Cops Talk
Random Thoughts

by Keith Bettinger

"Once he was driving for the chief of police, spending in-between hours answering telephones, cutting newspaper clippings which might interest Chief Parker, doing the perfunctory public relations tasks required of the chief's driver, he thought for sure the dreams would go away. They did not. They started to come almost every night.

Karl Hettinger was not a man of great imagination. His dreams were more literal than symbolic. They had a beginning, a middle and an end. They started at the intersection of Carlos and Gower in Hollywood and continued with him caught screaming on barbed wire, ripping free only to run in slow motion through an onion field, finally hunched over the front of an ambulance looking back at Ian on the stretcher. When the dreams first started, he would always look back with great hope unable to see the bloody holes torn in Ian's chest. He would see only blood streaming from his mouth down his cheeks into his ears, filling the ears, and spilling out onto the crisp white stretcher sheets. As he got accustomed to the dream he never looked back with hope at his partner. Though he couldn't see the bubbling holes, he knew Ian was dead. There was never any hope in later dreams.

'Why don't you got to a doctor about these dreams, Karl,' she would plead.

'It's nothing, Helen. What can a doctor do? I just had a shocking experience and I'll get over it. It's not so bad now.'

'That's not true, Karl. They're coming more often now.'

'No they're not. I should know, shouldn't I?'

And Karl would set his jaw and press his lips and Helen knew it was over. He wouldn't argue, he just stubbornly resisted, saying it would work out." 1

Part of a novel, or a soap opera, or a television show? No, it's the true life experience of an officer who saw his partner murdered, and stood on the brink of death himself, only to escape the murderers, and watch his career crumble before his eyes due to post shooting trauma, and the dreams related to it.

Since taking a life is a violation of every moral and religious code, an officer has a hard time understanding the confusion between his moral dilemma and the need to protect himself or another by killing.

No police officer wants to kill. It is a decision that he is instantaneously forced to make, and when he does decide, he must live with the decision forever.

When a police officer becomes involved in a shooting a great many things take place. There is press coverage which puts the officer under the public microscope. He is given a great deal of attention by his peers. Many of the comments made in a display of support are crude and hurt the officer. After all the evidence is gathered, and investigation is completed, he must face a Grand Jury which decides whether the shooting was justified or not.

All of this stress is heaped upon the officer, creating a very heavy emotional burden to carry. Such a burden will usually be too much for an individual to bear. When it reaches this point, the officer is suffering from Post Shooting Trauma.

"Whenever a police officer is involved in a stressful situation, certain mental and physiological reactions take place. In very stressful situations such as a shooting where the police officer kills or seriously injures another person, the stress can be so severe, that much of the trauma is internalized to avoid immediate pain. It is this internalization of stress which result in a delayed stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder."2

"After the initial stress reaction begins to subside, the delayed stress reaction takes place. This reaction may surface within a few days or it may continue for years. The symptoms are:

1. Sleep pattern disturbance, including problems in a sleeping and recurring nightmares of the incident.

2. Flashbacks of the incident. The flashbacks are generally very vivid and presented in slow motion.

3. Development of emotional isolation which affects job performance but, more critically, family relationships as the officer becomes emotionally cold and withdrawn, having difficulty establishing or maintaining intimate relationships.

4. Episodes of depression and helplessness. Thoughts of suicide are common with self destructive behavioral tendencies.

5. Fears and anxiety where the officer questions himself as to his ability to handle further situations.

6. alienation, cynicism, distrust of the agency in particular and the system in general/ The officer has difficult with authority figures and may challenge and test rules and regulations." 3

All of these, or any one of these, or any combination are symptoms of Post shooting Trauma. In this paper we are going to explore one aspect of the trauma, dreams.

I spoke about police officer's nightmares with Dr. Pasquale Carone, Head of South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y. Dr. Carone was kind enough to discuss dreams with me and explain what their significance is, and why an officer would have nightmares.

A dream in general consists of two components, the manifest and the latent.

The manifest is like a theater production, and is the part of the dream we remember. The characters are the story are make believe.

The latent is the part of the dream we don't remember. It is as though there is a censor between the two parts.

