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How to Cope with a Shooting

The aftermath of an officer-involved shooting can consume some officers. But those who are prepared for it have a better chance of staying healthy and effective.

July 01, 2006  |  by - Also by this author

One of the most stressful episodes an officer can face during his or her career is making the decision to shoot and dealing with the aftermath. Officer-involved shootings spawn a variety of questions, and many of them may be unanswerable.

• If only one officer fired, then why did he fire?

• If several officers fired, then why weren’t they trained to avoid contagion fire?

• If the suspect was hit multiple times, then why the overkill?

• If an officer failed to make an effective shot, then why’d he allow the suspect to kill innocents?

Welcome to the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” world of officer-involved shootings.

Prepare for the Worst

An officer’s ability to deal with a shooting is directly affected by how well he prepares for one. From day one of the academy, an officer is conditioned to expect the unexpected, to learn to anticipate threats and respond to them quickly and decisively. He is tutored in a variety of weaponry, put through the rigors of physical training, and taught officer-survival tactics. Many agencies even include simulator shoot/don’t shoot scenarios in their academy training curricula.

Still, some of the more unpleasant aspects of the job can be glossed over during academy training. The need to make death notifications and the less savory aspects of “check the welfare” calls are two examples. How to deal with the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting is another.

In the real world of law enforcement, informal training in dealing with shootings is often provided during windshield conferences and BS sessions over coffee. Officers hear and see what their peers have gone through and file it away for future reference.

Sometimes valuable lessons can be learned from officers who have been there. But some of their stories can be inhibiting. Cautionary parables abound of officers who seemingly did the right thing, but were nonetheless sued, fired, and/or prosecuted. Because of this, many officers go above and beyond the call of duty to mitigate the use of deadly force, sometimes to their personal detriment. Others simply make it a point to place all of their ducks in a row and let the chips fall where they may.

No matter how prepared you are for a shooting, it’s likely that you’re not prepared for the second-guessing, the condemnation, and the accusations that may follow.

Even the most justifiable of officer-involved shootings can be controversial. Self-proclaimed community activists seemingly materialize overnight, and the news media can be counted upon to add fuel to the fire. And should an officer who’s just fought for his or her life celebrate a little natural joie de vivre for having come out on top, he or she had better hope the media isn’t there to capture the moment.

Academic Research

David Klinger is the author of “Into the Kill Zone: a Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force” and an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He’s also a former cop who had to kill a man his first year on duty with the Los Angeles Police Department. In recent years, he has studied hundreds of officer-involved shootings. His findings have, at times, been surprising.

“Guys who you would think wouldn’t have a difficult time dealing with the shooting such as longtime SWAT officers can sometimes have difficulties in the aftermath of the shooting,” Klinger says. “Conversely, officers who are new to the job oftentimes feel quite comfortable with how they handled the shooting.”

This might be understandable. The SWAT officer is often a veteran who has done his time on patrol and elsewhere, and therefore has a solid law enforcement background. He is often more accomplished on the range and has a broader tactical background. As such, he may be more readily apt to Monday morning quarterback his decisions and actions than an officer new to the job. Having been steeped in debriefing crisis situations, learning from mistakes, and always looking to perform better in the future, it is understandable that he might ask an inordinate amount of “should I have done this?” questions.

Klinger says the data is lacking when it comes to designing a viable personality profile to determine which officers are most at risk in dealing with the aftermath of a shooting. Nevertheless, in the absence of such a profile there are other factors that can mitigate the likelihood of an officer experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. They include:

• Support from peers

• Support through the agency’s chain of command

• Support from the organization

• Support from significant others, such as the officer’s family and friends

• The absence of litigation

Klinger’s research has shown that there are myriad concerns that an officer can have in the aftermath of a shooting. Three of the more common questions an officer asks himself include:

• Am I going to be OK in terms of administrative and legal issues?

• How is my family going to react?

• How am I going to do?

