Robin Burcell: Fight Or Flight

Robin Burcell

Robin Burcell has worked in law enforcement for over two decades as a police officer, detective, FBI-trained forensic artist and hostage negotiator. She is the author of the Anthony Award winning SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie novels: Every Move She Makes, Fatal Truth, Deadly Legacy and Cold Case, and the upcoming novel The Face of a Killer. You can visit her website at:

Robin Burcell:
When our fight-or-flight response is activated, chemicals in our body are released into our bloodstream. This causes our body to undergo dramatic changes. Respiratory rate increases. Blood is directed into our muscles and limbs for the specific purpose of fueling that “fight or flight.” Most of us know this part of it. But it’s the other responses I find fascinating. You’ve probably experienced it yourself, or heard others say things like “my life flashed before my eyes.” In a way, they were right. In the fight-or-flight response, our awareness intensifies, our sight sharpens, our impulses quicken, and the biggie, our perception of pain diminishes.
It’s the reason you can be injured in a serious car accident, get up, help others in more serious need, but not realize you are even injured until later.

In a nutshell, it is a form of stress, and it’s something that cops experience far too often. The problem is that cumulative stress is bad. It manifests itself in unseen ways, such as hypertension, heart problems, etc. I’ve had my share of stressful incidents, many of which resulted in nightmares, or prolonged bouts of PTSD. Any cop who’s been on the street a while will tell you the same. For me, when the stress of the job became too much to bear, when I was experiencing far too many complaints of what I call short-temper syndrome, I knew I was in trouble. I began to hate my job and the people I was dealing with. I needed help.

Strangely enough, I found that help writing fiction. My fictional world became my psychoanalyst’s couch. I could kill off all sorts of people, and never face an IA investigation. I could come back with zippy one-liners that made even the most macho I-hate-female-officers-type cop shiver in his boots. And best of all, those pesky supervisors who never quite recovered from their post-promotional lobotomies, well, they usually found their just rewards in the pages of my manuscripts.

Suddenly I was walking down the hallways of my department with a bounce in my step. I hadn’t even sold my first book yet, but it didn’t matter. When I came home, I fired up that computer, and voil‡, my day’s problems were resolved.

If only real life were that easy.

But I digress. The reason I brought up the fight-or-flight response is because many of you who read Lee’s blog are interested in the real life stuff that you can use in your own writing. I’m no different. Aside from killing off pesky supervisors, I like to pepper my fiction with real-life scenarios, things taken from my own experiences to give my books that ring of authenticity. In FACE OF A KILLER, the first in my new series that debuts this fall (hardcover with Poisoned Pen Press, paper with HarperCollins), my character is an FBI agent/forensic artist, and I’ve tried to include a few scrapes for her to get into that give the reader an idea of what it’s like to become involved in a life-threatening moment where this response occurs.

One of the best scenes I ever wrote that never made it into one of my books (DEADLY LEGACY) was taken from a real life experience that happened when a suspect pulled a knife on me and my partner, a rookie barely on the street a few months. The strange thing about that real life case was that before it even registered in my mind, our guns were drawn. I couldn’t even tell you how my gun got in my hand. I was talking on the phone to dispatch at the time, trying to get information on the suspect, and the next thing I know, I’m pointing my Glock at this guy who has a knife drawn on us. Since I am also a trained hostage negotiator, I immediately began the process of negotiating the knife away from the suspect. The whole thing was caught on tape by dispatch, because apparently I had set the phone down to draw my weapon and the line was open the whole time. Up to that point, everything had happened so fast, but once we drew down on him, or rather once he drew his knife on us, everything happened in slow motion. Much like the special effect scenes in the movie THE MATRIX. It was all very surreal.

And the fictional account that I wrote about it was a great scene. Realistic, because it was taken from real life. Only in the book I changed the bad guy to a bad girl. Gender didn’t matter. Knives, as cops know, are deadly no matter who is holding one. Someone can pull a knife from twenty feet away and kill you before you ever get your gun out. Unfortunately for me, but probably fortunate for the readers of my series, my editor made me take the scene out. Actually she made me take out the entire thread involving this woman, because it didn’t move the story forward. And she was right. But it was still a great scene. It showed the fight-or-flight response in a cop, exactly what happens when danger strikes and a cop has that split second to act.

As humans, we’re all susceptible to this instinctual response. It occurs whenever you have been involved in any near-death experience, and even some not-so-near-death experiences. It’s your body’s way of reacting to protect you. You’ve probably experienced the mildest form on more than one occasion, maybe without even realizing it. Ever had to slam on your brakes in a car, because some nitwit turned in front of you? Felt the pins and needles in your wrists as you gripped the steering wheel, the pounding of your heart after the threat was gone? That was a rush and release of adrenaline, the start of the response designed to allow you to take action far quicker than you could have, had you not been scared.

