Perspective After Firing the Shots,What Happens? By Shannon Bohrer, M.B.A. Every law enforcement academy in the United States trains officers for the possibility that they may have to use force, meaning any physical force up to and including deadly force.1 Most academies base this training on the equation of criticality and frequency. In other words, how critical is the training, and how frequently will officers need the training? When looking at the use of force at the upper end of a continuum (deadly force), the frequency of the act may not occur that often; however, the criticality is extremely high. Officers receive instruction in the use of firearms, batons, chemical agents, and defensive tactics, thereby demonstrating that part of their job involves violent confrontations. In fact, a large segment of use-of-force training in law enforcement covers the mental preparation for such an act. Academy instructors often tell their students, “The training is not because you might be involved in a violent confrontation; the training is to prepare you for the violent confrontation that you will be involved in.”
Such an expectation for officers to use force in the performance of their duties has merit. After all, in 2002, law enforcement officers in the United States locked up 13,741,438 people, or an estimated 37,647 arrests per day.2 Given this large volume of apprehensions and the propensity for violence of many of those taken into custody, training officers for violent confrontations proves logical, especially considering that many of the individuals arrested carried lethal weapons. Law enforcement is a dangerous profession that sometimes requires officers to use deadly force as their only option.
With this in mind, is use-of-force training effective? Does it reflect the needs of individual officers? Because most officers survive assaults, including shootings, the training apparently works.3 However, if officers received even more effective training, would still fewer die each year? Of course, a limit to this type of analysis rests with the measurement used, physical survival. Generally, agencies do not trace the mental or emotional health of officers involved in critical incidents nor do they track family problems, substance abuse, or any other long-term effects that develop. They usually do not examine physical disabilities or even the use of sick leave when looking at program needs. Seemingly, the profession prepares its members for critical incidents but does not always equip them for what happens after such events.
Interviews with involved officers have revealed some deficiencies or gaps in training programs related to the aftermath of critical incidents.4 While many indicated that they survived because of their training, they were not prepared for the chain of events that occurred afterwards. Investigations of law enforcement's use of force, after-action reviews, and interviews with officers have shown that more training may be needed in such areas as--
critical incident report writing as it deals with perceptual and memory distortions;
perspectives and responsibilities of law enforcement agencies and the media;
mental and emotional health of officers;
long-term consequences of events and actions; and
officers' best and worst friends, their "Band of Brothers."5 Report Writing Every law enforcement academy teaches report writing. Generally, trainees fill out a variety of reports concerning the facts: the basic who, what, when, where, why, and how. They may participate in practical scenarios, take photographs, gather evidence, interview witnesses, and then complete all of the required reports. Their instructors emphasize accurate accounts for criminal investigations and prosecution of cases. Recruits learn that the reports they submit will be reviewed, scrutinized, and evaluated, so they must prepare complete, organized, and well-written documents. Years afterwards, however, they are involved in a critical incident as the only witness. Their reports "look as if they were written in crayon"6 and are incomplete, nonsequential, and lack critical elements. The officers, however, believe that the accounts are accurate and clearly explain their use of deadly force. Why does this occur?
Officers are human. A normal reaction to an abnormal event often means that the involved person will experience sensory depravations. Diminished sounds; tunnel vision; slow-motion time; memory loss for parts of the event or actions taken; and perceptual distortions that individuals, including police, experience during critical incidents are normal.7 Given these natural sensory depravations, agencies should expect officers' reports to be incomplete. Not every officer in every critical incident will experience the same sensory depravations or to the same degree. In fact, when multiple officers are involved in one critical incident, they rarely have identical stories. After all, how can officers involved in a critical incident that lasted only 2 seconds remember every detail, each sight and sound, the number of rounds fired, and even the words spoken?8
Officers should receive training on how to report critical incidents. They must learn to convey the facts as they know them, not reconstructed from other sources. For example, if officers use their firearms, they may not remember how many shots they fired. If so, they should state that information in the report. Officers should have sufficient time to gather their thoughts and have the benefit of legal counsel before submitting a report or participating in taped or recorded interviews. These documents can affect officers for years, from internal investigations to criminal and civil cases. For example, some officers have had their critical incident reports returned because reviewers or investigators found them incomplete. So, the involved officers filled in the blanks, trying to do the right thing, and later had the added information used against them. This reveals another important training matter. Law enforcement personnel who investigate police shootings also need special training to ensure that officers involved in critical incidents are treated fairly.
