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Post Shooting Syndrome

Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD

The identification of post-traumatic stress disorder in the context of the police use of deadly force is one example of how mental health professionals have made a major contribution to law enforcement (Zeling 1986). Dr. Michael Roberts, a consultant to the San José, California, Police Department, was one of the first to call attention to the postshooting syndrome. He pointed out that for many new (and even some experienced) officers, the confrontation between the officer and an armed felon that results in the felon’s death is the ultimate myth of police work: This hero myth comes from movies, television, and from our cultural fiction involving the bad guy, the marshall, and “high noon.” Perhaps even more important is the support that this hero myth receives from locker room values and the war stories told in police bars.

A San José police officer says that most police officers think that sometime they may have to shoot somebody. “Driving around, you think what if this would happen? . . . finally it happens to you and a lot of things you thought would happen don’t. You imagine a blazing gun battle after which you go over and roll him over with your foot and blow the smoke from your gun” (Cohen 1980).

What really happened is that when this officer had to shoot a man, it took four rounds from his .357 Magnum before the suspect dropped. The officer then grabbed some gauze from the first aid kit and tried for fifteen minutes to resuscitate the victim.

The etiology of the postshooting reaction lies in the emotional discontinuity between officers’ expectations about the shooting and the reality of it. Officers’ expectations revolve around the fantasy of a heroic, man-to-man confrontation. In reality, most police shootings do not involve a heroic situation. More often, it is a lopsided contest. Further, if the person is not a felon but a disturbed, mentally ill citizen, or if the shooting is accidental, the psychic trauma for officers may be even more severe.

Some officers involved in shootouts state that they hated all the adulation they received from their fellow officers afterward. One officer says, “You can’t really talk to someone who hasn’t been there. They want to hear the gory details, not about your problems handling it, because it’s heavy and it reminds them that it could happen to them” (Cohen 1980).Most officers are terribly afraid that they might have to shoot someone, so they are anxious to talk to an officer who has, hoping that whatever gave him the guts to pull the trigger will rub off on them. The following are some of the adverse reactions that officers involved in shootings may demonstrate:

1. Sensory distortion. Time slows down; everything happens in slow motion.

2. Flashbacks. Many things subsequently occur that instantly remind you of the shooting — another shooting, the sight of a body in the street. You live it over and over.

3. Fear of insanity. Officers may have this fear because of symptoms in (1) and (2) above.

4. Sorrow over depriving a person of life. It is very difficult to break the cultural and religious prohibition against killing. Even police officers who have previously killed in military combat state that a police shooting is entirely different. Detective Dan Sullivan of the Santa Barbara, California, Police Department states that “in a war, that’s what you’re there for . . . to wipe them out. Police work isn’t like that. You are certainly not on a search and destroy mission” (Cohen 1980).

5. Crying. This usually happens outside the police environment because the macho image does not permit tears.

6. Grasping for life. Officers become very concerned about their families, their home life, being loved and accepted by others — a sort of guilt reaction to the shooting.

7. Nightmares. One officer reported frequent nightmares in which the suspect kept coming at him, looming ever larger and ever nearer while the officer frantically pumps bullets into the apparition.

8. Heightened sense of danger. A shooting brings officers face to face with their own mortality. No longer can they entertain the idea that “It won’t happen to me.” For some officers, this has resulted in their leaving law enforcement. Although exact statistics are not available, it has been reported that between 50 to 80 percent of officers involved in shootings have left police work (Baruth 1986, p. 307).

9. Anger and hate toward the victim/suspect. Solomon and Horn (1986) state that this is the second most frequent and severe postshooting reaction. Officers curse the victim/suspect for “making them do it,” but this anger may mask the feelings of fear and vulnerability that the incident aroused in officers so that the curse more properly may be expressed as “goddamn you for making me feel so vulnerable.”

10. Isolation/withdrawal. Officers may think that no one will understand what they are going through. They don’t want to risk being ridiculed or put down. Peer support from another officer who has gone through a shooting experience can be most helpful at this time.

11. Fear and anxiety about the next time it happens. One officer who shot a suspect who he thought was armed (but wasn’t) expressed fears that the “next time maybe I’ll hesitate to shoot and this time the asshole will have a gun and he’ll blow my f——- head off.”

12. Fear that they will be fired, criminally charged, or sued in civil court. These are frequent reactions. Police policies and procedures may add unnecessary stresses to officers involved in a shooting. Delays in completing the investigation, a negative attitude, or lack of support from supervisors and/or administration can compound the psychological damage. One undercover narcotics officer had to endure a postshooting investigation that began in May and dragged on until he was finally cleared of any wrongdoing in August. In this time the stress on the officer and his family was so severe as to result in a divorce.

This article is an excerpt from Psychological Aspects of Police Work: An Officer’s Guide to Street Psychology by former police officer and federal agent, Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD.

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