But what if you haven’t experienced the real thing, and you want your cop or your protagonist in your story to experience it? What does it feel like? What happens when it’s over and done with?

Remember the part where I said I had my gun out and didn’t even know I’d drawn down on the guy? That occurred because when faced with fight-or-flight, a person resorts to training. It’s why cops spend hours on the range doing nothing but drawing his/her weapon at the sight of a threat. And further hours on proper shooting techniques, which sometimes means eliminating bad habits or developing good ones so that when under stress, when faced with fight-or-flight, the automatic response is to do the right thing. Training is all about developing good habits. Had we not been trained over and over to draw our guns for this “threat,” chances are we might have done something else without thinking. Dove. Tried to grab the knife. Fled, which is the other part of the response. Who knows?

But what about this whole Matrix thing? This life-flashing-before-your-eyes feeling, as if time-has-fragmented thing? It occurs because your senses have been heightened. You actually develop tunnel vision, the better to concentrate only on the immediate threat in front of you. In my case, the guy draws the knife, but then points it to his belly and says that we might as well kill him. My finger on the trigger actually releases past that first click. He is now a threat to himself. Not me. But then he lifts the knife. Trigger finger pulls slightly, hearing/feeling that first click. He’s a hairsbreadth away from dying. Then the knife is back down at his belly. Trigger finger releases again. It’s at this moment that our third backup, a lieutenant, arrives, walks in the door, assesses the situation. The suspect reaches up, grabs his sunglasses off his head and throws them at the lieutenant.

I can see the sunglasses spinning end-over-end. The lieutenant later tells me that he has no idea what the guy has thrown at him. Why? The lieutenant’s body has yet to react to fight-or-flight. His perception isn’t as heightened as ours, because he hasn’t perceived that his life has been threatened yet—that is until the sunglasses come flying at him. Because he doesn’t know what that object flying at him is, he perceives it as potential danger, and it changes his body’s response instantly. He sprays the guy with OC (pepper spray). But because I am fully in the threshold of the fight-or-flight response, I can see the clear liquid of the spray, the tiny droplets coming down as it arcs across the room. It hits the suspect in his face, and he’s not fazed—because his body is also in full fight-or-flight response. His sense of pain is diminished. He taunts the lieutenant, asking him what he thinks he’s doing. In the meantime, I’m trying to negotiate with him to drop the knife, because we really don’t want to kill him in his mother’s house, and I tell him to think of how bad she’d feel. Eventually, he tells us he will drop it. He spins, throws the knife into the couch, and it is buried hilt deep. (Open, the knife was eight inches. There is maybe an inch of the hilt left showing. I realize that could have been us, our bodies. But that thought does not enter my mind until later, when we remove the knife from the couch.) We rush forward, take him into custody.

When it’s all over and done with, we escort him outside and throw him in the back of my car, so I can drive him to mental health. The threat is now over, but our bodies have yet to recover. Slowly our senses are returning to normal. We begin to feel things that we were not aware of in the midst of all this. Our suspect begins to scream in pain that the pepper spray is hurting his face. I can actually start to feel the effects in my own eyes, the remnants of a sting, the taste of it in my mouth. I stand there by my patrol car, and suddenly my knees get shaky, and I feel nauseous. The adrenaline is now leaving my body, and the blood that fueled my extremities is returning to other parts, trying to get my body back to normal.

I’m pretty much good for nothing for the next several minutes. But I have an easy job. It’s my call, so I have to drive the guy to mental health, which means I have at least an hour or more to slowly get back to normal. The rookie isn’t so lucky. He has to return to the street.

What I find amusing in cop shows are the scenes where a cop is fully in the midst of the fight-or-flight, saves his partner, or kills the bad guy, or performs some other brave feat, then stands there and has a normal conversation like it’s no big deal, never even breaking a sweat. Hands aren’t shaking, voice isn’t quavering.

Not gonna happen in real life.

22 replies
  1. Kendra
    Kendra says:

    His wife refused to watch it. She didn’t want to know more than she’d already heard.

    Gary, I can imagine Karin had something to say to that suspect!

  2. Gary T
    Gary T says:

    My department didn’t allow spouses on ride-alongs. My wife rode with a beat partner and she got to see me a couple of times during the shift. A suspect they arrested tried to spit on her through the cage from the back seat. He was given a lesson in manners. She was surprised at how people can behave and at how people can treat those who risk their lives to protect and serve.

