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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

Professional Help

Most agencies offer counseling; some even mandate it in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting. Artwohl encourages officers to take advantage of such counseling, but she stresses that they also need to have a clear-cut impression of the doctor’s scope of interest and responsibilities.

The primary determining factor in whether officers derive any counseling benefit is the counselor’s expertise. Officers have an intuitive sense of a counselor’s trustworthiness, confidence, and familiarity with police work.

Many of the officers that Artwohl has worked with have expressed a lack of faith in their counseling. Some 80 percent felt that the counselors were not competent; others did not believe that their sessions were strictly confidential.

Artwohl recommends that prior to answering any questions an officer pose some to the counselor.

• What is the specific purpose for the counseling?

• Is the session, in fact, a fitness for duty examination?

• What is the counselor’s relationship with the agency?

• What will the counselor report to that agency?

• What is deemed confidential, and what obligates reporting to the employing agency?

Artwohl advises that officers should get the answers to these questions in writing if possible. She adds that officers should “Keep the psychological debriefing and fitness for duty sessions separate.”

By taking such advice to heart, officers can return to work reloaded and ready to do the job, even if the job requires them to shoot again.

The Physical and Mental Effects of a Shooting

Officers involved in a shooting commonly experience some of the following physical and mental reactions.

• Trouble sleeping
• Fatigue
• Crying
• Appetite loss
• Recurrent thoughts
• Anxiety
• Fear of legal or administrative problems
• Elation
• Sadness

These responses typically diminish over time, and few officers suffer long-term negative effects following a shooting.

Question Your Counselor

Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a behavioral scientist who specializes in law enforcement issues, recommends that officers who are involved in shootings avail themselves of counseling provided by their agencies.

But she also advises that prior to answering any questions an officer should pose some questions to the counselor. Good questions to ask your counselor include:

• What is the purpose for the counseling?
• Is it, in fact, a fitness for duty examination?
• What is the counselor’s relationship with the agency?
• What will the counselor report to that agency?
• What is deemed confidential, and what obligates reporting to the employing agency?

Artwohl says officers should get the answers to these questions in writing if possible. She adds that officers should “Keep the psychological debriefing and fitness for duty sessions separate.”

How to Help a Fellow Cop Who’s Been in a Shooting

The following is reprinted with permission from “On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. It was inspired by the recommendations of Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a behavioral scientist who works with law enforcement officers.

Here is how cops can best support their fellow officers after a critical incident.

Initiate contact in the form of a phone call or a note to let the person know you are concerned and available for support or help. Say, “Hey, I’m just glad you’re OK…” If the spouse answers the telephone, respect that person’s decision regarding whether to let the traumatized person talk to you.

If the person lives alone, offer to stay with him the first few days after the traumatic event. If you cannot stay, help find another friend who can.

Let the person decide how much contact he or she wants to have with you. He may be overwhelmed with phone calls, and it could take a while for him to return your call. Understand that he may want some “down time” with minimal interruptions.

Do not ask for an account of the incident, but let him know you are willing to listen to whatever he wants to talk about. People often get tired of repeating the story, and they find curiosity seekers distasteful.

Ask questions that show support and acceptance such as, “How are you doing?” and, “Is there anything I can do to help you or your family?”

Accept the person’s reaction to his event as normal for him and avoid suggesting how he should be feeling. Remember that people have a wide range of reactions to different traumatic incidents.

Apply nonjudgmental listening. Monitor your facial expressions and simply nod your head at whatever he tells you.

Do feel free to offer a brief sharing of a similar experience you had to help him feel like he is not alone and that you understand what he’s been through. This is not the time, however, to work on your own trauma issues. If your friend’s event triggers emotions in you, find someone else to talk to who can offer you support.

Do not encourage the use of alcohol. If you go out, drink decaffeinated beverages, not coffee and not alcohol. In the aftermath of trauma, it is best for people to avoid all use of alcohol for a few weeks so they can process what has happened to them with a clear head and with true feelings. For some, drinking coffee immediately after the incident may not be a good idea because it stimulates an already stimulated system.

Do not call him “killer” or “terminator” (even as a joke) or make lighthearted comments about his actions. Even your best buddy, who you often banter with and tease, may find such comments offensive.

Although you are likely to find yourself second-guessing your friend’s actions, keep your comments to yourself. Your words have a way of getting back to him and might do additional harm as he struggles to recover. Besides, your second-guesses are usually wrong anyway.

Do encourage him to take care of himself. Be supportive of his need to take time off work and encourage him to participate in debriefing procedures and professional counseling. Support him by going to the right people to talk with them about what your friend is experiencing.

Do confront him gently with his negative behavioral or emotional changes, especially if they persist longer than one month. Encourage him to seek professional help.

Do not refer to a person having psychological problems as a “mental” or other derogatory term. Stigmatizing someone might encourage him to deny his psychological injury and prevent him from seeking out the help that he needs.

Educate yourself about trauma reactions by reading about them or consulting someone who knows the topic. “On Combat,” “On Killing,” and “Deadly Force Encounters” are some of the books that will help educate you about trauma.

The person wants to return to normal as soon as possible. When he comes back to the job, do not pretend that the event didn’t happen, and do not avoid him, treat him as fragile, or otherwise drastically change your behavior toward him. Treat him like you have always treated him.

Remember, when in doubt about what to say to a fellow officer who has been involved in a shooting, just tell him, “I’m glad you’re OK.”

Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He writes about officer-involved shootings in every issue of Police.

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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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