I originally posted this on LinkedIn about a year ago. Considering what is transpiring across North America as of late, it seems timely to re-post it in a different venue.
This is not an article about race. Or the rights and wrongs of lethal force encounters. Or second-guessing an officer who makes the hardest decision we can be faced with on the job. Its not a debate about the level of deference and regard for the law, police, or the justice system (although god knows that area is ripe for exploring.) It is applicable whether we’re talking about Louisiana, Dallas, Toronto, or Paris.
What it IS is an article about the too-seldom talked about after effect of a police shooting, namely, the toll taken on the person who had to pull the trigger.
I’m not equating one issue to the other, or saying that a police officer’s trauma trumps the death of someone. Those can’t be compared, because they’re apples and oranges. Any death that results from police interaction is a tragedy, regardless of circumstances, justification, or what a judge or jury says. I’m saying that in a death from a police shooting, the focus traditionally has been on the person who’s died, regardless of the circumstances of their death, regardless of what they may have done to prompt a police response, regardless of how much of a convicted criminal they are.
Why that happens is not really a quandry. As Don Henley once sang, ‘It’s interesting when people die.” Sex and violence means big ratings. If there’s cell phone footage, (and when is there not anymore,) so much the better. If the deceased is a minority, great. Who cares why it happened, or what led up to the use of lethal force? A cop (or two, or three,) pulled the trigger, someone is dead, and we have our lead story.
However, there are occasional glimmers of common sense when it comes to analyzing cell phone footage of a police interaction. This court verdict was released in Toronto yesterday, July 20th:
Of note is this passage outlining the reasoning by Justice Croll : “In her decision Wednesday, Croll rejected the Crown’s argument that Dobbs’s body would have been jostling in the video had Costain been resisting arrest. She compared a freeze-frame analysis of the video to “Monday morning quarterbacking,” and said the video leaves “an evidentiary vacuum” around what Costain was doing as Dobbs rained blows on him.”
There’s almost a checklist to these stories: show the crime scene, show the smartphone footage, talk to the witnesses, find friends of the deceased who will say what a great person they were, find a defense lawyer / civil rights activist / community mouthpiece to decry yet ANOTHER police shooting, then close with a comment that the police or independent agency investigating has yet to comment. Back to you, Bill.
What never gets talked about, aside from the occasional ‘gritty’ story on police or first responder suicide, is the effect on the officers on the other side of the gun.
When you start your career, you’re told that as a result of becoming a police officer, you may have to take a life in the line of duty. If you can’t cope with that, then you really shouldn’t be a police officer. We carry a sidearm or a rifle because it is the most efficient way to stop a threat, its that simple. Some people in the world don’t like that; they don’t like the fact that we’ve been empowered by the law and by society to do what is ultimately the most grievous thing any human being ever has to do – kill another human. That’s why we train, why we practice judgment exercises, so if we are pushed to the point to have to shoot someone to stop them as a threat, then we have the ability and muscle memory to do so. The equipment and training are there so we can act quickly and decisively when the time comes.
What is difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for, is the aftermath of pulling that trigger. Multiple studies on police shootings have shown that the psychological and physiological impacts begin as soon as the firearm clears the holster. Before even firing, most officers are already contemplating the ramifications of what they are about to do. Officers experience time distortion, visual and auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, and a massive adrenaline dump. They shake, begin sweating, many hyperventilate. That’s why the muscle memory is so important; reflexes must kick in at that level to overcome all these other physiological effects.
A quick example. Several years ago, I was working at a traffic checkpoint when a car with four young guys pulled up. All of them seemed nervous, but that’s not unusual when dealing with police. While my partner spoke to the driver, I tried to make eye contact with the back seat occupants, neither of whom would meet my gaze. I moved right up to the window so I could see the floor. Under the passenger side occupant’s foot, I could see the butt of a gun. I remember yelling ‘Gun’, then there was a few seconds of blur, then suddenly I had my gun out, was five feet to the left and three feet behind where I had been. On a subconscious level, I had recognized the threat, drew my weapon, moved to a safer spot, and aimed at a threat. No thought needed, just reaction. That’s what keeps you alive, that fight or flight.
But I digress.
What does an officer who shoots someone feel? The most common response is guilt – at having taken a life, cost a family a son or husband, even at surviving when someone else didn’t. Fear – at the fallout, at the prospect of losing their job, at having done something wrong, at being investigated, at being charged criminally. Anger – at being put in that position, at being forced to take such an extreme action, at the deceased, especially if they were injured or shot at before killing their attacker.
Other studies have shown that what happens in the immediate aftermath of a police shooting is the largest single indicator of how that officer will rebound from the effects:
-do they get immediate psychological first aid from a CISR or peer responder
-are they supported by their partners, superiors, spouse / partner
-does the investigating agency treat them from a neutral perspective
-if they choose to do so, are they given a chance to explain their actions
-how does the media / social media react
All of those are, for the most part, dictated by the police service the officer works for, as well as the policies of the province / state / country where they work. Officers can only hope that those procedures are fair and unbiased, created as much for the protection of the officer as for the protection of society.
Then there’s the media.
Media and social media are, for the most part, out of the officer’s control. And the pervasiveness of these things today have the potential to cause incredible damage. Media personalities who have no experience in law enforcement or deadly encounters comment endlessly on the actions of officers. Media outlets that are anti-police take the opportunity to slam the officer, demand change, and push their own agendas. Millions of people on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube comment and debate endlessly based on the ten or twenty seconds of video they see shot from someone’s cell phone.