    Kendra – I can identify with that officers reaction to watching his pursuit on film. I swear, when I’m writing a hairy scene I am on the edge of my chair, my eyes widen, my senses become acute, my breathing deep and fast and I can’t type fast enough. It’s like reliving the whole thing or living it for the first time.

  3. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    Hunter and prey/fight or flight. One and the same, I’d say. And what was the outcome? Did his wife see it? (My husband absolutely refused to go out on a ride-a-long. He did not want to see what I did.)

  4. Kendra
    Kendra says:

    In one of my citizen’s academy classes, we watched a high speed chase from the officer’s car camera. The chase hit 80 MPH on two lane city roads during rush hour. It was intense for me and several times I covered my eyes because I knew the route, the stoplights, and the heavy traffic patterns.

    As we watched, I kept checking on the cop who was watching with us and who’d been behind the wheel. I swear his eyes glowed as he watched the video.

    At the end of the chase he leaps out of his vehicle and takes off on foot after a 160 lb guy who has a good head start. The cop weighed 200 lbs and was wearing 40 lbs of equipment. He tackled him. He called it hunter and prey instincts that gave him the energy and focus to take him down. Lots of high fiving after he walked back with the suspect in handcuffs.

    My question was whether his wife had seen the video.

  5. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Actually, slow motion is the correct term for what I experienced during the shootout with the bank robber. It was like someone had flipped a switch, slowing everythng down. The slow motion continued until tjhe last shot was fired.

    I, like every other officer, have been in many situations where I’ve waded into danger and thought about the consequences later. Robin’s right. After all is said and done is when your nerves reach out and slap you in the face. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “Hey, you could have gotten us killed, cowboy!”

    Oh, and like Gary, I’ve never felt ill afterward, either.

  6. Gary T
    Gary T says:

    A little shaky sometimes but never nausea. I don’t know why but I always had the ability to not get sick regardless of the circumstance. I think I saw it as a job and it was my duty to do the job, regardless. That doesn’t mean I was without feeling or compassion but I was always able to disconnect from that which made others toss their cookies. In fact, I’ve even eaten lunch at some preety nasty scenes.

    As far as second guessing a decision after the fact? I think we all have done that especially after a critical incident but again, it never physically affected me. If it was the bad guy getting hurt it didn’t bother me in the least. If it was a fellow officer or citizen I wouldn’t be happy about it but again, no physical reaction. At the scene it was always about getting the work done and moving on.

    Now, I will say there were times when it was all done and I let out with a big, “Wow, what the f***!” but again it was still a high. I can remember high fives all around. Very interesting discussion, Robin.

  7. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    Hi Gary. Thanks. And good column the other day yourself, BTW.

    No, I don’t think you’re weird. I think what you’re describing, however, might very well be a high from endorphin, much like a runner’s high? I know what you’re saying, because I’ve experienced that myself. But usually after the thrill of the chase sort of thing. I’m usually good to go until the adrenaline leaves, which is when I notice the shakiness, and on occasion the feeling of nausea. TV has it portrayed as you brush your hands off and you’re off to the next call, but there’s actually a bit of recovery time before your body is back to normal. (Which is not to say you’re out flat on your back. Just that it takes several minutes before the stress is fully recovered from.)

    I think the only time one would feel upset or worried is if a situation arose and you doubt yourself. Did you do the right thing? Could you have done it differently? I think if we’d shot the guy, this emotion would definitely come into play. Or in a situation where someone got hurt. That sort of thing. Yes? No?

  8. Gary T
    Gary T says:

    Robin, great blog, great subject. Maybe I’m just weird but after a criticle incident I was always on a high. Especially a vehicle pursuit or foot pursuit resulting in an altercation to take the suspect into custody. I think, for me anyway, it was the idea of being on the edge and knowing the extent of the danger and yet surviving it. Not only surviving it but being triumphant in the process.

    At the end of some incidents, usually after some time had passed, I would get a bit of the shakes but always felt it was the adrenalin dissipating from my body. I never felt upset or worried. Like I said, maybe I’m just weird.

  9. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    One of my friends just informed me of a TV program that was going over the very fight or flight response we were discussing, but with new studies that showed that the brain directs the response of blood to the extremities based on whether a person is going to fight or flee. If the latter, the legs get the majority. If the former, the arms. And the amazing thing is that once the brain decides, there is no turning back. If it decides on fleeing, the person will be prepped via the response system for fleeing. This is second hand, as I didn’t see the show, but I certainly found it a bit of fascinating info…

  10. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    I’ve done several, of varying degrees. Most “hostage” negotiations are usually what we term a barricaded suspect. Someone threatens to kill himself, locks himself in a room or a house, and the police are called, usually by a family member. Most often, they’re solo individuals, but on occasions, they have had someone with them that they wouldn’t release. Girlfriend, family members, etc. Sometimes the negotiating might take place via phone, and sometimes calling out through a closed door, with no phone. I’ve done a handful that were “face-to-face”, which are usually the result of an instantaneous decision on the part of a suspect to try to take control of a situation, like the guy with the knife I outlined above.

