Shots Fired! A special PoliceOne series


By PoliceOne Columnist Dr. Laurence Miller, PhD

Part 1: Psychological Reaction Patterns to Officer-Involved Shootings

Q: Recently, I had to draw and fire my weapon in the line of duty. It was a pretty clear-cut case of defending my life and the life of a citizen, and the bad guy later died at the hospital. But some things about it are weirding me out. While it was all going down, it seemed like my body was in slow motion, like being on autopilot. And, while some things about the incident are clear as a bell in my mind, there are other things I just can’t remember. Then, for a couple of weeks afterward, it was like my mind was in static mode. My emotions were swinging all over the place and it was hard to concentrate.

It didn’t help that the internal investigation treated me like I did something wrong. Even at the scene of the shooting, nobody seemed really sure what to do. I seem to be getting over it now, but I still have some bad days.

Is this normal?

strong>A: It’s normal for an abnormal situation. Know how many times the average police officer fires his weapon in the line of duty during his whole career? The answer is zero – most cops never shoot anybody. Nevertheless, as a law enforcement officer, you are unique among civilian public safety and emergency service personnel in that no other nonmilitary professional group is mandated to carry a lethal firearm as part of their daily gear. And no other professional is charged with the responsibility of using their own discretion and judgment in making split-second decisions that can have life-and-death consequences. So firing one’s weapon in an officer-involved shooting (OIS) is almost always a profound event that can leave a psychological trace.

Cops and Guns: Facts and Stats

Statistics indicate that about six hundred criminals are killed each year by police officers in the United States. Some of these killings are in self-defense, some are accidental, and others are done to prevent harm to citizens. By comparison, about 135 officers are killed in the line of duty each year. When you consider their ratios in the general population, proportionately far more cops are killed by civilians each year than the other way around. In most cases, an officer’s taking a life occurs in the context of trying to save a life.

In most jurisdictions, the legal test for justification of legitimate use of lethal force by police officers requires that any reasonable person with the training and experience of the involved officer would have perceived a lethal threat in the actions taken by the suspect. Line-of-duty deadly force actions are most likely to occur in the following situations:

(1) traffic offense;
(2) domestic or other disturbance calls;
(3) robbery in progress;
(4) burglary in progress;
(5) personal dispute and/or accident; and
(6) stake-out and drug bust.

Perceptual, Cognitive, and Behavioral Disturbances

Most officers who have been involved in a deadly force shooting episode have described one or more alterations in perception, thinking, and behavior that occurred during the event. Most of these can be interpreted as natural adaptive defensive reactions of an organism’s nervous system to extreme emergency stress.

Most common are distortions in time perception. In the majority of these cases, officers recall the shooting event as occurring in slow motion, although a smaller percentage report experiencing the event as speeded up.

Sensory distortions are common and most commonly involve tunnel vision, in which the officer is sharply focused on one particular aspect of the visual field, typically, the suspect’s weapon, while blocking out everything in the periphery. Similarly, “tunnel hearing” may occur, in which the officer’s auditory attention is focused exclusively on a particular set of sounds, most commonly the suspect’s voice, while background sounds are excluded. Sounds may also seem muffled or, in a smaller number of cases, louder than normal. Officers have reported not hearing their own or other officers’ gunshots.

Some form of perceptual and/or behavioral dissociation may occur. In extreme cases, officers may describe feeling as though they were standing outside or hovering above the scene, observing it “like it was happening to someone else.” In milder cases, the officer may report that he or she “just went on automatic,” performing whatever actions he took with a sense of robotic detachment. Some officers report intrusive distracting thoughts during the scene, often involving loved ones or other personal matters, but it is not known if these substantially affected the officers’ actions during the event.

A sense of helplessness may occur during a shooting episode, but may be underreported due to the potential stigma attached. A very small proportion of officers report that they “froze” at some point during the event: either this is an uncommon response or officers are understandably reluctant to report it. In a series of interviews by police psychologist Alexis Artwohl, most of these cases seemed to represent the normal action-reaction gap in which officers make the split-second judgment call to shoot only after the suspect has clearly threatened someone’s life. This brief evaluative interval is actually a positive precaution to prevent the premature shooting of a nonthreatening citizen. But in cases where the otherwise prudent action led to a tragic outcome, this hesitation may well be viewed retrospectively as a fault: “If I hadn’t waited to see him draw, maybe that store owner would still be alive.”

Disturbances in memory are commonly reported in shooting cases. About half of these involve impaired recall for at least some of the events during the shooting scene; the other half involve impaired recall for at least part of the officer’s own actions – this latter reaction may be associated with the “going-on-automatic” response. More rarely, some aspects of the scene may be recalled with unusually vivid clarity – a flashbulb memory.