Dreams of reality use the five senses. Dreams also deal with the universal unconscious and individual unconscious. The universal unconscious is what a specific thing indicates in all dreams, i.e. a snake is a phallic, therefore a dream involving a snake is sexual in nature. however, if a person had seen a snake during the day and dreams of one at night, then the individual unconscious is recalling experience that has nothing to do with universal unconscious.

Dreams can be good or bad for an officer experiencing nightmares.

If an officer is under a great deal of stress this will cause dreams. It is a fear reaction. If an officer is made aware of it he will know that the dream is a way of working out his problem in disguised form. If he can remember this, then the dreams are good for him. The recur because of the trauma of the shooting. By dreaming, he is working out a solution to the subconscious problems of the shooting.

However, if the officer is not aware of the positive side of dreams they can cause a whole different group of problems for the officer and his family.

He can become depressed as the dreams continue. The more depressed he becomes, the more he withdraws socially. As this occurs, his wife can become fearful of him. As she becomes more frightened, she withdraws from his and starts to keep some distance between them. A this point, he will probably become suspect of her behavior. The tension increases and soon the children become aware of what is going on, and add to the tension.

A whole family can be ruined by nightmares if the officer and his family are not aware of what a dream represents and how to deal with it.

It must be remembered that dreams are a symptom, a symptom of something that is wrong. If you have this symptom it is telling you to seek help and remedy the problem. 4

In order to understand why these dreams occur we have to understand a few things about dreams and about police officers.

According to Massad Ayoob, the founder of the Lethal Force Institute in Concord, N.H., a police officer who is in a shooting, is the victim of a violent crime. He is not different than the store manager who is held up, the senior citizen who is mugged, or the woman who is raped. 5

If you compare the police officer who was forced to kill, and the rape victim you will find parallels. Both suffer from crimes of personal violence. After the act, both feel dirty and undesirable. Both have feelings of guilt, as if they did something wrong. Both internalize the stress and blame themselves instead of the perpetrator.

The following passages are about nightmares of rape victims. As your read the quotes, in your mind change the term rape victim to police officer, and rape act to shooting. As you do this you will see how much a victim a police officer is.

"Nightmares often occur when an individual is unable to successfully deal with a traumatic event that has recently come to pass. Replaying the event during the sleeping state represents an attempt by the subconscious to integrate the event into the everyday world. The intensity of the fear, and the negative feelings surrounding the incident contribute to the disquieting character of then nightmare.

Nightmares often exhibit a repetition compulsion- the victim replays the rape incident over and over in her mind. One social worker recounts how nightmares initially seem to be reenactments of the rape incident. After several weeks, however, the nightmares may instead become scenarios of how the victim would like the rape incident to have gone. In these revised nightmares, it is the victim who controls the situation, often killing the offender. Through nightmares, the victim achieves mastery of a situation that up until then could not be integrated into everyday experience." 6

"Rape violence has an immediate impact on adjustment in regard to increased nightmares. The more brutal that a rape incident is, the less likely that the victim will be able to consciously deal with it. She may repress most details of it and attempt to deny the violent aspects altogether. Not surprisingly, four of the five variables significantly associated with increased nightmares 1 year after the rape describe elements of rape violence." 7

After a shooting, an officer usually suffers from nightmares. this is not only a very frightening experience, but a very confusing one, unless the officer has been previously prepared for it.

Nightmares can come in any form. An officer can dream that he is going through the same incident over and over. He might dream of imaginary shootings, sometimes he might be the loser. Others can dream of deaths unrelated to the shooting, and others have daydreams.

A big factor in creating nightmares is the officer's own fears of showing emotion. all his training advises him to remain detached an aloof to what is going on around him.

