We’ve seen several news reports lately of what first responders to the San Bernardino shootings experienced when confronting active shooters last week. That’s made me think about those officers and what they must be going through one week later. This was certainly a different circumstance than most officer-involved shootings. No one has questioned that they were justified in shooting the suspects. And the subsequent media coverage that followed has been unusual, as well, exploring what the officers went through. Usually when an officer fatally shoots someone, we hear about the person who died. The media shows the deceased's family and the grief they are suffering. And they are suffering. They have lost a loved one. No matter the circumstances, that loss is painful. But beyond their identifying information and the debate over whether what they did was justified, we don’t usually hear much about the officers – about what they’re going through after such an incident. I realize many would say, “It can’t be that bad. They’re still alive.” Yes, but many of them are forever changed. Their careers and families can be ruined. Some even take their own lives.
All officers involved in fatal shootings on our department must see a psychologist afterward to determine what, if any, assistance they need in the short or long term to cope with the trauma. I spoke with our licensed psychologist recently, Kay White, and she said the impact these incidents have on officers runs the gamut. But one thing she said they all have in common is that not one officer has ever indicated he or she was pleased about or satisfied with having killed another person. As I mentioned in my last post, no officer wants to take the life of another human being. But sometimes, we must. Below is a video we released of an officer-involved shooting six years ago in a South Kansas City park. You’ll see that it’s from two different angles. The officers saw the man strike a vehicle and flee. He drove off-road, and this is what happened (warning - the linked video contains disturbing images):
Ms. White told me the impact a fatal shooting has on an officer depends on several factors, but large among them are community support and media portrayals. If the public tends to stand behind the officer, that officer tends to suffer less psychologically. But Ms. White said she’s seeing more and more officers who are worried about the litigation involved with protecting themselves and/or others, and what impact possible litigation could have on their family, the department and the community.
Even for officers against whom there has been no public outcry, being forced to shoot someone can be incredibly traumatic. One of our officers was brave enough to tell his story publicly, so others would know they were not alone. This officer was one of three who responded to a man calling 911 last year who said he “had a psychotic urge to kill people.” Officers did everything they could to diffuse the situation, but when the man came out of his house and pointed a gun at one of them, they had to protect themselves, and all of them fired. The suspect died. A subsequent search of the man’s house revealed five loaded long-guns with large amounts of ammunition on the kitchen table and a note indicating the man intended to have a protracted gun battle with police officers. Prosecutors cleared all the officers of any violations of law. Still, one of them couldn’t sleep. He replayed the incident over and over in his mind. He stopped leaving his house. His wife and children didn’t know what to do to help him. He is now receiving the treatment he needs and has played a significant role in implementing mental wellness initiatives on our department.
Indeed, our psychologist said one of the primary physical symptoms she sees among officers involved in shootings is the inability to sleep. They have bad dreams. They can’t stop thinking about and replaying the situation. Adrenaline is pumping in them all the time, so they can never rest. They become socially withdrawn, anxious, irritable and afraid to go to work. They feel like no one understands what they’re going through. They don’t feel like they can tell anyone about their depression because they think it would be unacceptable in a law enforcement environment. I have seen too many of our officers who were medically retired because of mental health issues following a traumatic event. Sometimes that’s not a shooting. Sometimes it’s working the case of a murdered child or something equally horrific. Our department is working to ensure these officers are taken care of and given the time they need to recover emotionally before we send them back out on the streets.
And it’s not just the officers who are impacted. Their families suffer, too. Ms. White said many family members will look at the officer differently after the event, or want the officer to quit his or her job because it’s too dangerous. Others want to “fix” the officer so he or she is like the loved one they knew before.
Pressure on family members even affects loved ones of officers NOT involved in shootings. After the officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Mo., last year, the teenage daughter of one of our officers wrote a private message to our department’s Facebook page saying she was being bullied at school because her father was a police officer. She said she knew the danger he put himself in daily, even to protect people like the bullies, and she just wanted us to know she was very proud of him. And the family members of one of our sergeants who just happens to be named Darrin Wilson (the same name as the officer in the Ferguson shooting, but spelled differently) received death threats. (KCPD’s Sgt. Darrin Wilson, for the record, just won a Gold Award for Valor from the Metro Chiefs and Sheriffs Association for working with another officer – both of whom were off duty at the time – to stop a man who robbed a bank in a downtown office tower in January, planted a live bomb in the bank and then carjacked several people. That man pleaded guilty to federal charges of bank robbery and carjacking on Nov. 19 and is awaiting sentencing.)
As you can see, the effects on officers from officer-involved shootings are widespread and varied. For many, that split-second decision in which they did what they were trained to do to protect themselves and others is life-changing. They may not have lost their lives, but some will never be the same.
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