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Shots Fired! Final in a special PoliceOne series

By Dr. Laurence Miller, PhD

II. Operational and Psychological Management of Officer-Involved Shootings

In Part 1 of this series, I reviewed the common perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral distortions that can occur during a life-and-death armed standoff with a suspect that characterizes an officer-involved shooting, or OIS. In Part II, I offer a “best practices” model for operational and psychological management of OIS, both at the scene and at follow-up. Note that these recommendations are from the perspective of a police psychologist and that any specific applications of this protocol should be guided by the policies and procedures of your particular law enforcement agency.

On-Scene Operational Response to an Officer-Involved Shooting

Unfortunately, the most common complaints voiced by officers in the aftermath of an OIS concern their handling by their own departments, from the first post-incident moments onward. Even in uncontestedly righteous shootings, officers often feel demeaned and treated like guilty suspects, setting up a vicious cycle of recrimination from the get-go. The corollary is that every officer who has risked his life should be treated with basic respect. Even if there is a suspicion of misconduct, nothing is gained from an adversarial attitude – indeed, an officer who is treated decently will be more inclined to cooperate with investigators. Thus, the proper handling of involved officers begins at the shooting scene itself.

Departments should be proactive. In the policy-and-procedure planning stages, it should be decided which personnel respond to critical incidents and the method for contacting them. At the time of the shooting, all relevant personnel should respond to the scene. In many departments, an OIS results in the call-out of numerous personnel, including other officers, the involved officer’s supervisors, the police chief or sheriff in some smaller jurisdictions, the division commander in larger departments, paramedics, crime-scene investigators, and the department psychologist, if there is one.

Reassurance to the involved officer should be provided by departmental authorities. “Reassurance” doesn’t have to entail any positive or negative judgment about the officer’s actions, but should simply communicate an understanding and appreciation of what the officer has just been through, and the assurance that the department will support him or her as much as possible throughout the process. As noted above, one of the biggest complaints officers have about the post-shooting departmental response is the feeling that “I was treated like a criminal by my own people.” Especially at this psychologically sensitive stage, the officer should be given the benefit of the doubt and treated with respect by departmental authorities.

The officer should be provided on-scene access to legal counsel and a mental health professional. In many jurisdictions officers may refrain from making any statements to authorities at the scene until an attorney is present and/or until they have been assessed as mentally fit to make a statement by a qualified mental health professional. On the one hand, this protects the officer’s rights and at the same time assures that any statements that are made cannot later easily be challenged by claiming they were made under mental duress.

The officer’s weapon will almost always be impounded. This is a fairly standard on-scene policy, but the way it is carried out will make a big difference in how the officer adjusts to the post-shooting aftermath. In the worst case, the officer is unceremoniously stripped of his sidearm in full view of his colleagues, and in some cases even in front of jeering bystanders, and forced to parade around with an empty holster – the epitome of emasculatory humiliation. In the best case, the weapon is turned over in private, with an attitude of respect, and in many cases a replacement weapon is provided or the empty holster removed while the on-scene investigation proceeds.

At some shooting scenes, personnel remain at the site for hours. This may be necessary for purposes of the investigation and to deal with community members and the media, but no one should hang around the scene longer than necessary and everything possible should be done to discourage a carnival atmosphere. In particular, following the investigatory walk-through, the officer should be removed from the scene as quickly as possible. Again, this should be done in a private and respectful way, the officer being driven home or back to the station by one or two colleagues, to await further action.

Don’t neglect the officer’s family. They should be notified of the shooting, preferably in person, but by phone if necessary, as soon as possible, even if everybody is still on-scene: the last thing you want is for the family to hear of the shooting on the radio or TV, or get a call from neighbor who’s seen or heard the story. If the family is out of town, every effort should be made to contact them, preferably through direct contact by another law enforcement agency.

At the scene, the officer should be shielded from intrusive media and any statements should be made through a departmental spokesperson. Most medium-to-large departments have a Public Information Officer (PIO) who is part of the critical response team; if not, another senior officer should be the consistent source of information to the media. Certainly, any statement that could affect the internal investigation or other legal action should be avoided. Agencies should consult with their attorneys about local and state regulations in these areas as part of the process of developing their own policies for OISs and other critical incidents.

On-Scene Psychological Intervention in an Officer-Involved Shooting

As part of the on-scene response team, the departmental psychologist has a specific but important role to play. Accordingly, this section is addressed directly to police psychologists who respond to OISs, but should be read by all personnel involved in such incidents, so as to maximize smooth coordination of services during an event.

First, determine the nature of the incident. When you get the call, try to find out as much about the incident and the current scene as possible. This may vary, depending on the timing of the call. Sometimes, you may get called within minutes of the shooting incident, in which case there is not much info to be had, other than the location of the scene. Other times, you may be contacted almost as an afterthought, hours after the rest of the responders have arrived, only because someone has suggested that somebody call the psychologist due to unforeseen complications at the scene. This usually represents a problem with the call-out policy at the planning stages or it may occur in a very dangerous or complex scene where other services, such as medical or SWAT may take precedence. As a rule, if there is a call-out psychologist, he or she should be summoned to the scene as early as possible.

When you arrive at the scene, identify the involved officer(s) and determine their psychological status. This may range from the extremes of panic, confusion, and disorientation – rare, in my experience – to unnatural calmness and stoic denial (“I’m okay; no problem”) – a far more common response. Frequently, emotions will swing at the scene, the officer blank and icy one moment, then nervous and shaky the next. As discussed below, validating these reactions as normal stress responses is an important part of on-scene intervention.

