Continuing with our special series from a chapter in Calibre Press’s bestselling book Street Survival II: Tactics for Deadly Force Encounters titled, “Post Shooting Survival”
The comments and opinions of others after a shooting can have an impact on the involved officer/s. One thing you desperately need at this point is empathy and understanding from others about how you feel. But if you’re someone who’s not actively in touch with your emotions, you may not even recognize or acknowledge how you’re feeling. Many officers fall into this category. The last time they had a feeling they would admit to was back in their senior year of college. They can’t admit to themselves that they are at all upset, much less ask anyone else to listen to them or to share their emotions.
Even if you want to communicate openly about your emotions, you may have trouble doing so. Your fellow officers may be lionizing you for what you feel so bad or ambivalent about. They’re likely to come to you with comments like, “Great job! Another one bites the dust!” or “Well, kid, now you’re a man!” or “You only shot him once? Why didn’t you empty your gun into him? I would have!”
Command-level personnel in your department may be unapproachable or more concerned with bureaucratic technicalities than your personal crises. Friends outside the department may be both fascinated and repulsed by your use of deadly force. People you don’t even know and have no appreciation of the circumstances or of the amount of terror involved in a shoot-out may add to your inner turbulence by writing blistering letters to the editor condemning what you did or editorializing that you should have “shot the gun out of his hand.” You may make the mistake of reading the comments of cop-hating trolls on the Internet.
It is not uncommon for the media to forget who the good guy/gal is and begin reporting as though the suspect who tried to kill you was a victim. Shame on them, but that’s what they do. You may wind up feeling alone, shaky, and somehow threatened. Some officers try to block out, discount or repress what happened in the strongest possible terms. Some start drinking. Some show their turmoil by doing little crazy things like locking the keys in the patrol car or forgetting roll call or coming in for a shift they’re not on. They may become angry over nothing. Unless these officers recognize their behavioral abnormalities, they can develop full-fledged PTSD if not managed properly.
Stages and Passages
Reactions differ, of course, with individual personalities but psychologists have identified certain stages or passages that officers commonly go through after they’ve killed or seriously injured a suspect.
At the scene of the shooting you may experience a sense of depersonalization (“This isn’t happening to me”) or puzzlement (“What’s all the fuse about?”) along with physical excitation. Eventually, reality hits. This may happen to you soon if your defenses are rather permeable. You’re likely going to enter a sober period in which you feel very disturbed, shaken or thoughtful. You may develop an urge to make up for what you have done, to express your regret, or apologize in some demonstrative way. Officers might attend the suspect’s funeral, either in disguise or under the pretext of looking for clues or other offenders. Consciously or subconsciously, they may see this as a way of saying, “I’m sorry for what happened.”
You may try to belittle the incident by claiming, “It’s no big deal.” While this may allow you to avoid an obvious negative reaction at the onset, your denial that anything extraordinary has occurred may, in fact, only delay the inevitable impact. As time passes, you may develop seemingly unrelated symptoms that really stem from your deeply buried psychological turmoil, such as headaches, backaches, stomach problems, jittery nerves, absent-mindedness, a short temper or flashes of inappropriate anger. Some officers experience nightmares or repeatedly wake in the night in an inexplicable panic.
If you do not sit down and acknowledge that a serious event has occurred and decide that you are going to do something about it early on, then the effects can escalate into full-blown psychiatric problems.
After the shooting, a full investigation will occur. In some jurisdictions, this may be the first officer-involved shooting in decades, which may result in some ham-handed moves by the agencies’ administrators and investigators.
Whether the investigation is conducted in-house or by an outside agency, the process will be the same as any homicide investigation. Evidence will be gathered, reports will be required, command-level personnel will be involved. You will be under scrutiny and the press may treat you as a suspect. Some ill-tempered investigators may treat you as a suspect as well.
Some officers will be unable to keep all this pressure and their own emotions about the shooting in perspective and may become genuinely paranoid. They might believe they’re being unnaturally watched or picked on. They may experience flashbacks or see someone in a crowd who looks like the suspect they shot. Or they talk about feeling cursed, or of “people looking in my eyes and knowing I have killed someone.” Some become obsessive.
