What was it like when you pulled the trigger?
A question posted recently on Quora asked, “What does it feel like to shoot someone in the line of duty?” Retired police officer Tim Dees gave his opinion on the topic, below. Check it out and add your own thoughts in our comments section.
I was involved in a shooting in February 1984.
One unexpected effect of having been in this gunfight was in the way it caused other cops to regard me. Up until this time, I was not held in high regard by my peers or superiors. I was the weird guy, the "educated idiot" (a derogatory term for anyone who had a college degree), the fool with an overdeveloped sense of ethics and morality (this last was brought on by my somewhat public stance against the acceptance of gratuities like free meals and movie theater tickets). The night of the shooting, I saw several cops looking at me very differently, and I realized, "They want to be me." I had "seen the elephant," survived the fight, done what I was supposed to do, even though most of them didn't think I had it in me. They wanted the metaphorical notch on the butt of their gun, and I had one when they didn't. Even though I would never do anything like this again, everything I did from that moment forward had more gravitas, more credibility.
For the first couple of weeks after the incident, I was hyperactive. I had too much nervous energy. I exercised as much as I was able, and lost 15 lbs. I seldom slept more than a few hours at a time.
One of the weirdest feelings was when my gun was returned to me, after having been placed in evidence. The evidence tech gave me a cartridge to replace the one I had fired. He seemed to think there was something funny about this. I stared at that bullet a full minute before I put it in the gun.
My department returned me to duty before I felt I was ready. The inference of my superiors was "How long are you going to milk this?" since I was on paid administrative leave. The first night I was back on patrol, an idiot pulled a knife on me as I got out of my car to talk to him. I was a good ten feet away and had the car between me and him, so there wasn't an immediate threat. Still, I had my gun out of my holster and was taking up the slack on the trigger when he decided to drop the knife. I doubt he knew how close he came to being my second shootee.
On the fifth and last day of my first week back on the street, I was dispatched to a property damage accident in a public parking lot. It involved some teenagers who had been horsing around with their cars. There was nothing especially sinister about it. Before I was done, I was screaming my lungs out at a teenager who wised off to me. It was a huge overreaction. He made a complaint, and the powers that be decided to give me a little more leave time.
This time, I was off for the better part of two months, and it wasn't made clear to me what had to happen before I could come back. I saw my own psychologist and otherwise tried to fill my time. I can't remember a single thing I did during that time.
They eventually scheduled me for a session with the department psychologist, who had the trust of no one who mattered to me. He gave me some paper-and-pencil tests and pronounced me fit for duty. I don't think he had the first clue what he was dealing with.
I've come to understand that, like grieving following the death of a loved one, everybody handles these things their own way, and there's no right or wrong way to do it. Avoiding self-destructive stuff like getting drunk is a good idea, but otherwise you just have to work through it yourself. I think everyone has to talk it out to someone, and acknowledge that it is going to affect you. I don't think the incident had any long-term deleterious effects on me, and I credit the work of some good counselors in making that happen. I saw other cops who decided they could dust themselves off and immediately return to work as if nothing had happened. Every one of them disintegrated as a person within a couple of years.
Shooting someone, no matter how well-justified you are in doing it, is an unnaturally violent act and something we are conditioned to recoil from. It is possible to recover from it, but it takes work and no one does it by themselves.