When Cops Kill: A Memo to Cops and Their Families

Feb 21, 2020

The aftermath is not what you may think or see on TV.

After 30-plus years as a police and public safety psychologist, I remain convinced that policing is one of the most stressful and complex occupations in the world. What other job requires you to be combat-ready at the same time you are called upon to be a counselor, a priest, a lawyer, and a social worker? What other profession authorizes you to use deadly force and then mandates that you attempt to save the life of the person you just tried to kill?

On average, over the span of a career, a police officer might see about 25 recently dead bodies, 14 decaying corpses, and 10 sexually assaulted children. You may know two colleagues who are badly injured, intentionally or accidentally. You’ll be injured several times and possibly shot at once. And even though most of you got into the job to make a positive difference in the world, you may have to kill someone.

How you’ll feel if and when that happens isn’t often discussed in the academy. People write entire books about this very subject. (See the references below. I encourage you to read them.) In the meantime, whether you are a law enforcement professional, in a relationship with a law enforcement professional, or a member of the public, here are some things to think about.

  • There are literally millions of interactions between cops and civilians that go smoothly every day. They rarely make the headlines.
  • Most cops gain compliance when interacting with citizens without using physical tactics.
  • Most officers will never shoot their guns in the line of duty except on the firing range.

Not all shootings are alike: What happens following a shooting and how you will recover afterward depend on how the shooting went down, who was shot, and your experience before, during, and after.

Friendly fire carries the most emotional wallop. It is unintentional or accidental (an officer accidentally discharges his or her weapon or believes the weapon is unloaded when it isn’t). It might have been preventable or the result of negligence (this can be infuriating). You may know the person who was shot (this always makes things worse), you can’t help being emotionally involved because they were a brother or sister-in-arms, and you probably identify closely, because you know, had circumstances been different, it could have been you.

The status of the person who was shot will also influence your psychological state. Was the person unarmed? Was their weapon unloaded? Was it a cellphone? A replica? Was this suicide by cop when you were forced to shoot? Was the person an innocent bystander? A child? A fleeing felon? A combat vet? A known criminal? Mentally ill? A family friend, a neighbor, or a relative? Did you have eye contact?

In the aftermath of a shooting, you will experience physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms: perceptual distortions like tunnel vision and auditory shutdown, degradation of memory, difficulty sleeping, irritability, preoccupation with the event, etc. These are involuntary human reactions, hard-wired into our species, generated by the reflexive response to threats against survival and activated by a storm of stress hormones and brain chemicals. Denial breaks down as you realize, often—oddly enough—for the first time, that there really are people willing to kill a cop and times when you have no choice but to shoot to kill.

Many of you will oscillate wildly between remorse for actions not taken and guilt for acts committed. Some of you, maybe 10-15 percent, will develop PTSI (post-traumatic stress injury). A small percentage will decide that being a cop isn’t for you anymore. Most of you will return to the job wiser than you were.

Your recovery will be influenced if you were blindsided by the event, felt helpless, or believed you were going to die (even if you weren’t). Things may be rough if you already have a pile of stress (work-related and/or personal), are pilloried in the news and on social media, or feel betrayed by friends and family, your department, and/or the community you serve. Not to mention shooting boards, lawsuits, physical injuries, and Worker’s Compensation. Beware of being called a hero, because the label of “hero” is a lot harder to wear than it is to earn.

Start now to develop good coping skills, because poor coping—substance abuse, isolation, rugged individualism, the fear of asking for help—makes things worse. Identify trusted resources you can use: peer supporters, chaplains, culturally competent clinicians, and people in your personal life.

After a shooting, you may feel like you’re going crazy, but you’re not. You’re injured, not damaged. Most of your uncomfortable reactions will fade in a few weeks. If they don’t, get help from a culturally competent clinician or a law enforcement support group. Speak up and speak out. The sooner, the better. With help, you can heal. (See my blog on defeating stigma.)

Last, but never least, remember that your family and friends will be affected by your shooting in countless ways. They will live in the limelight of scrutiny along with you. Don’t let your personal trauma rob you of compassion for their concerns, their fears, and their challenges.

Don’t shut them out. Cut each other some slack. Keep your expectations of them and of yourself reasonable. Find others who have gone through what you’re all experiencing. Let them be your guide.


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