Blue on Blue: Reactions to a cop-on-cop shooting

In a few, fortunately quite rare cases, a good guy becomes the bad guy and these encounters turn deadly


Last year, I wrote about what police officers experience when they accidentally shoot other officers in the line of duty.  Most of these incidents involve crossfire mishaps during a shootout with armed suspects or cases of mistaken identity when undercover officers are mistaken for actual criminals. 

But, as illustrated by the recent case of Santa Maria (Calif.) officer Alberto Covarrubias Jr. — who was suspected of having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl in the department’s Police Explorer program — sometimes LEOs have to investigate, apprehend, and arrest one of their own.  In a few, fortunately quite rare cases, a good guy becomes the bad guy and these encounters turn deadly.

Why would an officer who is a suspect in a criminal case react so violently?  Precisely because he or she has been so heavily invested in the good-guy role of a law enforcement professional, this officer facing felony charges may now see a 180-degree reversal of everything he ever stood for.  Looming before him is nothing by shame and disgrace, and he may well prefer death to capture and humiliation — a psychological dynamic that sometimes underlies cases of suicide-by-cop

Officer Reactions to a Cop-on-Cop Shooting
What about the officers who have been faced with no choice but to take down one of their own?  How is this experience different from the typical officer-involved shooting (OIS) incident and how do these “secondary victims” react and cope?

Fear — The officer knows this is going to have an impact on his career and personal life. 

The case is going to be investigated and will inevitably become a media circus.  The officer may fear rejection and alienation on the part of his peers for killing another cop.  Ironically, however, this kind of forced shooting may actually garner less opprobrium than the accidental shooting of a fellow officer, which is more likely to be viewed as a sign of carelessness and neglect.

Anger — “This guy should know better.  How could he put me in this position?” 

Cops know full well the stresses and dangers of being in an OIS situation even under ordinary circumstances.  For one of their own to force such a confrontation may therefore be seen as a further sign of disrespect and betrayal, and the responding officers may take it personally. 

“Why didn’t this guy just give up and not put us all through this hell?”  Especially in cases where it is concluded or suspected that this may have been a suicide-by-cop (SBC) scenario – actually a “SBC-by-another-cop” situation – the responding officers may harbor all the emotions associated with being baited and manipulated into doing a suicidal subject’s dirty work for him, while at the same time feeling an extra twinge of resentment that this action came from a supposed comrade.

Guilt — “But I still shot another cop.”  Even in justified shootings that are administratively cleared, there may remain the stigma of having been the one unlucky enough to have to fire that fatal round. 

As noted above, however, in many cases, the very necessity of this action may serve as an antidote to some of the shame and recrimination that might have accrued if the shooting of a peer was accidental or reckless.  Nevertheless, it has to hurt to have been the instrument of death to a fellow officer, no matter how justified.

Identification/Repudiation — “What could drive that guy to this point — could that have been me?”  Following the suicide of a fellow officer, there is a natural empathic identification with the deceased former colleague.  Many of his or her life struggles and challenges are shared by other members of the department and many of these members will wonder what it would take to drive them over the edge. 

In special cases where a fellow officer forces his peers to utilize deadly force against him, the sense of pity, tinged with revulsion, may be all the more acute.  As a psychological defense mechanism in such cases, fellow officers may attempt to mentally distance themselves from the slain officer by condemning him or his actions:

“Poor, dumb bastard. That’s what happens when you mess around and get caught (note to my superego: I would never put myself in that position... would I?).”

Sadness — Following a blue-on-blue shooting, there may be a general pall that seems to fall over the whole department, with some members walking around dazed and demoralized, others frantically throwing themselves into overwork to deflect their bad feelings about this event.  It can often take a while for a law enforcement agency to recover from this kind of event.

Coping with the Cop-vs.-Cop Aftermath
Although there’s no magic formula to chase away the pain, there are some things you can do to help yourself get through this.

Feel it and deal it — There’s no way to sugar-coat this, so allow yourself to feel the burn.  Not out of self-pity, but to normalize these feelings and remove some of the toxicity from them. 

“I let myself feel my anger or grief and I didn’t explode, so maybe I can handle this.” 

Bear it and Share it — Let your colleagues know that it’s okay to talk about this, because this is a tragedy that affects the whole department, and sometimes the whole community.  Be mindful of legal and administrative restrictions on what you can say to whom, but within those guidelines, sharing of thoughts and feelings helps further normalize them and speed recovery.

Fact it and Act it — Don’t let rampant speculation fan the flames of distress. Again, within administrative guidelines, try to find out what really happened to cause this whole scenario.  As I’ve often stated, 20/20 hindsight = 20/20 insight = 20/20 foresight. 

That is, by paying attention to the factual back-story of what went down, you may come to understand how and why this tragedy occurred, and — most important — you may develop strategies for preventing something like this from happening again.  Often, the best mode of healing is developing the confidence to fend off the next wound.

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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