Of importance, these training issues on memory and critical incidents do not represent an excuse for officers regarding accuracy and completeness of reports. Instead, they are intended to reflect reality, not television policing.
Agencies and the Media From their perspective, the involved officers see the critical incident very clearly. Any force required was to prevent injury or death to a citizen, a fellow officer, or themselves. However, the chief or public information officer has made statements to the press that the investigation is continuing.
Additionally, almost as an afterthought, the chief mentioned conferring with the prosecutor's office. The involved officers know this from reading it in the newspaper and also watching the interview on the local news. It is not uncommon for officers to relate that they were reading a newspaper about an incident and discovered that it was the one that they were involved in. Such events, especially when the involved officers do not expect them, can cause unnecessary stress.
To combat these reactions, officers should receive training on what to expect from their agency and the media if they become involved in a such a situation. Simply communicating to officers that their agency could make these type of statements, before they appear on the nightly news, can help alleviate this stress. It is the agency's duty to fully investigate every incident involving the use of deadly force. Society gives law enforcement organizations authority under certain circumstances to employ such action, which represents a significant responsibility. Officers must understand that any department would be negligent if it did not fully investigate a critical incident. The investigation does not constitute a direct reflection on the involved officers nor on the specific incident in which they participated.
As the department has an obligation to investigate every detail, even a clearly justifiable shooting, the media feels a similar need and believes it is on the front line of free speech. Officers involved in a critical incident may not like what they see, hear, or read about the event, but expecting a variety of reactions can prove helpful. Fortunately, not every critical incident results in negative comments from the department or the media. Sometimes, both support the involved officers wholeheartedly.
Officer's Mental and Emotional Health In the past, some perceived it as a sign of weakness if an officer involved in a critical incident saw a mental health professional. Sadly, many officers still feel this way. Conversely, teaching officers that counseling is appropriate remains a problem because critical incidents affect individuals in different ways. While some officers may need counseling, others may not.
Today, most departments have a policy that requires an officer involved in a critical incident to see a mental health professional within days of the event. Some may view the visit as an "inspection sticker" and approval for the officer to return to work. This perspective, similar to having a vehicle inspected and then knowing that it is safe to drive, is not accurate. After all, an individual's health and a vehicle's maintenance are not the same. Before the profession can train officers about what to expect after a critical incident, it may need to examine some departmental cultures and policies related to such situations.
A valid reason exists as to why a significant emotional event is called a critical incident. The stress of belonging to the law enforcement profession affects every officer; it is just a matter of the degree. The short-and long-term effects of critical incidents, if they exist, are not necessarily erased by one office visit or two peer-counseling sessions. Mandated professional services and peer counseling should exist, but officers also should have additional options after completing such interventions. In addition, they should have mandated leave with the ability to choose how much additional time off they need. Some officers would take only a day, whereas others may need a week or more.
Recent research has indicated that this could be a larger problem than many realize. In one study of assaulted officers, two officers from the same department involved in two different incidents were sent to a mental health professional who fell asleep during both visits.9 Neither knew of the other's incident and mental health visit. But, both related that they never told anyone because of their concern about not receiving their mental health "inspection stickers." This department paid a lot of money for a nonexistent service, which brings to light another important consideration. Agencies should have a follow-up method in place to justify and validate the services offered, including evaluations by involved officers.
Just as officers should know that they may experience sensory depravation, they also should understand that they may develop psychological and emotional problems after an incident. Not all officers will have difficulties, but for those who do, they should have avenues available for seeking help. In the area of mental health, the department's policy can greatly affect training. It is not uncommon to have espoused theory in conflict with in-use theory. Unfortunately, some officers, administrators, and heads of agencies believe that all psychological services are a waste
of resources. Such a mind-set can prove detrimental to the department, its officers, and the community it serves. To safeguard its citizens, an agency must recognize that its officers are human and need appropriate and effective intervention after a critical incident.
