“Look how bad he’s hit!” Don’t Contribute to an Injured Officer’s Trauma.

August 12, 2020

During an iconic study into assaults on police officers, FBI researchers focused on 52 municipal, county, state and federal officers who survived shootings and other serious attacks. Not surprisingly, they found that it’s often difficult for the injured officers to keep focused on a positive outcome. Somewhat surprisingly, though, they found that the people who are supposed to be helping them sometimes unwittingly sabotage their determination to survive.

In interviews with the researchers, several wounded officers recalled making a conscious effort to remain calm immediately after their assault to help prevent their blood pressure from fluctuating wildly and worsening their situation. In the midst of these efforts, however, there were instances where the response fellow officers and emergency medical personnel had to their injuries actually elevated their stress levels. In one case, the study cites the example of EMS workers who “became agitated when they realized they knew the victim officer.” One technician excitedly exclaimed within earshot of the officer: “Oh my God. Look how bad he’s hit!” Not helpful.

In another case, during transport to the hospital a supervisor removed the wounded officer’s badge from his uniform shirt, “a gesture which the victim mentally translated into the statement, ‘They don’t send bodies to the morgue with their badges on.’”

Later, that same officer recalled noticing EMTs whispering amongst themselves, which he took as “yet another indicator of the precariousness of his condition.” Despairingly, the researchers reported, he told the medics, “It’s alright, you can talk out loud. I know I’m going to die.”

Fortunately, he didn’t but his commitment to survive was not aided by unaware personnel whose “actions speak loudly and can greatly impact the psychological condition” of an officer fighting to overcome the gravity of his wounds.

Away from the scene of the injury, some officers reported “secondary assaults” that impacted their emotional well-being. The researchers found that while recuperating in the hospital, 17% of the officers studied received no “official” visit from top department leaders. “The officers were not necessarily looking for the chief to tell them what they did was correct or incorrect,” the researchers explain. “What they did want, and did not receive, was the moral support of the chief commanding officer.”

The study also found that instead of helping, some well-intentioned departmental briefings of an assault leave the injured officers psychologically adrift. Several of the officers in the study felt that the so-called “formal departmental briefings” about their incidents were so limited “they did not feel that they had the opportunity to express their distress and anger that in their perception they had been injured because either faulty procedures were followed or mistakes were made by others officers on the scene.”

In one instance, a departmental briefing took place without two of the involved officers being present because they were still hospitalized. Having missed the chance to discuss the assault in that forum, the officers never ended up communicating with each other about how they felt about the attack. Even years later, both officers told the researchers “there remains no closure of that incident” and each officer still wonders what the other thinks about “how it all came down.”

Not surprisingly, the news media can also contribute to a wounded officer’s post-traumatic stress. One interesting angle that surfaced during the research concerned sets of partner officers who were released from the hospital and sent home at different times. “In each case, the release of the first officer was covered by the news media and received a significant amount of community attention. The initial release was described as ‘a parade down Main Street.’ Within several weeks of their partner’s release, the second officers were released. Their recovery was no longer ‘fresh news’ and received no media coverage.”

The second officers didn’t express resentment over this, but they did wonder why their partners were “celebrated and congratulated by the local community” and they were not, even though their injuries, arguably, were more severe.

Perhaps the most surprising of the study’s post-trauma findings is the extent to which wounded officers felt a lack of support from their families after an assault.

Of the officers who were married or attached to a significant other at the time of the assault, “less than half reported that they felt they had received support from their families.” A real and immediate threat on an officer’s life constitutes “one of the most severe traumas” a person can experience. Yet often assault victims’ “support systems fail them following the incident.”

Some of those studied felt that incorporating the spouse or other significant parties, such as children, into post-incident counseling would have helped. “However, this was oftentimes not done.” What did commonly occur were “strained relationships” with marriage partners, kids and friends. 15% of the studied officers experienced a “dramatic change” within their family involving conflict with their spouse or significant other and, in one case, divorce.

Authorities on police trauma have reported that officers in critical incidents are “not always aware of, or choose not to talk about, the negative effects of the incidents on them.” Meanwhile, other people, including spouses, may notice “significant changes in the officers’ behavior and lifestyle.” That disparity may contribute to the family stresses reported by officers in the FBI study.

Despite emotional stresses from many quarters after an assault, most of the officers studied reported that good physical conditioning coupled with a “positive psychological predisposition” helped them fight their way to eventual recovery. More than one third specifically credited a “street survival mental disposition” with helping them survive.

The bottom line of post-traumatic effects is this: A violent assault is just a beginning. The struggle to survive continues immediately afterwards and through a period of convalescence as well. As the report puts it: “It is the responsibility of the law enforcement agency” and others closely involved “to meet the needs of victim officers” as they fight their way to recovery.


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