AFTER THE GUN GOES OFF
Have you ever jumped up in bed in the middle of the night in a cold sweat? I have.
Have you ever sat alone in a room and begun to cry over something insignificant? I have.
Have you ever found yourself becoming cold and withdrawn, and failing to participate in social or family activities? I have.
Have you ever had nightmares so terrible you woke up seeing yourself or loved ones on the brink of death? I have.
Why have I had these problems? Because I am a police officer, and on June 9, 1975, another officer and I were forced to shoot and kill an armed felon who was trying to kill the other officer and me. At that point I became not a hero as the department proclaimed, but a victim; a victim of Post Shooting Trauma.
Many people think there is nothing wrong with killing someone who is trying to kill you. In fact, some are even envious. They desire the hero status that is heaped upon you, while they go about performing their mundane everyday tasks.
Legally they are correct. There is nothing wrong with killing someone who is attempting to murder you. That is why, when the facts are investigated and presented to the Grand Jury, you are not indicted for homicide. The Grand Jury, a body of your supposed peers, listens and decides the taking of such a life was necessary and justified , and therefore everything is alright.
This type of mentality is very common on the party of the general public, as well as the police hierarchy. Everything is black and white, right and wrong. If the shooting is justified, there are no problems.
However, this is not where the problems end but where they begin.
Killing someone preys on your subconscious. Killing someone conflicts with every moral belief you have been indoctrinated with by significant others. Thou shalt not kill. All civilized societies consider life as being sacred and precious.
If life is so precious, how do we justify to ourselves morally, the taking of a life. This is the moral conflict that must be resolved, or Post Shooting Trauma will remain a never ending problem.
Social Psychology is the study of the individual in the group. Let's explore Post Shooting Trauma and it's victims using the same methodology. Consider a Police Department as the group, the society, and the officer involved in a shooting, suffering from Post Shooting Trauma, as the individual within the group.
Police Officers abide by not only the rules of the society they are sworn to protect, but, also have their own written and unwritten rules and codes. These are similar to folkways and mores.
When an officer, a member of this large group is involved in a shooting, he will probably suffer symptoms of Post Shooting Trauma, and become a special individual in this group. This individual, his special problems, and the methods that can be used to assist him recover from his traumatic experience are what I'm going to discuss in thisarticle.
Police combat is a unique experience. It is totally different than military combat. It is a close personal encounter. In most instances, a shooting involving a police officer takes place within seven yards. Think of it, a mere twenty one feet separating you and your opponent in a struggle for survival that can have only one winner. What could possibly be more stressful than this winner takes all confrontation?
Post Shooting Trauma is the internalization of stress following a shooting. (1) It is a combination of stress, fear, confusion and anxiety. It usually sets in after your moral beliefs and reality come in conflict.
There are many symptoms of Post Shooting Trauma, and a person suffering from it can suffer any one, any combination, or all of the following symptoms.
The first is sleep pattern disturbances. Either insomnia or nightmares. Insomnia is simply the inability to relax and sleep following the shooting.
The nightmares are another story. They are very frightening, mostly because the officer doesn't understand why he is having such terrifying visions.
The dreams can be a reliving of the incident, night after night. Or, it can be a dream of being involved in another shooting, and being either wounded or killed. Some officer have dreamed that the person they killed was standing at the foot of their bed. Some admit to being so frightened by this experience they have jumped up in a sweat, screaming in fear.
I have experienced nightmares following my incident. The night after my shooting, I dreamed many of my friends were dying around me. After that, I started to dream of being involved in other gun battles, all with the same results. In the imagined gun battle, I am forced to shoot someone again. Each time, the bullets either come out the barrel of the gun and fall on the ground, or if they strike their intended target, they have no impact and the criminal just stands there looking at me.
80% of officers involved in shootings have nightmares related to their incident. 10% have a variation dream in which they dream of being in different shooting incidents. Those that dream of being killed are probably experiencing some form of guilt, whether imagined or real.
However, there is a benefit to having these nightmares. According to Dr. Pasquale Carone of South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, New York, dreams are a way of working out a solution to a problem. Once the solution is reached, the nightmares will usually stop.
A rape victim is also prone to nightmares. She is also a victim of an extremely traumatic experience. She dreams continuously, and as the dreams continue night after night, they usually start to change. The dreams start to go from being a helpless victim to where she is in control of the situation. The nightmares usually end when in her dreams she has overpowered her assailant, and in some instances, killed him.
