkably adventurous few months, to put it mildly.

The man in question, Warrant Officer Jan Pretorius, is in hospital in serious condition, having been shot five times by thieves, and I'm sure we all hope he will make a rapid and thorough recovery.

The story is a bit curious. Apparently before 5 am, someone saw suspicious men on the roof of a store, apparently trying to break in, and for some reason, instead of calling the police directly, called and woke Pretorius who was not on duty at the time. He rushed to the scene, calling the police for back-up while en route. The gang began firing at him as he arrived, and a shoot-out ensued. He was seriously wounded, and as he lay on the ground, started shooting back at a robber who ran towards him, still shooting. He managed to hit the man, who collapsed, dead, just before reaching Pretorius, while the others fled. Shot in the shoulder, leg and in each foot, he called emergency services himself, and was taken to hospital. It's not clear why the passer-by who had called Pretorius directly, didn't call police or an ambulance himself.

In August, Pretorius was in the news for having saved a boy who was drowning in a dam near Balfour. Driving past, he saw the lad in distress, rushed in, rescued the child, and gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Reportedly, the kid later jumped up and ran away. So much for gratitude! And also around three months back, he was attacked with a knife, which lodged in his bullet-proof vest, enabling him to escape unharmed.

This would be considered a highly eventful season even within a Hollywood cop series, and especially in a relatively small town which is hardly the dramatic crime capital of the country.

Now, we have only the outlines of some news stories, so nobody can comment very insightfully on this particular man himself. But these events do raise some interesting issues, more widely relevant, and well worth discussing.   

How to encourage the good guys?

Firstly, there's the issue of appreciation of good cops and good policing. Generally, people in South Africa have come to expect very little from our profoundly disappointing police force, and much of its bad reputation has been truly earned.

It's too easy to forget that there are also able, brave, and hard-working policemen, about whom we don't seem to hear much. It can't be easy to do a job of vital importance to us all, but which has too often become almost a joke, earning a salary which is far too much for the bad cops, and far too little for the good ones. Like doctors and nurses, they are expected to deal with the grubby, ugly and horrible parts of life, without complaining, and to keep this out of the general awareness of the public at large.

Encouragement and rewards

Perhaps we need to think more about how we as individuals, as a community, and the Government (so often seeming more concerned about finding excuses to avoid betting blamed for deplorable standards of policing) can encourage, nurture and reward the Good Cops, and help them to become proper role-models for the rest, while discouraging and removing those who are corrupt or simply lazy and useless.

Perhaps better mechanisms need to be found to enable people to provide safe and direct feedback on the performance of police as individuals and groups, to be used in deciding salaries and benefits. Personally, I don't think everyone at the same nominal (and essentially artificial) level should receive the same pay. On a low base, very significant improvements in pay should be based on excellence in performance, as assessed by the community and not only by bosses who might not want to reveal their own failures.

The curious characteristics of those who "have a go".

Many years ago, when I was fortunate enough to work with some of the world's other leading and pioneer experts in the field of Suicidology. And one aspect we studied was the curious area of what we called "Indirect Self-Destructive Behaviour." There are many varieties of voluntarily dangerous, risky, and potentially and self-damaging behaviours, which are not usually thought of as suicidal, but are better understood if considered in this way.

Think of people with serious illnesses such as diabetes, who repeatedly fail to follow basic medical advice and become sicker all the time; think of those involved in high-risk substance abuse and crime; or those preferring really high-risk sports such as free-fall parachuting and base-jumping. Some studies suggest, for instance, that some, when injury keeps them from their favoured dangerous hobbies, have a higher rate of direct suicide.

Have-a-go Joes

One of our groups studied people who intervene in violent criminal and similar events, like this policeman did, and found aspects of these admirable actions that were intriguing. They interviewed a group of people who had "thrust themselves into criminal episodes laden with danger" - muggings, armed robberies, and so on. None did so with any idea of being later rewarded.

The great majority either did not think of personal danger or risk of injury, or considered it unlikely (though all of them had suffered serious physical damage). They said they reacted essentially automatically when they recognised the situation.

Crisis prone? 

This appears to be an almost entirely male behaviour. One of the curious and unexpected findings, which seem to match our Balfour cop, is that this group had come upon far more such incidents than others. For reasons worth thinking about, they were far more likely to be around, and to witness, episodes of crime. This was more than just something arising from the nature of their work. Policemen, of course, get called to such events, but do meet far more of these crises than others.

The Americans studied were mainly civilians, but asked how many serious crime events they had witnessed in the previous 10 years, their average was nearly four each, compared to less than one for ordinary citizens. About a third had intervened once before, and five had done so more than twice before.

It may impress others, but that isn't why it is done, and it doesn't generally inspire others to do likewise. Such acts may be socially valuable, in saving a victim or catching a crook, but some are essentially useless or even of negative value.

They were more likely to have useful skills such as life-saving, police or medical training, even though they often didn't use these. Maybe these skills helped them to feel more able to handle the situation. They tended to be taller and heavier and more physically fit than people who did not intervene.  

"Somebody ought to do something about this"

They were not unduly modest about what they had done, but, rather, didn't see it as remarkable. They felt obliged to intercede. Like good policemen, who have been studied, they saw the circumstances as things that should not be happening and about which somebody ought to do something.

They go beyond and significantly differ from, the traditional model of the Good Samaritan (who, as I recall, was kindly and caring, but did not put himself at personal risk by doing so). They weren't especially benevolent towards the victim they may have rescued, and indeed often ignored the victim so as to pursue the bad guy. So their actions aren't entirely admirable. And they are high-risk, and often unnecessarily risky.

A thought in closing: in some countries there are laws making it potentially a crime not to intervene to save someone in peril. Are these effective or justifiable? 

Reference : The Many Faces of Suicide : Indirect Self-Destructive Behavior. Edited Norman Farberow, with Robert Litman, Herbert Hendin, Hans Toch, Michael A. Simpson, et al.  McGraw-Hill, New York, 1980.

(Professor M. A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, October 2010)

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