Now when he needs an emotional outlet he suppresses it. This increases the stress and builds up more nightmares. even if he just became angry at the person he killed making him do it, it would be a release. Anger helps to remove guilt, and the removal of guilt will remove stress. 8

Another thing that adds to the confusion and trauma is that the officer sees the shooting going on in slow motion. When the incident is over he feels guilty, and dreams he was wrong because he is confused over the slow motion. Because he sees the incident recurring in slow motion he believes he could have done things differently because he had all the time in the world. This is false, but, it helps to create the illusion of wrong doing in dreams. 9

The press also creates stress for the officer. The press writes articles that do not merely report the facts of the incident, but articles that are subject to editorializing. When this is done, the officer is given the sensation that he is being judged and found guilty by people who are making their decision without the facts.

This bad press coverage increases the strain on the officer's family. The wife is confronted by misinformed people and the children are victims of the school grapevine. The children are told by their classmates that their father murdered someone. All of this increases the stress that leads to an increase in nightmares. 10

The officer also suffers from role reversal during the investigation. He is no longer conducting the investigation, but is the focal point of a homicide investigation. This confusion creates more stress and can lead to nightmares. 11

Officer John White of the Dallas Police Department Psychological Unit wrote to me and advised me of the following incidents of nightmares reported to his unit by police officers.

An officer continuously wakes up at night and sees the man he shot and killed, sitting on the edge of his bed.

Another officer who shot and killed a man who was trying to stab him with a screw driver, now dreams of pulling into a convenience store with a group of small children running away. When he shouts for them to stop, they all turn around and shoot, killing him.

Another Dallas officer while working steady midnights, continuously sees the man he shot and killed sitting either in the front seat or behind him in the back seat of the police car. 12

A Miami police officer reports after killing one man armed with a gun, and being wounded in a second incident, dreams of being involved in another gun battle and his weapon fails to operate. The gun won't fire, and he gets shot at least five thousand times night after night. 13

A Hialeah, Fl. police officer shot and killed someone who tried to run him down with a car. Since he was injured he spent a great deal of time in the hospital contemplating the incident. When he came home he started to have dreams. His nightmares had the man standing by his bed, or in front of the chair he was sitting in. In his dreams he sees the person, even though he never saw the man's face. 14

I myself have recurring nightmares. Two nights after my shooting I had nightmares. I dreamed many of my friends were dying. That woke me up in a sweat.

After that the dreams started with a new twist. From then on the dreams involved me in shootings. In every shooting the bullets come out of the barrel and fall on the ground, never reaching the criminal. In the dreams where the criminal is struck, the impact is so weak the bullet has no effect on the criminal.

Almost all the officers I have spoken to in the Suffolk County Police Department Combat Group, ( a peer counseling program for officers involved in police combat) recall having some type of similar dream.

Some of the reasons for these nightmares are the confused attitudes of the officers over their involvement in the shootings.

The Dallas Officer who dreamed that children where shooting him, has this recurring nightmare because he is unable to convince himself that the man attempting to stab him with a screwdriver was as deadly an opponent as a man armed with a knife. Therefore, with misconceptions of innocence, he sees the children representing innocence, and it is turning on him, because he can not see the man with screwdriver being guilty. 15

A Suffolk officer killed a white man during daylight hours. He has dreamed of working a midnight tour and having three black males fleeing from a burglary. One of the black males pulls a gun and the officer shoots, and man falls to the ground while the others get away. The black males and the black night represent a fear of the unknown. He is questioning whether or not he would be able to handle the same type of situation if it happened again. 16

Officer John White of the Dallas Police Department says that 80% of the officers involved in shootings report having a dream recreating the situation and incident with the same outcome.

Out of the 80%, 10% have a variation dream. That is a dream in which a shooting occurs, but not like the incident in which they were involved. Those who have a variation dream in which they are killed, are most likely experiencing guilt. 17

One of the best ways to reduce the dreams related to Post Shooting Trauma is to understand them, and a very good way to understand is through a counseling program specifically designed for Post Shooting Trauma victims.

Without reducing the stress, an officer could become a victim like Karl Hettinger in The Onion Field, or a Bobby Jordan, as described on the February 17, 1983 ABC News -20/20 'When A Cop Kills'.

"One case in point, Bobby Jordan of the Hialeah Police Department. Jordan had been shot and severely wounded. He also while on duty killed a man. But his department had o psychological counseling available. Jordan's life took a tailspin through alcohol, violence, and finally two moths after his wife divorced him, suicide. She recalled how killing a man continued to haunt him.