Another form of a nightmare is a hallucination. It is experienced while the officer conscious. He sees something while he is awake that cannot possibly be. An example of this is an officer who works steady midnights, sees the person he shot and killed sitting next to him in the patrol car, while he is patrolling his area.
There is no way to tell when the dreams will end. Some officers are very fortunate, they don't have any. Others have a few in a relatively short time, make an adjustment and no longer experience them. For others, it seems they never stop. It took about eight years after my shooting for the nightmares to stop. Although they came less frequently, it still took that long for them stop. Occasionally when under a lot of stress I may have a nightmare related to shootings, but happily I can't remember when the last one was. If I do have one, at least I understand why and can deal with it.
Two other symptoms that are similar to dreams are flashbacks and distortions.
A flashback is like an instant replay of the incident in your mind. As the officer replays this incident over and over in his mind, he starts to add distortions which confuse his concept of reality. In most instances, as he is having a flashback he usually sees it taking place in slow motion. This is a time distortion, and is very common. However, this leads to more confusion and anxiety, because the officer starts to believe he had more time to do things differently.H
e starts to think he should have taken the time to come up with an alternative to killing. He should have waited for help, he should have taken the time to ask him to surrender. The truth is he never had time to do anything but think of his own survival. The incident was over almost as soon as it began.
Another distortion some officers experience is that of sound. Though it is not seem as serious as time distortion, it is real and confusing, and only adds to the officer's trauma.
Sound distortions can be caused by both the stress and surrounding noise. The heart pumping, the adrenaline flowing, the sirens wailing, people screaming. The sheer terror of what is before the officer. Some officers say they never heard the shots they fired.
Another distortion is that of sight. Some officers report seeing the bullets in the cylinder of the gun the criminal was pointing at them. Others say they could see the bullet going toward it's intended target. That is inconceivable, considering a bullet travels at over one thousand feet per second. One officer spoke of seeing an imaginary line. If the armed man turned past that point, he had decided he would shoot. The man did turn past that point and the officer did shoot. After he fired the shot, he no longer could see the man. He started to worry. Where had he gone? Was he going to be shot by this now unseen assailant? He couldn't see the man who was laying dead on the ground right where he shot him. He had put so much attention into his focal point that he developed a form of tunnel vision, and could not see beyond it. The autopsy and the statement he gave showed that the one shot he fired went directly along that imaginary line he saw in his subconscious that he used as a point of commitment.
An officer was working late one night and checking the rear of a store. He surprised a burglar who fired shots at him. He immediately sought cover and took a position behind a large oak tree. The next day, he went back to the area to see things in the daylight. He found the large oak tree to be nothing more than a sapling.
I can recall many of the distortions I encountered. I had a flashback on my way home from work the day of the shooting. I recall seeing the man sitting in an upright position, alive and being instantly transformed into a lifeless human form. I saw this while I was sitting in my car at a traffic light. When I think of it, it's almost as though I can still feel the cold shill that passed through me that day.
I also remember everything taking place in slow motion. I thought I saw the bullet come out the end of the gun barrel and watched it travel until it hit him. I thought I looked at my gun in amazement and dwelled on the thought of how accurate it was. I remember running about thirty feet to the side of the vehicle he was in. I thought it was taking an eternity, I thought I would never get to the side of the truck. When I did, I still can't believe how terrifying a sight it was watching him come across the seat of the truck as if he was going to overrun me. I fired three more shots. The first hit him, the second missed. How do you miss from two or three feet away? The final shot struck him. I kept firing. I was unable to count to six, the number of bullets in the gun. I never heard the six shots going off. What I did hear was the sound of the empty gun going click! click! click!
Those empty clicks were the loudest sounds I have ever heard in my life and that sound will be with me forever.
After a shooting, some officers retreat into a period of isolation. This can affect their job performance and family relationships. Some no longer participate in family functions. Others no longer have any interest in their usual outside activities such as hunting. A lack of communication between the officer and his family members is very common.
This withdrawal can also affect the officer's sex life. A percentage of officers involved in shootings suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction or impotence. This is especially true if they were wounded and lost the gun battle.
