In this special series we will explore the topic of post-shooting survival through excerpts from a powerful chapter of the same name in Calibre Press’s bestselling book, Street Survival II: Tactics for Deadly Force Encounters. We begin by taking a look at some of the emotional issues that may churn in the wake of a shooting and responses some officers have experienced.
The long-term psychological effect of a gunfight can have as much of an impact on an officer as a bullet. The emotional damage may be felt the instant the shooting is over. You may burst into tears, throw up, wet your pants, lose control of your bowels, or shake so badly you have to holster your weapon. Then again, you may do none of that.
The weight of the moment may not be felt immediately. The greatest impact may occur days, weeks, even months after the shooting with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. You may react to and even relive the experience, your mind and emotions churning over and over on what you and others did and what you might or should have done differently. This continual reminding and reassessing can be nearly as vivid as the original event, and just as psychologically upsetting. A truly significant event such as shooting at another human being may permanently change your personality and therefore your life unless you are fully prepared to respond appropriately.
Tennessee Shootout: Tactical Win but an Emotional Loss
A classic illustration of PTSD occurred in Tennessee to a 33-year-old officer. One bleak winter night he was on a stakeout in the back room of a liquor store, hoping to apprehend a team of robbers who had been knocking over late-night businesses with aggravating regularity. As he watched, two men entered the store and announced a hold-up. When one suspect pistol-whipped the storekeeper, the officer called for the suspects to surrender while leveling his shotgun at the offenders.
The officer explained what happened next. “The guy with the pistol turned and started to aim at me. That was when I cut loose on him. I had to do it. It was either him or me and the manager.” The suspect was killed instantly. “The other robber hesitated for a moment and I begged him to give up. I said, ‘Please don’t run or I’ll have to kill you.’ He ran and I shot him just as he went through the door.”
This suspect didn’t die until nearly 30 minutes later. As his life ebbed away, the officer could hear him gasping for breath. “If you ever have to kill a man,” he told fellow officers later, “never look at his face.” A few days after the shooting, the officer’s friend’s gave him a fifth of whiskey in “celebration.” Over the label, they’d posted a police photo of one of the dead bandits sprawled on the liquor store floor. The well-intentioned gesture did not help the officer one bit.
At the time of the shootings, as a psychologist later testified, the officer was a “stable, hard-working family-oriented type of fellow with a good circle of friends.” The aftermath brought on “very severe anxiety and depressive neurosis, insomnia, and a lack of concentration.”
He relived the killings night after night in his dreams. Within six months he had become an alcoholic. Eventually, his wife left him because she could no longer tolerate the changes in his personality. Six years after the incident, the police department fired him because his uncontrollable drinking had made him unsuitable for duty. He was unable to hold another job. In effect, his life was in ruins.
Finally, eight years after the shootings, his city’s pension board awarded the ex-officer an annual lifetime disability pension for psychological injuries. Legally, this settlement would be considered a win by some. In reality it was compensation due for the devastating emotional loss this officer endured.
If your department has a psychologist or other therapist available or if you have independent access to one, many officers who have been previously involved in a shooting strongly recommend that you meet with him or her as soon as possible after the shooting. This does not mean you must undertake a long psychiatric ordeal. Often, he/she can help you restore your psychological equilibrium in one or more sessions. Even with sympathetic supervisors and fellow officers, you may not be able to resolve your emotional turmoil on your own.
In most cases, departments make counseling available after a shooting. If you have chosen not to seek out available counseling, here are some indicators you may still need some help:
Hyperactivity. Is your mood unusually elevated? Have you turned into a non-stop talker? Are you unnaturally happy-go-lucky?
Preoccupation. Is it hard for people to get your attention? Have you become unfriendly and withdrawn?
Physical symptoms. Is sickness, tardiness or forgetfulness affecting your work performance?
Personal care. Have you become sloppy in your dress and grooming? Are you suddenly accident prone?
Disturbed sleep. Do you have insomnia? Do you experience nightmares that return again and again?
Indicators that you may be experiencing more than a temporary funk and sinking into a state of depression are:
– Persistent sad, anxious or empty feelings.
– Feeling of hopelessness or pessimism.
– Irritability or restlessness.
– Loss of interest in activities or hobbies you once found pleasurable, including sex.
– Preoccupation and dependence on alcohol and/or prescription drugs.
– Participating in risky and perhaps immoral behavior.
– Fatigue and decreased energy.
– Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions.
– Insomnia, early morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping.
– Overeating or appetite loss.
– Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts.
– Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease with treatment.
– Moods swings.
– Changes in motivation or getting things done.
These and other disturbances in your normal patterns are symptoms that can be more easily treated if acknowledged quickly rather than ignored. If ignored, however, your mental state is likely to get progressively worse. Help is widely available and all you need do is ask. There is no more dishonor in asking for treatment for an emotional wound received in the line of duty than there is for seeking treatment for a physical wound.
For more on this, we strongly recommend you read a previous Calibre Press newsletter article, A Cop’s Candid Story: Confronting Anxiety and Depression.
NEXT: More insights into elements associated with post-shooting survival, including how your shooting may impact not just you, but your family as well.
Feedback or thoughts to input to share? E-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hailed by tens of thousands of officers as the most iconic, relevant and life-saving training guide in law enforcement history!
382 pgs., 19 chapters, Available in both soft cover and hard cover.
1. Preparation for Confrontation
2. Approach to Danger: People
3. Approach to Danger: Buildings
4. Approach to Danger: Vehicles
5. Shooting Positions
6. Cover Awareness
7. Reloading Under Fire
8. Final Approach and Subject Control
9. Post Shooting Survival
10. Deadly Force: Know the Law!
11. Communication During Force Encounters
12. Danger Cues and Pre-Attack Indicators
13. In the Fight: Stress, Surprise and Performance
14. Engaging and Defeating the Active Shooter/Killer
15. Edged Weapons
16. Lights and Lasers
17. Firearms Discipline
18. Protective Equipment
19. Fitness in Law Enforcement
Final thoughts: Guardian or Warrior?