In contemplating these and other concerns, a kind of anticipatory anxiety can emerge. In the best case scenario, these questions can still emerge. Less clear-cut circumstances can only exacerbate this frame of mind. There are demonstrative differences between shooting a sniper and killing a suicidal person who has confronted an officer with a toy or nonfunctioning firearm. In such cases, officers will often express anger toward the victim. A common theme emerges: “Why did the son of a bitch force me to kill him? I didn’t sign up for this.”

Klinger reports that the most common physical responses following a shooting are trouble sleeping, fatigue, crying, and appetite loss. The most common emotional responses include recurrent thoughts, anxiety, fear of legal or administrative problems, elation, and sadness. These responses typically diminish over time, and few officers suffer long-term negative effects following a shooting.

Danger Signs

To promote the healing process, officers, their peers, and loved ones should be sensitive to signals that indicate an officer’s inability to deal with the aftermath of the shooting. While a majority of the time an officer can deal with the shooting with minimal disruption to his personal and professional lives, there are behavioral red flags to watch out for.

Out-of-character behavior is a major red flag. The hard-charger stops charging; the laid-back functionary suddenly becomes Dirty Harry. The carouser becomes a homebody; the family guy starts binge drinking with his buddies after hours. There may be increases in the use of sick time or uses of force, while productivity continues to spiral downward. Some officers will become extremely reticent to precipitate a violent confrontation.

Officer Philip Bozarth of the San Diego Police Department was a hard-charger, who in the aftermath of a 1998 shooting found himself suddenly downshifting. (For Bozarth’s story, see “Shots Fired” in the March 2006 issue of Police.)

“It didn’t last long,” Bozarth says. “But I definitely was aware of the sudden loss of the usual drive to go out and stop bad guys and make arrests.”

In Bozarth’s case, comparing notes with fellow officers and a deep and abiding faith in God helped smooth things out with relative ease. In a matter of months, he was back to feeling like himself.

Support Mechanisms

Be it faith or fellowship, Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a behavioral scientist who specializes in law enforcement, emphasizes the need for law enforcement officers to have support mechanisms in place prior to being involved in a shooting.

Citing recent studies that indicate some individuals are genetically predisposed to developing post-traumatic stress disorder, Artwohl believes that the stereotype of officers who have an inordinate degree of difficulty in dealing with the aftermath of shootings is largely a myth. She finds it analogous to the belief that officers have higher suicide rates than other occupations: The numbers simply don’t jibe.

Artwohl cites a study co-authored by Dr. Steven Sultan and Dr. Audrey Honig that focused on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The study profiled 982 officers who were involved in 430 separate incidents, and Honig and Sultan concluded that a vast majority of the time officers did not experience an inordinate amount of psychological problems in coping with their shootings. In fact, only one officer required a medical retirement as a direct result of his being involved in a shooting.

According to Artwohl, the officers most apt to be traumatized by events are those who have not prepared themselves psychologically. “Some officers have an ‘It’s not going to happen to me’ attitude,” she says. “When it does, this mindset can be crippling. These officers are not bad people; they’re just in the wrong profession. They are less proficient in dealing with violence, whether they are the victims or perpetrators. These officers need to ask themselves some fundamental questions ahead of time: Am I mentally, spiritually, and morally capable of dealing with such a situation? If the answer to any of these questions is a ‘no,’ they need to remove themselves from a work environment wherein they can get themselves or somebody else killed.”

For many officers, stress inoculation training does for emotional pre-conditioning what SIMS training does for the tactical mindset: It provides a means for officers to evaluate their responses to specific stress-inducing events, including shootings.

Artwohl also encourages everyday debriefing practices, whether they be incident to calls, traffic stops, or pedestrian contacts. Officers need to ask themselves, “What did I learn?” and “How can I do it better?” This constant feedback allows officers to understand their capabilities and limitations even as they expand them.

Tags: How-To Guides, Officer Involved Shootings, Handling Stress


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

jim @ 5/3/2012 5:03 PM

Was in an officer involved shooting in 2007. Was seen briefly afterward by a doctor. Doctor stated the worker comp insurance ran out, and refused to treat me any further.

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