Sometimes there are periods of depression and helplessness. Some officers will sit and cry over insignificant things. Others are moved to tears by the sound of patriotic music. The officer cannot explain why this happens to him, but he knows it does.
Some begin to engage in self destructive behavior. Some take on a "John Wayne Syndrome", taking unnecessary chances. They don't wait for assistance on dangerous calls. They start to feel indestructible. If they survived the first time, what can happen the next time?
For others the realization can become unbearable. Thoughts of suicide are common among officers who have killed. In fact, police officers have a very high suicide rate under normal conditions. Compound it with Post Shooting Trauma and the results can be phenomenal. This depression can become worse during holiday seasons. An officer who has killed sometimes starts to feel sorry for the family of the person he killed. He starts to dwell on the fact that there is someone missing. Someone's son, someone's father, or someone's husband. Though he is happy to be able to spend the holiday with his family, someone's family is feeling the loss he believes he caused. (11) I know. I was depressed the first Thanksgiving and Christmas following my incident. The man I killed would have killed me if he could have, but his family never did a thing to me. I grieved for them.
Other officers become confused by a reverse feeling, a feeling of euphoria. They start to notice little things. They notice the sweet smell of spring flowers, birds singing, children laughing, the nice warm feeling of the sun on a spring day. They feel as though they are happy they killed someone. This adds to their trauma and confusion. They're not happy they killed, but just happy they survived, and are able to enjoy these little pleasures.S
elf doubt is another problem when an officer returns to work following a shooting. He begins to second guess himself. He wonders if a similar situation arose again would he be able to do it again.
Another common fear is "What happens if I act too quickly? Will I take a life needlessly?" Or the reverse, "What if I hesitate and don't act quick enough, will I be killed?" These are real fears and the officer must come to grips with them if he is ever to be an effective officer again.
I remember one night shortly after my shooting. My wife and I were driving home when suddenly we were being chased by another vehicle. We had no idea what was going on but we were both afraid. I remember taking out my off duty gun and placing it under my leg. When I was finally able to stop and confront the other driver, I stood behind my car door with my gun in my hand out of sight. He jumped out of his car and stood with something in his hand, accusing me of cutting him off in a hamlet I had not been in. It was a case of mistaken identity. It also was an incident that could have had a tragic ending, had he advanced towards me with whatever was in his hand. I was afraid he might be an associate of the man I killed.
As the situation stood, there was not sufficient reason to shoot him, but certainly enough grounds to arrest him for harassment. But, the fear of my shooting stuck in my mind. I really didn't want to be deeply involved in a traffic dispute, and if the situation had gotten to the point where I was in fear for my life and had the grounds to shoot, I don't know if I would have been able to at the time. At that point, I was more afraid of what would be said about me being involved in two shootings in such a short period of time. Self doubt and public opinion were more important at that time than my own safety.
Following a shooting some officers become cynical. They no longer trust the department. They have problems with their supervisors. They no longer respond to either requests or direct orders. Others totally disregard departmental rules and policies. Along with this distrust, they no longer wish to become involved in any police action. They become unproductive members of the department that can no longer be trusted or counted on.
Part of this problem though is brought on by the department. Some departments expect you to be back to work the next day as if nothing ever happened. Others suspend you until the investigation is completed. They make you feel as though you did something wrong. Awards are given out for heroics, but the degree of the award might not meet with the officer's expectations, and again he feels as though he is being cheated. As these feelings increase, the mistrust and cynicism starts to mount.
The taking on of compulsions or going to extremes is very common following a shooting.
Alcoholism is rampant in police departments. Alcohol abuse rates of 20-40% in a department are not uncommon. When you compound the ordinary stress of the job with Post Shooting Trauma, the officer can begin to medicate his stress with alcohol. Drinking in this way is not a social experience, and if it continues the officer can easily cross the line into alcoholism.
Overeating is another compulsion a Post Shooting Trauma victim might go to. I know I am a compulsive overeater. Although I have always tended to eat too much, I truly believe Post Shooting Trauma pushed me beyond the levels I would normally consume.
By combining food and alcohol to relieve stress, soothe nerves, celebrate life, honor heroism, or toast another excuse for overindulging, I was able to bring my weight up beyond a respectable level in less than a year's time. I was totally out of control of my food consumption. I have no doubts that if I had turned to alcohol as opposed to food, I would have become an alcoholic due to my stress.
