An officer whose shooting I’ve written about has taken medical retirement because his wounds were so devastating that he hasn’t been able to heal from them completely. He told me recently that “what hurts the most” is not his persistent physical damage but the critical comments he’s heard from other officers about his tactical errors in handling a dangerous suspect moments before the shooting. None of these critics, it should be pointed out, were present at the incident.
“It would be nice if every officer could do everything perfectly every time,” he says dryly. “That way none of us would get hurt. I spent 24 years helping people and arresting hundreds of bad guys and all that doesn’t seem to matter because I made a mistake and got shot.”
That’s the veteran of a “secondary assault” speaking. Police psychologist Dr. LaMaurice Gardner used that term in addressing a session at the IACP annual conference last fall, and unfortunately it’s a common phenomenon in the cop world.
In describing various “precipitants of law enforcement trauma,” Gardner explained that after surviving an initial attack by a would-be killer, “many officers are then assaulted in word and deed by their own.” Because of the treatment they receive, “they feel betrayed and abandoned by their own people, and the psychological injuries they experience can hurt more than their physical injuries.”
Often fellow officers unwittingly inflict secondary assaults because they don’t know how to appropriately relate to a colleague who has been involved in an OIS or other critical incident. In an interview with PoliceOne, Gardner itemized a post-event protocol that will be healing rather than harmful.
First Words — “The initial response by peers and command staff should be, ‘I’m glad you’re alive,’ ” Gardner advises. “This suggests concern, care, and support and very effectively eases the immediate emotional trauma that the involved officer may be experiencing.”
Make Contact — “Avoiding an officer after a shooting may make him feel he has done something wrong,” Gardner says. “Sometimes peers are ordered not to contact the officer so as not to damage an investigation, but this leaves the officer feeling alone and anxious. At a minimum, if you can’t discuss the incident or don’t know what to say, give the officer a handshake, a hug, or an understanding nod. These nonverbal gestures can be a powerful indication of support.”
Avoid Second Guessing — “You weren’t in their shoes during the incident,” Gardner says. “You didn’t see it evolve from their perspective. You may think you would have acted differently, but no one knows for sure how they’ll act in a life-threatening encounter until they’re actually in one. So don’t second-guess another officer’s actions. And discourage them from second-guessing themselves. They likely had only milliseconds to make their decisions, and usually on only partial information. Second-guessing could lead to dangerous hesitation the next time around.”
Share Experience — “If you’ve been in a similar critical incident, lend an empathetic ear and share your experience,” Gardner suggests. “You can help normalize how they’re thinking, feeling, and acting. If they’re having some adverse reactions, it’s particularly important that you emphasize that they’re not crazy but are responding normally to an abnormal and crazy event. If you’ve had counseling after your event, you can ease their concerns about ‘seeing a shrink.’ ”
Watch Your Humor — Cops traditionally use black, tasteless humor as an effective coping mechanism in their everyday lives. “But after a critical incident,” Gardner cautions, “you must be very sensitive to the effect of cop humor on an involved officer.” Members of one department gave the nickname “Speed Bump” to an officer who was hit, dragged, and run over by a suspect’s vehicle. Funny—but not to him.
Use Restraint — “Don’t lionize the shooter. They may not feel heroic, especially if they’ve had to take a life,” says Gardner. “At the same time, don’t dehumanize the suspect who forced the officer into shooting. Especially if the officer had eye contact with the suspect as the suspect was dying, the officer may see him or her in very human terms and resent denigrating comments.”
Encourage Talking — “Don’t allow the officer to withdraw from the world,” Gardner cautions. “When that happens, intrusive thoughts about the incident tend to become overwhelming. For legal reasons, it may be best to avoid discussing details of a shooting, but without pressuring him, be ready to actively listen and not judging while the officer unloads about his emotions. A perpetrator can potentially leave psychological skeletons in an officer’s emotional closet. Helping the officer unload emotional garbage by encouraging him to talk can be very beneficial. Talk over coffee, though, not over alcoholic drinks.”
Show Respect — An officer surviving a threat to his life deserves to be honored with dignity and respect. Not in the manner that Gardner recalls from one case involving a vice unit sergeant. After extended time off to recover physically from being shot, the sergeant returned to work and was greeted by a secretary in his section. “Here,” she said, “these came for you.” She tossed him an envelope. Inside were medals the department had bestowed on him for bravery and excellence. Gardner notes: “What they actually ‘bestowed’ in treating him so unceremoniously was a great deal of bitterness and resentment.”
These important do’s and don’ts require an openness and sensitivity that many officers find challenging if not downright intimidating, Gardner observes.
“I often ask officers in the academy to tell me the dirtiest, nastiest four-letter word they can think of,” he says. “After I hear a litany of foul words, I tell them that the dirtiest, nastiest four-letter word for a cop is HELP.
“There’s no hesitation is responding to an officer-needs-assistance call on the street. Officers will risk injury and even death to save another officer’s life, even if it means getting blood, sweat, and vomit on them from a fallen brother.
“But when a response is needed to an officer-needs-emotional-assistance call, it’s often a different matter. That’s something to think about, because responding appropriately to that kind of call is sometimes exactly what’s needed.”
LaMaurice Gardner, Psy.D., is a Veterans Affairs psychologist who also serves as a psychologist for several law enforcement agencies in Michigan, including Detroit PD. He is a SRT hostage negotiator and reserve lieutenant for the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office in Pontiac ( Mich.) He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.