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20 tips for helping a traumatized officer

By Dr. Alexis Artwohl and Scott Buhrmaster
Part 1 of a 2-part series
Part 2

What you say to an officer who has been through a traumatic event like a shooting can have a powerful, potentially lifelong, impact. What you do, and don’t do, can make the difference between helping him through a difficult experience and unintentionally casting him into a nightmare.

Certainly all officers want to help each other navigate tough times, but without putting thought into your statements and actions after an officer experiences a traumatic event, you run the risk of making things worse…potentially much worse. With that, here are 20 tips for helping, not hurting, a traumatized officer:

1. Initiate contact. 

For some, it may be difficult to make contact with an officer who has just been through a traumatic event because you’re not sure what to say. It’s easier to act like nothing happened or to nod knowingly in the hall and wait until a later time when you can talk about something else. Having the courage to make contact through a phone call, e-mail or note can be of great value to the traumatized officer. All you need to do is let the officer know that you’re thinking of them and that you’re there to help in any way you can. When you make that contact, be sure to mention that you’re there to help the officer’s spouse and family as well. Remember, too, that in shooting incidents the non-shooting officers may be traumatized as well so keep them in mind and reach out.


2.  Offer to stay with the officer.


If a noticeably traumatized officer lives alone, assertively offer to stay with them for the first day or two after the event, or find a mutual friend who can. The companionship may prove comforting and, depending on the level of the officer’s traumatization, could be crucial to their overall well-being. You could also consider having the officer stay with you in your home.


3.  Let the officer control the extent of your contact.


An officer who has been through a traumatic event may want some down time with their family or just some time alone to think, process and relax. Keep the offer to maintain contact open without limit, but don’t force the issue. Officers vary in how much contact is comfortable to them during stressful times.


4.  Don’t ask for an account of the incident. 


By the time you have contact with them, officers involved in a traumatic event has probably shared the details of their incident with investigators several times. They have also likely played it over and over again in the heads and they’re tired. Don’t force an officer to go through the narrative again, rather tell them that you’re here to listen anytime they may have something to share. Also remember that there is often no legally privileged confidentiality for peer discussion, so whatever gets said can and may end up in court. Officers should not be discussing the details of their event with peers until the investigation is over and all personnel have been legally and administratively cleared.


5.  Phrase your questions.


Ask questions that show support and acceptance such as, “Is there anything I can do to help you or your family?”


 6.  Don’t direct their feelings.


Accept their reaction as normal for them and avoid suggesting how they “should” be feeling.  Officers have a wide range of reactions to traumatic events. Suggesting that they should feel differently may cause increased anxiety, confusion and frustration.


7. Don’t impose a “timeline”.


Remember that it can take time to bounce back from a traumatic event and that timeline can differ for each officer. Resist making judgments on how much time you think it should take for an officer to be “back to normal.” Be patient, accepting and non-judgmental. Let an officer’s emotional aftermath run its course without pressure to hurry through it.


8.  Listen…well.


Remember, one of the most important keys to helping a traumatized officer is non-judgmental listening.


9.  Resist the temptation to say, “I understand how you feel” unless you have been through the same experience and really do. 


Feel free to share the details of a similar experience you might have had to help them know they are not alone in how they feel, but keep it brief!  Remember, this is not the time to work on your own trauma issues with this person.  If your friend’s event triggers some of your own emotions, find someone else to talk to who can offer support to you (and remember that it’s important to do so.)


10. Don’t encourage the use of alcohol. 


It is best for officers to avoid all use of alcohol for a few weeks so they can process what has happened to them with a clear head and true feelings uncontaminated by drug use.


Part 2: 20 Tips for Helping a Traumatized Officer

About the authors:


Dr. Alexis Artwohl is a prominent police psychologist, trainer, consultant, researcher and author of, Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight. She is a member of the National Advisory Board for the Force Science Research Center, the Force Science News and other law enforcement organizations. Her areas of training include peak performance in high stress situations, preparing to survive deadly force encounters, investigating officer involved shootings and managing the psychological damage caused by trauma and organizational stress. Full details are available on her Web site.


Scott Buhrmaster is the Managing Editor for PoliceOne.com and the Director of Training and Content for the PoliceOne Training Network. He is also a member of the National Advisory Board for the Force Science Research Center with Dr. Artwohl.


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