Other officers become compulsive gamblers or spenders. They start to fear their mortality, and live life to the fullest without any thought as to how they are going to meet tomorrow's bills.
Promiscuity can also be a problem of Post Shooting Trauma. After killing someone, the officer starts to feel unclean. He feels as though he has lowered himself into life's gutter. He feels as though he is so dirty and unchaste he can no longer have a healthy relationship with his wife, who he holds in high esteem. He then strays from his main support during such stress, his wife, and seeks the company of a partner who occupies a station in life as low as what he perceives himself to be.
There are also abuses of sick time. Simply put, the officer finds it easier to stay home than to go back to work. If he sits home and watches television, the officer can't get involved and be placed in a situation that threatens him.
As this abuse of sick time goes on, the officer make more problems for himself than he could have ever anticipated. One problem is his bosses start to look at him as a malingerer. He is undependable and cannot be trusted. Hero worship soon wears off once the officer starts to be a problem. As this continues, he might have been in line for a transfer to a desired position. If he cannot be trusted, he can forget about the opportunity ever presenting itself. Or, he might suffer the reverse. If the bosses think he is a problem and wish to create a remedy for themselves, they will transfer him to an unwanted job as punishment.
Why does an officer suffer like this from Post Shooting Trauma? Because he is the victim of a violent crime. An officer involved in a shooting is no less a victim than the store owner that is robbed, the senior citizen who is mugged or the woman who is raped. Each and everyone is the victim of a violent and personal crime. Even though the officer is victorious in battle, he is no less a victim of a traumatic conflict. A conflict that is a close personal encounter.
How does an officer overcome Post Shooting Trauma? With the assistance of the special society of which he is a part. What makes up this society surrounding this individual officer? Basically this society consists of three special groups; his family, the other officers he works with, and the department that employs him.
The family has many responsibilities in the officer's recovery. First of all, a wife has to be very understanding. If the marriage is not solid prior to the shooting, it probably will not last. A wife has to know when to talk, when to listen, and especially when to touch. Sometimes that nonverbal communication means more than anything that could be said. Those unspoken feelings demonstrated by my wife have helped me through some difficult times.
The wife will also have to screen questions from outsiders. She will have to try and run interference and shield him from the neighborhood ghouls looking for excitement.
She will also have to spend more time with the children. She will have to explain to them why their father is not acting as he did before. She will also have to continually support the children, and maybe even have a conference with the children's teachers in order to protect them from the vicious schoolyard grapevine. What could be more horrifying for a child than to be told by others that his father is a murderer? This is done not only by children, but by uninformed people in the community, or newspapers editorializing rather than reporting.
A wife must, under all circumstances, refrain from making stress contributing remarks. It was told at a seminar that one officer's wife said while they were in bed, "Wow, I'm sleeping with a killer." This only creates more stress for the husband.
Finally, a wife must be able to recognize the symptoms of Post Shooting Trauma. When she sees her husband suffering these symptoms, they must sit down and discuss what is taking place and together they should seek a remedy to the problems of Post Shooting Trauma.
The police officers who the shooter works with also bear a responsibility in his recovery. First of all, they should remember what he is going through. They have to be kind and understanding. They shouldn't go up and pound him on the back and call him killer and tell him how great it is that he killed someone. They also should not go up and tell him they wish they had been the one that killed the criminal, he probably wishes they had too. The pain of surviving is a lot heavier to bear than the feelings of heroism.
What one of these officers should do is go and ask him how he is doing. Ask him how his family is and if there is anything he can do for them. The officer's family is very important to him at this point.
Don't ask him for all the gory details, he has been through it enough with the investigators. However, if he does decide to talk about the incident, or some aspect of it, do him a favor, be a good listener. At this point, more than anything he needs a sympathetic ear. He might have things to share with another officer he cannot or will not discuss at home.
The department or agency that employs the officer also is responsible for his recovery. First of all, it must understand what Post Shooting Trauma is and that it is a real problem.
It also must provide him with the services necessary for his recovery. At present, only one out of five major police departments have any type of stress reduction program. Very few have any type of program dealing with Post Shooting Trauma.
Finally the officer himself must admit he has a problem and seek the services that are available to him. Others cannot force someone to be helped, the individual must want to be helped if recovery is going to be possible.