Officers who develop mental problems describe themselves as feeling enveloped by a black cloud. They feel bad—angry, depressed, bummed out, and sick, though not with any specific disease. All are symptoms of an extreme anxiety reaction.
Too many officers deal with their psychological wounds by resigning from law enforcement. Others manage to hold themselves together through one shooting experience then tell themselves, “I’m never going to pull this gun again.” This is a dangerous attitude for the officer and everyone around them.
In contrast, some officers can emerge from a shooting incident stronger than they were before if they’re able to shepherd themselves through the trauma in mentally healthy ways. A serious shooting tends to be a watershed experience; your life is changed one way or another, for better or for worse. Of course, no one invites a shooting as a means of self-improvement, but given that it has occurred you need to be able to go one from it. You may mature in ways you could never have imagined. You may emerge with a new and more realistic perspective of how serious police work really is. You may find yourself wanting to help fellow officers become more aware of its dangers, difficulties, and heavy responsibilities. All this reflects your ability to deal with one of your job’s least pleasant demands in a positive emotional way.
Your healthy recovery from a shooting experience begins with mental preconditioning. If you’re like most officers, you naturally hope that firing your weapon at another human being will never be necessary. But to assume that will be the case through your entire career is a risky mindset. If you think that way and a shooting does occur, the shock wave that follows will be all the more severe.
You’ll be better prepared if you spent some time seriously evaluating your job and its responsibilities. Some officers openly say, “I hope I never have to shoot someone.” But the possibility of deadly force is omnipresent and should be acknowledged. A better mindset is, “I have the skills to save an endangered life and if there is a life endangered, I hope I am there to make a difference.”
You should spend some time doing some serious soul-searching. In meditative, introspective moments, picture yourself in a situation where you have to use deadly force and ask yourself, “Can I do it?” If you honestly feel the answer is no, then getting out of police work would be a courageous decision that you should make. Your mental attitude makes you potentially dangerous to yourself, your fellow officers, and the civilians you are sworn to protect.
Lt. Jim Glennon, who co-authored Street Survival II, shared the following:
A rookie cop still on probation who worked for me had just such an epiphany. While chasing an armed suspect who fled from a stolen car, his FTO pulled a rifle from the rack and handed it to the young man. Positioning the rookie outside of a business about to be searched, the FTO told him, “If he comes out with a gun in his hand, shoot him! He’s been warned plenty of times.” Luckily, the suspect surrender to the searching officers.
After the event, the young man walked into my office and quit. He said, “I thought I was ready to shoot and kill until that moment. I don’t think I could have done it. I don’t want to do it.” He then asked, “Do you think I’m a coward?” I answered immediately, “No. In fact I think this is one of the bravest things I have ever seen. You were a probation officer. Were you good at that?” “Yes,” the rookie responded. “Then go do that. We need good ones.” He never worked another second as a cop. He made a good and honorable decision.
If you believe you can kill if necessary and in justified circumstances, then take more time to think about what effect legally taking a life may have on you. Ask other officers who have been involved in shootings how they felt afterward and what they wish they had known beforehand. It is probable that if one day you have to take a life, odds are you will be affected by the experience. Prepare to minimize the negative and disabling affects.
Realize ahead of time that not only will there be immediate psychological reactions, you may also be visited by bouts of self-doubt, isolation, confusion, and sadness. This is a sign that you are reacting normally to an abnormal circumstance—abnormal because in reality, most officers never have to take a life in their entire career.
When these feeling come, acknowledge them and try to find someone with whom you can honestly share them. Here again, other shooting survivors are a good resource. Get together and talk to them about how you feel. In their company you’ll know you’re with peers. These people have truly “been there and done that.” They’re not likely to cater or condescend to you but to talk frankly and supportively about their own reactions. They can look at what happened to you as no one else can, and the experience of sharing can be extremely helpful.
Comments? Insights or experiences to share? Please e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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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?