After The Shooting

Perhaps one of the most intensive areas of training law…

Perhaps one of the most intensive areas of training law enforcement officers endure is that of firearms training.  We’re trained in the proper implementation of tactics in hopes of avoiding an armed confrontation, basic marksmanship, gun handling skills, use of cover, movement, alternate sighting techniques- and if we’re really lucky- perhaps some interactive exercises, involving a F.A.T.S (Firearms Training Simulator) system or Simunition training.

One thing, for which most of us receive little, if any instruction is how to deal with the aftermath of a shooting, be it psychologically, procedurally, or legally.

First, if you’ve invested the time, training and reflection to do your best in preparation for an armed confrontation, you will have become as proficient with your weapons and tactics as your potential allows, and will have pondered the moral implications of self defense and the defense of others.  You’ll have come to the conclusion that you’re fully capable and willing to use weapons decisively in a situation that calls for it, morally, legally, and according to your agency’s policies.  If you haven’t as of yet, you need to deeply involve yourself in some soul searching; if you aren’t able to act resolutely when the moment of truth comes, you’re endangering yourself, your fellow officers, and those who depend upon your protection, and need to reconsider if this profession is for you.  The time for deciding that you will shoot to stay alive is before you set foot on the streets; if you wait until that moment to make that choice, you may be unable to do so in an unfolding split-second, violent, and dynamic situation.  The results could be fatal.

We’re (In general) an idealistic lot who took the job to help people; thus, hurting or killing a human being in the process of stopping a threat doesn’t come natural.  That is the reason for the introspection and contemplation that must be undertaken in preparation for such grave circumstances.

That said, if you’ve arrived at the proper mindset prior to an armed confrontation, there is at least some chance that you will be able to adjust and cope with the experience.

Others will experience difficulties, stemming from guilt or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome Disorder (PTSD).  The guilt will often be a result of the aforementioned fact that shooting someone is not a natural act, and conflicts with our ideals as helpers of people.  Sometimes, guilt will arise from the fact that society, and especially the media, create a conceptual expectation that we should feel intensely guilty about such an act when, in fact, many officers feel a sense of relief and joy at having done the right thing and survived the encounter.  When these officers fail to feel “guilt,” they, in effect, may experience a resultant “reverse” sense of guilt.  Again, having made peace with the idea of acting decisively in the face of deadly circumstances will help to insulate and inoculate against these inappropriate feelings of guilt.

The stress induced by the “fight or flight” syndrome experienced during a deadly encounter may have profound immediate effects.  Defecation or urination during the ordeal is not uncommon.  Dry mouth, shakiness, high heart rate, anxiousness and sleeplessness may persist for hours after the incident.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may elicit extreme reactions to stimuli and situations that trigger an officer to recall or re-live the incident.  A common example of this would be the soldier or officer who dives for cover at the sound of fireworks or a vehicle back-firing.  The good news is that simply having the knowledge that all of these things are normal responses will help you to get through the experience, and the doctors who treat such disorders are very good at what they do now days.  Doctors can teach us how to control breathing to disconnect the stimulus or experience from the sensation, can recognize PTSD much earlier, and treat it very successfully.

We need to get away from the time-honored perceptions and traditions of the profession that real men or women don’t  need “shrinks” or any other form of help, other than alcohol, which can become a huge pitfall in an of itself in the cases in which we try to self-medicate.  When you have the flu, you see a doctor.  It’s the same with PTSD, and there’s no shame or weakness in it.

What the Department Can Do
There are a number of common practices, both by command staff and individual officers which bear examination.  Just because we’ve “always done it that way,” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way.  Consider that in many agencies, common routine at the scene of a shooting may involve taking the involved officer’s sidearm, and sequestering him/her to the back seat of a patrol car.  Obviously, there are reasons behind these actions; the weapon is needed for evidence and investigation as a matter of course, and the officer may be placed in a patrol car to protect him/her from the press or upset friends/family members, or to control potential conversations about the shooting with non-investigatory officers; however, the psychological impacts of such actions may be critical.

Relieving an officer of his/her duty gun may be interpreted- even if only subconsciously- as implying that the officer cannot be trusted with the weapon, has done wrong, or is being stripped of his/her authority.  An officer depends upon the firearm to defend life, and that emotional dependence is likely to be heightened directly after an armed confrontation.  This can be avoided by simply having another officer bring a replacement issue weapon to the scene to be exchanged with the fired weapon; if the situation doesn’t allow, any officer present, if not the supervisor him/herself, may volunteer to substitute their back up weapon for that of the involved officer’s.  The act is mostly symbolic, but powerful, nonetheless.

Putting an officer in the back seat of a patrol car can be equally, if not more emotionally damaging in its inferences.  The back seat is where we put prisoners, and scumbag criminals. Taking the officer to another nearby area, a detective’s front seat, or even the front seat of another patrol car is a much better solution.

Similarly, interviewing the officer in an interrogation room may have the same effect.  The interrogation room is normally where criminals and suspects are questioned, and are designed to “close in” on the person being grilled.  Try to conduct such an interview in an office if possible.  Set up a camcorder on a tripod if necessary, but keep the officer out of an interview room.

Rank and file officers have a way of saying the wrong thing to one of their own who has been involved in a shooting, even when they mean well.  Resist the temptation for the slap on the back and the “Great going, you got the SOB!” or, conversely, something along the lines of “That’s a terrible thing you had to do.”  If you feel the need to say something, be supportive, without attaching a moral assessment: A hand on the shoulder and “You did your job.” is sympathetic and unlikely to cause second-guessing by the officer.

Support groups or “teams” of other officers who’ve survived the same sort of encounters are becoming more and more common these days.  These officers will visit when appropriate, and offer moral support, and an outlet to talk to others who have “been there.”  If your department doesn’t have one, forming one, finding a neighboring agency that does, or having another cop who’s experienced the same thing contact the involved officer is a good idea.  They should offer support or a listening ear, and not be assertive.

Also be prepared for potential legal battles after the smoke clears.  Know that you may face a second fight for preservation in the courtroom.

Lastly, ignore the press.  They have ratings and controversy at heart, not your well-being, or even necessarily the truth.  You did your job, and that’s all that matters.

Load Comments
  • Jason

    Credit where credit is due: this is directly from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat. It’s an excellent, must read.