  11. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    Allison! Funny, but I see you more online than in person, and we live, what, 30 miles from each other! Good to “see” you here, too!

    Very cool about your daughter. My youngest has always wanted to be a cop. My heart sunk the first time she told me, but I never wanted to be one of those parents who discouraged a kid from a dream. So, I’ve been encouraging her to go federal as opposed to local. Reason being that there is more education required in all branches of federal. And the more educated they are, the more opportunities that they can promote, and (in my mind) the more chances they might have to fall in love with some other career along the way!

    The pros are that the world is much more used to women in law enforcement, and this is better for women. The dinosaurs and Good ol’ Boys clubs are still around, but not near as prevalent. The glass ceiling is still there, but in some areas, the glass isn’t as thick. I’d love to say that it doesn’t exist at all, but this isn’t true. And it’s not just in law enforcement. I’m sure you saw this at the various levels when you worked for the state.

    One of the biggest problems that manifests itself as a result (in law enforcement) is that some women tend to overcompensate. They might think they have to be meaner, tougher, stronger. I am about the girliest girl I know. I cry. I cry in front of the guys. I hate that, but it’s me. But being me was also one of my biggest strengths. Compassion goes a long way, and I was not seen as a threat to a lot of the suspects on the street, which meant there weren’t a lot of physical fights. I could talk a guy into handcuffs, had to, because I didn’t have the brawn, so I had to use my brains.

  12. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    Perhaps slow motion isn’t the right term. I’ve been in a couple serious accidents, one at 105 mph, during a high speed pursuit. I remember it all as well. I think it’s more the perception of what is happening. The feeling that it is slower, as your brain becomes sharper to deal with what is happening. It’s hard to be slow motion when you’re hurtling down the freeway at warp speed. But I can clearly remember certain thoughts in my head. Two especially: “Is my seatbelt on? Yes. Thank you, God.” This was just before impact. Now, granted, I was going 105, and by this time, I was slamming on the brakes, so you have to figure that maybe it was closer to 75 on impact. But to get out two complete thoughts in that time sort of figures into my time-fragmented theory. Under normal circumstances we can’t act so quickly. Under fight or flight, we react quicker, a la Matrix.

    Hey, I’m severely caffeine deprived right now, so I hop that makes sense.

    As for I-hate-female-officer types, unfortunately there are still some out there. Not as many, thank goodness, but still there nonetheless.

  13. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    Hi Robin! Fancy meeting you here, LOL. Great post, and valuable information for those of us without your training and expertise to learn something. I’ve had to cut scenes that didn’t move the story forward. Very sad, especially when it’s something you love . . . but you know what they say, “Kill your darlings.”

    I’m also interested in SZ’s question about female cops, pros and cons (from a female perspective.) My oldest daughter wants to go into law enforcement (either local or federal) so I’m trying to gather a lot of information for her (as well as my books!)

    Thanks for being here 🙂

  14. SZ
    SZ says:

    Interesting post. Lee mentions this slow motionness when he dealt with a robber. I had a car accident last year. I remember everything. It did not feel slow motion, but it did seem I had plenty of reaction time. In the new melinium, do you really deal with I-hate-female-officer types ?

  15. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    Thanks, Joyce.

    This is very common, to see officers refuse to show their feelings. It’s also one of the reasons that many departments have gone to mandatory psych counseling after shootings or other major incidents, especially where someone takes a life.

    What they didn’t realize back then is that unless the stress of the incident is defused, this is what leads to further problems down the line. The PTSD, high blood pressure, heart attacks. But there’s also evidence that cumulative stress is just as bad, that it isn’t all about the major stress from only big incidents, but the totality of the stress that occurs over time. And women are better at releasing it, whether they cry, or go home and vent, or deal with it fictionally as in my case. Guys, I’ve noticed, tend to hold it in. It may very well be a peer pressure thing. Not being a guy, I can’t say for sure…

  16. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Hi Robin! Nice to see you here!

    This is a great post. One thing I’ve noticed is that after a fight-or-flight type incident, most officers (male officers, anyway) are reluctant to admit that they’re anything but fine. They might be shaking in their shoes, but they’re not going to let anyone–especially their co-workers–see it. Have you noticed that as well?

    Great photo of you, too!

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