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Understanding an officer's reaction to that 'one big mistake'

Despite all good intentions and preparations, an OBM event may occur — understanding probable emotional reactions is critical to officer survival

The recent tragic stories of the accidental shooting death of Aiyana James in Detroit and the suicide of NYC officer Michael Pigott following the unintended death of an excited delirium subject in New York illustrate a well-known but rarely-discussed fact of police work. The so-called One Big Mistake (OBM) looms constantly over every officer’s career. Another term I’ve heard used is OBFU — you can figure that one out. For some it may be an in-custody death or suicide-by-cop — for others, it may be an officer-involved-shooting or line-of-duty death of a comrade. Or maybe it’s an error in judgment, or even a willful flouting of the rules of vehicle chase, use of force, or other misconduct that leads to unintended dire consequences for the officer and/or others, and ultimately to an investigation and disciplinary, even legal, action against the officer.

This column is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. However, from the perspective of police psychologist who has treated officers in distress, conducted administrative and forensic evaluations of cops under the microscope, consulted with law enforcement agencies on fitness-for-duty and disciplinary policy, and provided academy and advanced training to LEOs, here are some recommendations for understanding officer reactions OBM incident.

In part two of this article, which will go up on PoliceOne next week, I will look at the related topics of recovering from your own OMB, as well as the perspective of a brother or sister officer who can help a cop through the aftermath of an OMB. But before we go any further, it bears repeating: “The best form of crisis intervention is crisis prevention.”

Preventing OBMs
Yes, class, you’ve heard me say this a thousand times before, but the fact is, many OBM incidents occur in response to the deer-in-the-headlights freeze response that occurs when officers aren’t sure what to do and have to wing it on the spot. And many of these mental choke-points are preventable through the use of proper training and practice. This includes proficiency with firearms, nonlethals, vehicles, and communication equipment. It also means basic expertise in proper approach, citizen confrontation, vehicle stop, dwelling search, use of backup, suspect search, physical restraint, and arrest technique.

Equally important is training in verbal communication and nonviolent conflict resolution skills, so that potentially dangerous situations can be defused before they require cuffs, volts, or bullets. Finally, a culture of ethics and professionalism in one’s law enforcement agency is something that must flow from the top brass down to the newest rookie, reinforced by firm but fair treatment of personnel, and by fair and consistent coaching, counseling, and discipline.

Nevertheless, despite all good intentions and preparations, an OBM event may occur.

Officer Reactions to an OBM Incident
Fear. “Now, you’ve gone and done it, genius!” you tell yourself. Your goose is cooked, your ass is grass — you pick the metaphor. Your mind goes into damage control mode as you try to figure out what to do or say that will prevent the situation from getting worse. Fear may begin immediately following the incident and may persist until the situation is ultimately resolved.

Anger. Especially where you feel that your hand was forced by a confusing situation, you failed to obtain the proper intel or backup, or your actions were goaded or manipulated by a suspect’s behavior (this is especially common in suicide-by-cop cases), you may experience anger against the suspect (“Damn — why did he make me shoot him?), against uncaring or hostile bystanders, or against one’s fellow officers for not providing the proper logistical support. Like fear, anger may persist for a long time, but tends to wax and wane in intensity.

Denial. “Oh, it’s no big deal,” you may rationalize to yourself, when deep down, some part of you knows that an injured fellow officer, destroyed departmental vehicle, dead innocent citizen, or provoked civil disturbance is most certainly going to be a big deal for a lot of people. Actually, some degree of adaptive denial may be a useful short-term coping response to allow you to function without getting swamped by a disabling emotional storm. But sooner or later, you’ll have to face the music.

Defensiveness. This is often a combination of the first three reactions, described above: “Jeez, I thought there were gun-toting drug dealers in that house, but it was the wrong house, and we gassed a little old lady and her granddaughter, but what the hell was I supposed to do, when Dispatch gave me an unclear address. Now I’m gonna have IA all over me because they’ll say I didn’t check properly. But it’s Dispatch’s fault — they never get things right. I never get the support I need. How am I supposed to do my damn job?”

Some of this may in fact be true, but the sooner you’re able to realistically sort out who’s responsible for what, the better you’ll be able to deal with what’s to come.

Guilt. Although you may not admit it to others, you might realize you screwed up and feel responsible for what went down. Important as I just said it was not to launch into a state of delusional denial, it’s equally vital not to dive headlong in the other direction – beating yourself up unproductively for things that may not be your fault. Truth is, most OBM incidents result from a combination of situational and person factors, and that’s what will be examined and re-examined in the weeks ahead.

The real confusion starts when you realize that, on the one hand, you do feel bad about what happened and may legitimately regret your actions, but at the same time, you dare not say this to anybody for fear of admitting liability, so you’re left in the mind-twisting position of having to take a publically self-defensive hardass approach to an event that you’re actually being eaten up alive inside about.

Sadness. This is related to — but separate from — guilt, in that you can feel real bad about the fact that grandma and the baby got gassed, yet realize that only in 20/20 hindsight can you now determine how mistakes were made, and that at the time of the event there was no way to anticipate the adverse outcome. Nevertheless, the worse the outcome, the more the mind gropes for some cause or reason, and many people would rather blame themselves for a horrible tragedy, because it implies that they might be able to do something different in the future.

If it’s “nobody’s fault,” then horrible things can happen at random and world makes no sense. Better to blame myself (or, better yet, someone else).

Depression. As your emotions swirl, as you feel buffeted from all sides by a departmental internal investigation, possible criminal charges, civil lawsuits, prying media, angry citizens, and deteriorating family relationships, it may be hard not to sink into helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. For a few officers who feel they have lost, or might soon lose, everything that has given them their personal and professional identity as a law enforcement officer, suicide may be a distinct risk. Others may descend into drugs and alcohol to get some relief. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse may cloud your mind just when you need it to be the clearest to deal with the gauntlet ahead.

Now that we’ve established a baseline understanding of the likely reactions an officer will have after an OMB, I will look next time at some things you can do to cope with the aftermath of an OBM incident. Some of these are practical actions you can take — others are psychological coping strategies you can employ.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

NOTE: If you have a question for this column, please submit it to this website.

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