As a matter of course, at least in Ontario, police agencies seldom comment on police shootings. Officers are not allowed to comment directly on their actions. In fact, this is often dictated by statute. Because of this, and widespread ignorance of the law and police procedure, the perception is often that the police are trying to cover something up or take time to spin a story.
The net result of all this is that an officer involved in a shooting, unless they completely disconnect themselves from the world, are constantly hearing that they shot someone for no reason, that they abused their authority, that they took a promising young life. Even though THEY know that they only resorted to their firearm after multiple demands to drop a knife or hammer or crowbar were ignored and that they were praying to whatever deity they believe in that the subject would comply, or at least de-escalate, so the officer could use pepper spray or his baton or Taser. They can’t tell their story, so it gets told for them over and over, usually in the worst way possible.
An interesting observation. A recent study by an Ottawa Police officer who is doing his doctoral dissertation on how camera phones have affected police behaviour found a pronounced change in police use of force over the last few years. The prevalance of phones everywhere has led to a freezing effect on officers, to the point where even though they would be absolutely justified in using force on a person they are dealing with, they don’t do so, for fear of how it will look to bystanders. I personally find this to be a sad, and scary, reflection of how society’s peacekeepers are thought of. Many people are more likely to whip out their iPhone at a crime scene or bar fight now in the hopes of catching something ‘juicy’ that a police officer may do than calling for help or being an effective witness. Another good argument for body cams, in my opinion, because they tell the whole story, not a short clip of just the ‘good stuff.’ Interesting reading.
They begin to question themselves, even if they did what they were trained to do, protected themselves or someone else and went home safely at the end of their shift. Their self-worth and self-esteem begin to plummet, and this impacts all areas of their lives. Quite often, they are relieved from duty or put on a desk somewhere while the shooting investigation is finished or until things quiet down. Their gun, duty belt, even their uniform is taken for dissection by someone who has the luxury of reconstructing a scene that they had to analyze, interpret, and control in a manner of seconds. All these things further reinforce that they made a mistake.
On top of the constant questioning of themselves, there are questions about being sued, keeping their jobs, being charged. Will they have to go to prison? Will they lose their pension in a civil suit? Is the job they gave their body, mind, heart and soul for over?
All of these factors open the door for PTSD to set in. The longer these outside influences are acting on the officer, the higher the probability of long term trauma setting in. Starting work with a psychologist or trauma counsellor immediately can negate many of these factors, but if the shooting is contentious or high-profile, the officer may feel, in some cases, that they can’t even leave their homes. In many cases that is true in a practical sense as well, if their name has been released and the media and protestors are camped out on their lawns.
Many officers, if they get help quickly enough, practice self-care and are supported, will bounce back from a shoot and continue working. Some officers never recover from their lethal force encounter. If they are lucky, they retire with their pension and nightmares and continue treatment. If not, then they often commit suicide to escape from the guilt, even if they are legally cleared of any wrongdoing.
Police shootings are not like an 80s action movie. The hero doesn’t fire one perfect shot that drops the bad guy, then make a witty comment and walk out of the warehouse with a buxom blonde on his arm. Real police shootings are ugly, messy affairs that usually take place at distances of 6 to 8 feet. Many of the shots miss their target and quite often a human body can take multiple shots before the person stops what they are doing. When the threat is stopped, officers are then faced with the mind-boggling task of changing tracks from stopping someone who may have been attempting to kill them to having to provide first aid to them. All while trying to manage their own stress reactions, adrenaline, terror, and gratitude at being alive.
And dealing with your family and loved ones while trying to balance all this? That is a whole story unto itself.
CNN doesn’t capture that. Facebook trolls don’t post poorly spelled, inflammatory comments about the realities I’ve discussed. Left-leaning newspapers don’t actually talk to someone who’s been involved in a police shooting, but simply editorialize and hypothesize.
Because looking for the truth would take work. And it doesn’t create outrage, because if you start to look at both sides of the equation, then you create sympathy for the officer, and that doesn’t fan the flames.
Realistically, it takes someone on the ‘inside’ who is willing to be upfront and honest about what officers go through. I don’t mind being the one to break the wall. Officers are human, not Terminators. We don’t kill randomly and without justification. (Are there bad cops who abuse their authority? Certainly, and those aren’t the cops I’m talking about in this article. Bad cops need to be reined in and weeded out.) Most cops who shoot someone do it because they willingly took on a job where they knew that having to use lethal force was a part of the job. We don’t want it to happen, we don’t hope it will happen, but if and when it does, we do it. Some say that because we know it may happen, and train for it, that there is no excuse for having trauma reactions after a shooting, and that if you have those reactions you’re obviously not cut out to be a cop.
Bullshit. Wearing a badge and carrying a gun doesn’t turn off your sympathetic nervous system. Or your emotions. Or your coping skills. Or your basic human nature that has been programmed by generations of DNA not to kill other people.
There is a price to pay in the aftermath of a police shooting, a human price on both sides of the equation. It is a situation that affects both persons and can, in reality end both lives. In the blink of an eye, saints become sinners, and vice versa.
While the names of those who are killed live on, (although often losing their individuality and becoming simply a ‘victim’ or ‘unarmed youth’ or ‘black youth killed by a white cop’, all rallying points for platforms of all shades,) the names of those who pull the trigger are often forgotten, lumped into the general sensationalist umbrella of ‘cops who kill.’
Not much of a legacy to mark so many shattered lives.
Brian is a regular contributor to PTSDchat.org and The Huffington Post. He is the author of ‘On the Other Side of Broken – One Cop’s Battle With the Demons of PTSD’ which is available here.