Long-Term Consequences After graduating from a police academy and belonging to the profession for 4 years, an officer became involved in a critical incident that required the use of deadly force. Even years later, the officer's thoughts return to that event on what seems like a daily basis. This prolonged timetable does not occur in every instance, but it also is not that unusual. Aside from dealing with the media, counseling, and other internal factors, officers can face another challenge: becoming embroiled in civil suits for extended periods of time.
Sometimes, the departmental investigation, the media's reporting, and any legal issues are resolved relatively quickly. However, other critical incidents appear to have a life of their own. This seems especially true with civil litigation issues. For example, two officers responded to a call concerning a male who was emotionally disturbed and fighting with his parents. When the officers tried to help, the man stabbed one officer, who almost died. The second officer shot and killed the subject, and his parents later sued both officers. What would have happened if the son had stabbed his father, mother, or himself? Television policing makes it clear: the police are the "good guys"; they arrest and shoot the "bad guys." However, in the real world, the bad guys do not always resemble the imagined model. This, in turn, reflects a possible problem with training.
The choice that officers have to make in the use of force generally is not a win-win or even a win-lose proposition. Many times, the option is either bad or worse, and, sometimes, worse is the better choice. No officer expects or wants to shoot an individual who is emotionally disturbed. But, if the officer fails to shoot and someone else gets hurt, was the choice wrong? Sometimes, it does not matter how right officers are or how justified the shooting was, if they use deadly force, they probably will be sued.
Again, officers should have training before they become involved in a critical incident to understand that it could become a major issue in their professional and personal lives for years. Data collected from previous incidents and interviews with involved officers have revealed that the after-inci-dent actions can span years, and officers need to know this. Many police instructors feel that examining previous civil suits can be helpful, even though most of the suits have little merit. Training should not imply that every event will take years to resolve but, rather, should stress the possibility of such long-term consequences.
Best and Worst Friends Officers involved in critical incidents generally do not speak about their experiences. Their fellow officers often critique them and not always in a posi
tive light. It may not matter that the shooting was justified or saved a life. If they did anything wrong, their fellow officers will let them know. Such statements
as "If I were there, I would have done..." and "Why did you do that?" are not uncommon. Conversely, many involved officers have advised that the best thing that a fellow officer said was, "If you feel the need for company or to talk, call me anytime, and I will be there."
The reactions of fellow officers, family, friends, and neighbors surprised many involved officers and caused unintended consequences. Expressions, such as "Hey, killer"; physical gestures of a fast draw; and silence or total avoidance of the subject depict a few of the responses that involved officers have endured. While the individuals offering these often had no intention of doing any harm, they caused the involved officer increased stress with their thoughtless words and actions.
Therefore, educating officers about what to expect if they are involved in a critical incident remains important, especially when the training includes what to expect from their "Band of Brothers," families, and friends. Many of these officers have experienced a substantial amount of stress, and, while under stress, they can misinterpret benign comments. Additionally, the training for all officers should include how their statements, and even their silence, can be misunderstood.
Conclusion The law enforcement community spends significant time and resources, as it should, training officers for critical incidents that occur usually in extremely short periods of time. It also must prepare officers equally well for the aftereffects that can take many years to resolve. Teaching officers what can happen after a critical incident is like giving them a road map and directions to a place that they do not want to visit. They even may subconsciously think, I don't need this information; this won't happen to me. However, when it does, they have a plan and an understanding that can prepare them to deal with the aftereffects.
Law enforcement academies and agencies can accomplish the training recommended in a few hours. When conducting the training, it is vital to qualify each point. After all, some officers experience no after-action negative effects and have their situations resolved in a few weeks. Conversely, other officers involved in critical incidents that lasted only a few seconds have endured aftermaths that continued for years.
The matters discussed--report writing, perceptions, perspectives, mental and emotional health, events lasting for years, and reactions of friends and families--have come from individuals who actually experienced them. What remains unknown is the scope of each problem, how each one interacts with the others, and any degree of dependency among them. The law enforcement community has the greatest resources in the world to resolve the concerns raised: the officers involved in critical incidents. These issues need to be examined, researched, and studied. Not looking at them does not mean that they do not exist.