'He would wake up swinging thrashing in bed, you know, just drenched in sweat, you know, jumping out of bed and then you realize you're home and you're in bed, you know, he'd be shaking.'

'Over the shooting incident, the man he killed? Did he ever see his face or recall times-'

'He would be flashing it back in his mind up until the time he says that he fired the shot.'

'How well equipped , how well prepared was the police department in Hialeah for dealing with someone like your husband, with serious stress and psychological problems?'

'None, in my opinion there is none.'

'Did he seek help?'

'Yes, but he didn't receive any from Hialeah." 18

Hialeah Police Department has now set up a counseling unit to assist officers through such traumatic times.

Miami Police Department has a "Shrinks for Cops" program. This program teaches officers the danger signals of stress and how to reduce it.

The Suffolk County Police Department is using an experimental program of peer counseling. These officers in the program have all been involved in a shooting at one time or another, get together and discuss problems, including dreams, inherent to them as victims of post shooting trauma. Most of the officers realize that once they understand the dream, a great deal of the stress is reduced.

The way to reduce nightmares is to reduce the stress causing them. The most important step is to recognize the problem. Knowing the problem helps to solve it.

When an officer starts having sick time abuses, depression, citizen complaints, and an exhaustive work schedule, he is showing signs of post shooting trauma.

The way to solve the problem is through some form of counseling. One of the easiest ways is to talk out the problem. The telling of "war stories" is a source of release. It lets the officer tell in his own words what he did, and show himself, he did nothing wrong. This were a peer counseling group functioning along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous is very helpful. The officer can sort the problem out with others who understand, because they too share a common bond with this new victim.

The idea to keep in mind is that no one is looking to brand the officer a psychological misfit, and attempt to remove him from the force. The reason for the counseling is the rehabilitation of the officer, and return of a productive member of the department.

Both the department and the officer have to share part of the responsibility in a program of recovery.

The department must be willing to provide the necessary services for such a program. Unfortunately, at present only one in five police departments have type of stress program.

An officer must come to grips with the reality of what has happened. Only then will his subconscious allow him to accept what he has done, and allow a reduction in stress caused nightmares. He must not allow himself to be influenced by outside opinions, and must remember that he acted with the best information available at the time, and he could not have done things differently. Once he realizes this it will reduce the stress and alleviate the nightmares.


1. The Onion Field, Joseph Wambaugh, pgs. 324-325
2. The Police Chief, June 1981 p. 58
3. Ibid., pgs. 58-59
4. Interview with Dr. Pasquale Carone May 3, 1983
5. Telephone interview with Massad Ayoob, May 2, 1983
6. The Aftermath of Rape, Thomas W. McCahill, et.al. p. 27
7. Ibid., p. 64
8. Smith and Wesson Post Shooting Trauma Seminar, Smith and Wesson Academy, March 14-16, 1983
9. Ibid.,
10. Interview with Massad Ayoob, May 2, 1983
11. Ibid.,
12. Correspondence with Police Officer John White, Dallas, Tx Police Department
13. ABC News-20/20 Show #306, Transcript, Tom Jarriel reporting, p. 4
14. Ibid., p.6
15. Op Cit.
16. Suffolk County Police Department Combat Group Meeting,
17. Op. Cit.
18. ABC News-20/20, P. 5


McCahill, Thomas W. et.al. The Aftermath of Rape, Lexington, Mass. Lexington Book D.C. Heath and Company 1971
Wambaugh, Joseph. The Onion Field, New York, N.Y. Delacorte Press, 1973
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 with Ayoob, Massad. director, Lethal Force Institute, Concord, N.H. May 2, 1983
Personal interview. Carone, Pasquale, M.D. South Oaks Hospital, Amityville, N.Y. May 3, 1983
Correspondence. White, John. Police Officer, Dallas, Tx. Police Department Psychological Unit. April 26, 1983
Post Shooting trauma Seminar. Smith and Wesson Academy, Springfield, Mass. March 14 -16, 1983.

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 keithbett@juno.com