Expect the unexpected

By Dave Smith and Betsy Brantner Smith
Instructors of The Street Survival Seminar

Police work is full of uncertainty. We never know exactly what we’re going to encounter during our tour of duty. In fact, in the Street Survival Seminar, we frequently emphasize that officers should “Expect the unexpected!” We even give students several unusual examples, designed to shock their consciousness and ultimately increase their awareness.

However, no one could have prepared the night shift at the Polk Country, Florida Sheriff’s Department for what they encountered in the early morning hours of November 30th, 2006. [Read the news report]

Three deputies and their sergeant responded to reports of a man screaming on the shore of central Florida’s Lake Parker. Upon their arrival, the deputies followed a man’s desperate screams and discovered that 45-year-old Adrian Apgar was literally being eaten alive by an alligator.

Unable to decipher the victim from his reptilian attacker in the dark, muddy waters, the deputies splashed into four feet of water and did what cops do, they fought to save a human life…and they won.

We’ve all heard of family members who use their adrenaline to save loved ones from peril…remember the uncle who wrested a bull shark to the shore and beat it into submission to retrieve his nephew’s severed arm?

But what motivated these deputies?

They didn’t know the victim (who turned out to be a naked drug addict high on crack cocaine), and yet they risked their own lives to rush into the dark unknown of Lake Parker and spend 25 minutes in a fight that no instructor had ever covered during in-service training! As their boss, Sherriff Grady Judd, told the press later that day, “Our deputies don’t ask questions, they respond and they save people.” In other words, they were just doing their job.

What lessons can law enforcement learn from this incident? After all, the vast majority of us are never going to have to wrestle a murderous alligator during our careers (we hope!). The lesson here is for supervisors and managers, and I hope they take it to heart: Support your personnel.

Fox News Network did a story on Polk County’s rescue the evening after it occurred. Most departments designate a Public Information Officer or someone of high rank to talk to the press, but Sheriff Grady appeared with the three deputies and their sergeant on national television.

“These men are heroes” he kept saying over and over. He deferred to them to tell the story, and made sure that each of them received equal “air time.” Their sergeant explained his role in the rescue as this: “I needed to be with my deputies. If they were in the water, I was going into the water.” He emphasized his deputies’ heroics, not his own. He was there to support them, not take over. The sheriff was with them during the interview to support them, not steal the spotlight from them.

In the Street Survival seminar, we emphasize the awesome power and responsibility that even the newest rookie cop possesses. He or she drives a $30,000 police car, takes on millions of dollars of potential liability, and has the authority to take a human life, but often is not allowed to run into the local Dunkin Donuts to grab a cup of coffee without asking for permission from dispatch.

As supervisors and managers, we often send such mixed messages to our personnel so it is doubly important that we recognize our men and women when they do something that truly merits our praise and commendation. Sheriff Grady delivers an outstanding model for us all in how to do it in a timely and dramatic fashion that captures the imagination of the public and reinforces the truest virtues of our profession!

Stay safe!

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