There are many forms of stress reduction that can be used to reduce Post Shooting Trauma. One is behavior modification, the use of deep relaxation is effective. Hypnosis is a very valuable tool also. I found it to be very helpful in reducing my stress during the year following my shooting.
I have done some research on Albert Ellis' Rational Emotive Therapy and how it can be applied to alleviate Post Shooting Trauma. I think it too is a very effective method, especially since it can be done in either a group setting or with an individual, and the severity of it's application can be geared to each person as needed.
However, my personal choice for dealing with Post Shooting Trauma is the use of peer counseling. I developed such a program for the Suffolk County Police Department. It is based on the working principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The SOLVE Team, as it is called, meets once a month and is comprised of people with a common bond; Post Shooting Trauma. What is said stays within the group. Officers are free to openly discuss whatever is bothering them, and other group members explain how they handled similar problems.
Members can tell a new member what to expect during the course of the investigation, at court proceedings, and at home. They can also tell the recent shooter what not to be alarmed by, such as questions by Grand Jury members, or that waiving your right to immunity when testifying before the Grand Jury is standard procedure. They can tell him why the department took his gun for tests, and when can expect it back.
The group can also teach the department how to handle an officer involved in a shooting. It can recommend changes that can be implemented to assist the officer through this most stressful time.
We try to help the officer understand that he did the best job possible with the information that was available to him at the time.
The goal of our group is the return of a healthy officer to not only his department and his community, but to his family as well, and allow him to function normally.
If we can provide him with this service, we have done a great deal to help him because it has been shown that if an officer is not afforded some form of counseling following a shooting, when presented with a second incident, 70% are either wounded or killed. This is what we are trying to prevent.
Copyright 2001 Keith Bettinger. Cannot be reprinted and/or republished without the expressed written consent of the author. For permission to use this article, email Keith Bettinger at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. The Police Chief, June 1981 p.58
2. Correspondence Det. Dave Petrie, Hialeah, FL. P.D.
3. Correspondence P.O. John White, Dallas, TX. P.D.
4. Interview Dr. Pasquale Carone May 3, 1983
5. The Aftermath of Rape, Thomas W. McCahill, et.al. pg.27
6. Correspondence P.O. John White, Dallas, TX. P.D.
7. Smith and Wesson Post Shooting Trauma Seminar, Smith and Wesson Academy, March 14-16, 1983
8. Telephone Interview, Massad Ayoob, May 2, 1983
9. Anonymous Police Officer, Post Shooting Trauma Tape, Dallas, TX. P.D.
10. Smith and Wesson Academy, March 14-16, 1983
11. Suffolk County Police Combat Group Meeting
12. Interview Sgt. James O'Brien, Suffolk County Police Department
13. Smith and Wesson Academy, March 14-16, 1983
14. Interview with Massad Ayoob, May 2, 1983
15. Op. Cit.
McCahill, Thomas W. et.al. The Aftermath of Rape, Lexington, Ma. Lexington Book D.C. Health and Company, 1977
Police Product News, "The Killing Experience" Ayoob, Massad July 1980
The Police Marksman, "Dreams Related to Post Shooting Trauma" Bettinger, Keith J. November 1983
The Police Chief, "Post Shooting Trauma" Shaw, James H. June 1981
ABC News 20/20 Show #306 Jarriel, Tom reporting Lovett, Joseph F. Producer, Box 2020 Ansonia Station, New York, N.Y. February 17, 1983
Telephone Interview, Ayoob, Massad. Director Lethal Force Institute, Concord, N.H. may 3, 1983.
Personal interview. Carone, Pasquale, M.D. South Oaks Hospital, Amityville, N.Y. May 3, 1983
Personal Interview. O'Brien, James Sgt. Suffolk County Police Department Employee Relations Unit, Hauppauge, N.Y. November 10, 1983
Correspondence. Petrie, Dave. Det. Hialeah, FL. Police Department Psychological Services Unit. May 9, 1983
Correspondence. White, John. Police Officer, Dallas, TX. Police Department Psychological Unit. April 26, 1983.
Post Shooting Trauma Seminar. Smith and Wesson Academy, Springfield, MA. March 14-16, 1983
Dallas, TX. Police Department Post shooting Trauma Tape, Anonymous Officer.