Over a third of cases involve not so much a loss of memory as a distortion of recall, which may cause the officer’s account of what happened to differ markedly from the report of other observers at the scene. An administrative implication of this cognitive phenomenon is that discrepant accounts among eyewitnesses to a shooting scene should not necessarily be interpreted as one or more persons lying or consciously distorting his report, but may well represent honest differences of perception and recall.

Post-shooting Psychological Reactions 

While the officer’s individual personality and experience will influence the type of post-shooting reaction he or she experiences, certain common phenomena are frequently reported in the first few days or weeks following an OIS.

Physical symptoms may include headaches, stomach upset, nausea, weakness and fatigue, muscle tension and twitches, and changes in appetite and sexual functioning. Sleep is typically impaired, with frequent awakenings and often nightmares. Typical posttraumatic reactions of hypervigilance, hypersensitivity, intrusive imagery and flashbacks may occur, along with premonitions, distorted memories, and feelings of déjà vu. Some degree of anxiety and depression is common, sometimes accompanied by panic attacks. There may be unnatural and disorienting feelings of helplessness, fearfulness, and vulnerability, along with second-guessing and guilt feelings. Alcohol and/or substance abuse may be a risk.

There may be a pervasive irritability and low frustration tolerance, along with anger and resentment toward the suspect, the department, unsupportive peers and family, or civilians in general. This may result in overaggressive policing, leading to abuse-of-force complaints and disciplinary actions. Ultimately, this reaction pattern may spiral into a vicious cycle of angry and fearful isolation and withdrawal by the officer, spurring further alienation from potential sources of help and support such as peers and family.

At the same time, some officers become overly protective of their families, generating what police crisis negotiator Michael McMains calls an alternating control-alienation syndrome. All this, sometimes combined with uncontrollable mood swings (“I just get mad or cry for no damn reason”) and cognitive symptoms of impaired concentration and memory, may lead the officer to fear that he or she is going crazy.

Apart from the universal reactions and individual personality and history of the officer, certain factors inherent in the line-of-duty shooting incident itself can affect the severity, persistence, and impact of post-shooting symptoms and reactions.

One obvious factor is the degree of threat to the officer’s life. An officer who feels that he or she was literally about to die may be shaken up by the extreme fear involved, but may feel quite justified and relatively guilt-free in having used deadly force on a clearly murderous suspect. But where the danger was more equivocal, there will naturally be more second-guessing about what degree of force was actually necessary. Police officers pride themselves in their ability to manage a tense situation and perform under pressure, so they may feel overwhelmed by doubt and self-recrimination where the situation abruptly got out of control and turned deadly.

These factors relate to two important dimensions: the amount of control the officer feels he or she had over the situation and degree of conflict that exists over the necessity to take a human life. Generally, the less control and the more conflict the officer has experienced during the event, the more severe will be the psychological reaction.

Degree of control and conflict extend into the post-shooting phase as well. The amount and kind of attention the officer receives from his administration, peers, the community, and the media will influence his own reaction to the event. Supervisors and administrators are understandably concerned about the public relations aspect of a shooting and, although most are generally supportive of their personnel, their efforts to appear objective and unbiased to the public may at times make it seem that they’re coming down too hard on the officer.

The reactions of the officer’s peers may help or harm his attempts to cope with the situation. As noted above, at first he may receive accolades from his fellow officers for “finishing the job.” Because of the powerful identification factor, peers may want to hear all about the event, because they want to believe that they, too, will have the courage and judgment to do the right thing if faced with a similar confrontation. However, if the officer fails to regale them with an uplifting narrative of struggle and triumph, and instead reveals the conflict, doubt, and pain he is going through, the identification effect may cause his fellow officers to shun him.

And, even if they won’t admit it to their badge brothers, many officers feel genuinely sad at having had to take a human life, even if they objectively recognize that they had no choice in the situation and that the perpetrator clearly asked for it. Human nature being what it is, police officers and others, such as soldiers, who are trained to kill when necessary, cannot just shed their familial, religious, and cultural upbringing when they don the uniform. An officer may thus become irritated at his colleagues who want him to play the happy warrior, while they have no clue as to the turmoil he’s going through.

But, because the officer is still hurting, he needs all the support he can get. So, fearing rejection, he may not want to burst his colleagues’ bubble. He thus feels compelled to put on a brave face so as not to alienate this well-meaning, if lunkheaded, source of support from his peers. Painful as putting up this false front may be, it’s still better than total isolation.

NEXT: A “best practices” model for operational and psychological management of officer-involved shootings.

Note: To learn more about this topic, see:

Miller, L. (2006). Officer-involved shooting: Reaction patterns, response protocols, and psychological intervention strategies. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 8, 239-254. [Reprints available from the author: send request and mailing address to docmilphd@aol.com].

Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement . Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [Learn more about this book at www.ccthomas.com ].

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.

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