By Jeff McGill, PoliceOne Member
“Shots fired, officer down” — four words LEOs never want to hear. The shooting was over in mere seconds. One of us was shot.
As law enforcement officers, we all know the risk of being shot, but I never thought about the injuries that come from not being shot.
I think of myself as collateral damage. While I won’t pin that label on anyone else, I’m sure that after I explain my situation, you — or someone you know — may also be collateral damage.
The manhunt had finally come to an end On December 9th, 2011. Our task force had the house surrounded with a known suspect inside.
When the shooting started, I could see the rounds hitting the car my partner had taken cover behind. I began moving toward where I believed the bad guy was firing from, and while approaching, I saw the spray of blood from my partners face out of the corner of my eye.
It has replayed in my mind on a never-ending loop.
As I broke the plane I saw the bad guy going to the ground, shot multiple times. With plenty of guns at the ready for any further threat, my focus shifted to my partner.
He was still conscious, and a puddle of blood was forming on the ground from the 9mm round to his right cheek bone.
He was calmer than I or anyone else at the scene.
The load-and-go decision was quick.
Minutes later, I was standing in an emergency room with my partner lying on a hospital table. I mustered up my only words and told him “we got this” and “not to worry” — I felt I was lying right to his face.
What Do You Say?
I’d never really thought about what to say or how to look confident to my partner at a time like that. Looking at the gaping hole in my friend’s face and the blood on his teeth — I still clearly remember the blood stained teeth.
My partner was sedated and I seemed to be alone in the ER forever, waiting for his wife to arrive.
Nothing seemed to be happening fast enough for me. My agitation increased. I remember my face being numb from the anxiety and stress — a very strange feeling.
When his wife arrived I handed her his wedding ring. I passed on what could have been his last words (as far as I knew) and then, we waited.
After a time I left the room to breathe — I’m sure I hadn’t in some time.
I spoke with dozens of officers and family asking me how my partner was, but it was all a blur.
I gave the standard response. “He’s OK. I’m OK.”
But that was far from the truth.
Multiple people have told me that I appeared as if I was in shock — others have told me we had conversations that I will probably never recall.
This was just the beginning of my memory issues.
Eventually I had to go to the house for a shower and a nap, but three hours later my partner was asking for me.
I headed back to the hospital. The drive over there was unbearable. I was shaking, my heart rate was skyrocketing, my hands were sweaty and I was on the verge of a panic attack.
It wasn’t until late that I understood I was relating driving to the shooting — and the lack of control over the situation — as I drove to the hospital unable to help my partner.
During the days that followed, those of us who were there when the rounds were flying started talking about it. Telling the story, rehashing the steps, and helping each other fill in the gaps in our memory. I learned I did things in the middle of the gun smoke that I couldn’t remember. It was very strange to be so sure something did or didn’t happen, only to find out the opposite was true.
My partner and I had read, discussed, and been involved in several critical incidents — and their aftermath — long before this shooting. The stress, the anger, the sleep disruption, and the memory issues were not a surprise.
However, I still found myself feeling like I was part of my own psychological experiment. I could recognize what was happening to me but I was unable to stop it or prevent it. The more issues I had, the more irritated I became — the more irritated I became, the more issues I had. A vicious cycle.
Almost a year later, there were still had times when I could feel it all flooding back. My memory was not as sharp as it had been, as if my brain dumped anything that it decided wasn’t important.
It was tough for me to stay focused. I can only attribute that to the idea that if you’re not shooting a gun at me and my friends, you don’t really need my full attention.
It affected my work and home life. I found myself missing turns as I drove, despite knowing where I was going. I couldn’t recall a simple list of things to do even if I just made them.
It has improved over time and I would consider myself at “a new normal” now.
One of us is living with the physical injuries — my partner lived, and will probably tell his story in this very space — and the rest of us are living with the psychological injuries.
The “collateral damage” stretches beyond those of us who were there at the scene or at the hospital that day. Anyone who knows either my partner or one of the officers who was there that day remembers where they were when they got the call. They remember the feeling in their stomach and the thoughts running through their mind.
And like us, they too, will never forget.
About the Author
Jeff McGill has served 18 years as a law enforcement officer in Florida. His multiple assignments included serving six years as a Task Force Officer for the US Marshal Service Regional Fugitive Task Force. He is currently a full time instructor/coordinator at one of Florida's law enforcement training centers.