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June 09, 2010
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Dr. Laurence Miller Practical Police Psychology
with Dr. Laurence Miller

OBM: Coping with the aftermath

Last week, we talked a little about the fact that, despite all good intentions and preparations, an OBM (One Bad Moment) event may occur. That possibility looms constantly over every officer’s career. We also spent some time getting a handle on recognizing the emotions— fear, anger, denial, defensiveness, guilt, sadness, and depression — an officer will go through in the aftermath of such an incident.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to cope with the aftermath of your OBM incident. Some of these are practical actions you can take; others are psychological coping strategies you can employ.

Coping with the OBM Aftermath
Mobilize. Find out what practical resources you’re going to need. This includes legal counsel, family support, alternative income (if suspended without pay), medical resources, and psychological support. Sit down — preferably with someone you trust — and plot out a plan of action to get you through this ordeal. Having some kind of plan — and you can change it as circumstances dictate — acts as an antidote to helplessness and despair.

Get the Facts. In some cases, the truth might hurt, but most officers would rather deal with a set of well-established facts than continue to swim in a toxic spill of ambiguity and innuendo. Some if this info may come directly through the department, some from your attorney, and some from colleagues and witnesses. Carry around a huge grain of salt at all times, and always verify what you hear.

Talk it Out. But pick your confidantes carefully. A lot of people may want to hear your story, but they don’t always have your best interests at heart. Hostile attorneys, self-righteous IA investigators, creepy media people, and outraged citizens’ groups may be insanely irritating, but at least they’re easy to spot and you know where they’re coming from.

Less readily identifiable may be the motives of “trauma junkies” who get off on hearing you relate the grisly details of your incident, the “emotional vampires” who feed off other people’s angst and despair, or the “better-you-than-me” crowd who are the conversational equivalent of people who slow down to gawk at an accident.

Please make it a working assumption that anything you tell, phone, write, email, or text-message anyone may be instantaneously available to every human being on the planet. When in doubt, politely decline to discuss. Genuinely well-intentioned family and friends will gladly respect your wishes for solitude and privacy, and will be there when you need them.

Keep Busy. Productively busy, that is. If you’re still working, work. If you’re on suspension, find something healthy and meaningful to occupy your time. If there is disciplinary or legal action going on around your case, cooperate with your attorney or other representative, but try not to obsess — that’s their job. Try to make lemonade out of lemons by using the off-time to get back to the gym, build that deck, or take that trip. When you need to rest, rest, then move on.

Tolerate Normal Human Emotions. Feeling sad or remorseful about an unintended tragic outcome is not the same as clinical depression. If shit happens, you’re supposed to feel shitty. Likewise, feeling ‘pissed and dissed’ because you think you’ve been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and falsely accused in a rush to judgment doesn’t mean you have an anger management problem. You just need to learn how to moderate the effect your gut has on your brain. Of course, stress heightens and magnifies all of our reactions, so try to monitor (or ask trusted others to do it for you) when you feel that your emotions are spiraling out of control.

Be Safe. You know I’m not just talking about checking the milk carton date. If substance abuse is a risk factor for you, do whatever it takes to keep yourself under control — for the sake of your health, your family, and your job. Especially when all eyes are upon you, it’s important to present yourself at all times as mature and dignified. Safety also involves preserving your very life: if those self-destructive thoughts come and you can’t seem to shake them, it’s time to reach out.

Get Professional Help. Not every cop in every OBM situation will need the services of a mental health professional. But if you feel you’re losing it, let someone help you grab it back. The focus of this type of psychological intervention should not be to dwell on your toilet training (although insight from the past can sometimes be helpful for dealing with the present), but mainly to

1. afford a sympathetic ear to whom you can vent in confidence
2. provide you with a range of coping techniques to deal with the practical and emotional effects of the OBM aftermath
3. help you achieve a reality check on the incident itself

Just as one example, police psychologist Roger Solomon describes a frame-by-frame technique that allows the officer to review the incident and distinguish what he/she knew and could have done then, as distinct from what could only be known in hindsight. (For a range of psychotherapeutic strategies for law enforcement officers, check this out.

Learn From It. One of my other little classroom catechisms is: “20/20 hindsight = 20/20 insight = 20/20 foresight.”

In other words, if you can figure out what went wrong last time, maybe you can prevent a similar incident (or advise someone else how to prevent it) next time. Knowing that you have a handle on the problem gives a feeling of control which, in turn, boosts confidence which, in turn, dilutes guilt and despair. After all, if you really did do something wrong — intentionally or not — feeling confident that you’re not that person anymore is the most important step to forgiving yourself.

How to Help an Officer Cope with an OBM
If you’re a well-meaning colleague, family member, or friend, here are some things you can do to help your officer get through a OBM ordeal.

Be Present. Many helpers become preoccupied with “doing something” for the distressed officer. But often, just letting him/her know you’re there and on his/her side, i.e. providing a quiet, comforting, supportive presence, is sometimes the best thing you can do for the officer.

Back Off and Shut Up. This is a corollary of the above. Unless you perceive an actual danger or he/she is neglecting certain essential tasks (see below), if your officer wants to be left alone, respect that. Again, just knowing you’re there when he/she needs you will be a tremendous support.

Listen. If the officer wants to talk, engage him/her in conversation, but let the officer do most of the talking. Of course, if you’re asked a question, answer it, but realize that this conversation is primarily for the officer’s benefit.

Offer Advice. I don’t mean to suggest you have to sit there with duct tape over your mouth. By all means, feel free to offer the officer whatever you think will help. If you’re a colleague who’s weathered a similar experience, give the officer the benefit of your insights. If you’re a friend or relative, suggest ways the officer can take his/her mind off the ongoing problems and engage in a healthy, distracting activity.

What is usually not helpful is stoking the flames of adversarial hostility and paranoia: “Yeah, those assholes really stuck it to you; they try to burn everybody.” Even if there’s an element of truth to this, it is way more productive to focus on how the officer can navigate through the crisis to effect the best resolution possible.

Watch for Danger Signs. This relates to the two biggies noted earlier: substance abuse and signs of possible suicide. Warning signs of suicide for a LEO may include direct or veiled threats, apparent lack of concern for the future, either giving up his/her weapon or stockpiling weapons, identifying with other slain officers, making final plans, or sudden religious preoccupation.

Don’t overlook the obvious: the most common clue to a person thinking about killing themselves is that person telling you, “I’m thinking about killing myself.” If you’re getting the signals, take action. Remember, safety first.

In general, if an officer can maintain his/her dignity through the OBM ordeal, learn how to do things differently next time, make amends for what can be fixed, and find peace with what cannot, he or she can look back on the OBM incident as a mortal, but survivable wound — one that in some cases even lead to a measure of personal growth.


Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

NOTE: If you have a question for this column, please submit it to this website.


About the author

Laurence Miller, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Fla. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, mental health consultant for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies. Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications pertaining to the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice and organizational psychology. His latest books are "Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement" (Charles C Thomas, 2006) and "Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement" (Looseleaf Law Publications, 2008).

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. If you have a question about this column, please submit it to this website.

Contact Laurence Miller





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