Try to find a comfortable place to conduct your interview with the officer. “On-scene” doesn’t necessarily mean standing over the body or pacing back and forth in front of the news cameras. I’ve conducted on-scene interviews behind bushes, under trees, behind a throng of officers or a row of vehicles, in the back seat of patrol cars, and in a SWAT wagon. As long as the officer stays inside the established perimeter and can be found by authorities when needed, he or she is still technically on-scene.

For the visibly upset officer, you may have to use calming and distraction techniques to bring his mental state into a more rational and receptive mode. For the defensive, sealed-over officer, what I often find helpful is a version of the three-part critical incident stress management (CISM) procedure called a defusing:

First, ask the officer to tell you what happened. This will typically elicit a stiff, dry, detail-laden rendition of events, as if the officer were testifying before a review board or in court:

Officer: I saw the guy coming out the dark breezeway, carrying a box or something bulky like that, hugging the wall like he was trying to hide. I identified myself as a police officer and told him to stop, put the box down slowly, and face the wall. He dropped the box and put his hand in his pocket.

I drew my weapon and ordered him to freeze. He pulled out something metal, which I took to be a firearm or other weapon. I drew down on him in a Weaver stance and ordered him to drop the object. He raised it higher and started coming towards me. In fear for my life, I fired, I think, three or four times. He fell and was quiet, and the object skidded several feet away into the grass.

I radioed for backup and attempted to administer aid, but I think he was already dead. I located the object and found that it was a small, silver-finish semi-auto with a taped butt.

Listen to the story until you have a good sense of the sequence of events. Next, ask the officer to describe “what was going on in your mind while it was happening.” This often elicits clues to the officer’s cognitive and emotional state:

Officer: The guy and me kind of surprised each other. I guess neither of us expected the other one to be on the campus that time of night, so we both sort of jumped when we saw each other. I could feel the adrenalin jack up my body. I don’t think I really had time to be nervous, I just kind of went on automatic and the whole thing had a kind of unreal aspect to it – like it was me doing it, but it wasn’t me. After I found the gun and called it in, that’s when it hit me I could’ve been killed if I waited a second longer to fire. Then, shit, suddenly I’m shaking like a little girl; it was embarrassing. But I pulled it together before the other guys got there.

Finally, provide information and support concerning any disturbing reactions the officer may be having at the scene. The goal is to allow the officer to loosen up just enough for you to be able to assess his mental status, but still keep it together enough to deal with the immediate situation:

Psychologist: Hey, man, you’re just following the textbook. Any time somebody’s in an emergency or crisis mode, the brain puts us on autopilot so we can concentrate on what to do to get through the situation alive. It’s like the adrenalin acts like mental Novocain to numb you out just enough to survive and let your survival instinct and training kick in. Then, after this “Novocain” wears off, you feel all the emotions as a delayed reaction. So, from what you’re telling me, there’s nothing unusual about your response. It’s not my final judgment call to make, but from how you described it, it sounds like you did what you had to do.

One reason for an accurate assessment of the officer’s mental status at the scene is the determination of mental fitness to make a statement to authorities, which may be very important for subsequent legal aspects of the case. Although in my experience this is rare, some officers may be sufficiently confused, disoriented, emotionally vulnerable, and cognitively suggestible to be legally incompetent to understand their legal rights and/or to make a statement to authorities at the scene. In such cases, the psychologist may recommend that investigators wait until the officer has had a chance to recover some measure of psychological equilibrium, which may require only a few minutes to calm down or, in the extreme case, removal of the officer to a safe facility for further evaluation and treatment.

Psychologists who make the recommendation to wait can expect flak from investigators who want to get on with the process and sometimes from the on-scene departmental attorney, although the latter will typically support any recommendation that will prevent unnecessary self-incrimination of the officer.

Follow-up Psychological Evaluation of an Officer-Involved Shooting

Following my on-scene evaluation and while still at the site, I make an appointment for at least one follow-up evaluation at my office, scheduled several days post-incident. This gives the officer a few days to calm down and loosen up, and allows me to get a better perspective on how he or she is coping psychologically after the initial shock of the incident has started to wear off. This also serves as an informal fitness-for-duty evaluation in a nonconfrontational setting; additionally, such an FFD evaluation may be formally mandated by some departments as a precondition to the officer returning to work. If I assess the officer to be experiencing no unusual signs or symptoms (some degree of mild residual distress is normal for a few days or weeks), I will recommend release to full duty. Otherwise, I may make a range of recommendations, such as more time off with subsequent follow-up or continued psychotherapy.

If further sessions are required, the treatment should be short-term and focused on supporting officers through the present crisis, as well as returning them to active duty as soon as possible. How narrow or broad are the range issues to be covered will be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on how the incident has affected the officer, his family, colleagues, and others. But the general guideline is that post-shooting psychological intervention should be focused on resolving the critical incident in question.

Clinically, the psychologist should remember that his or her role in these treatment settings is as therapist and supportive advocate, not investigator or judge. Accordingly, a realistically positive atmosphere should prevail during the course of the treatment. Absent clear evidence to the contrary, the assumption should be that the officer acted properly, can successfully manage the current crisis with a little bit of help, and will soon return to active status. Indeed, during particularly contentious investigations, the psychologist’s office may be the only place the officer doesn’t feel like a hounded criminal.

Administratively, confidentiality should be respected and protected by the department, and the only information from psychological counseling available to outside authorities should be the psychologist’s tersely written summaries of case status, fitness-for-duty, and other administratively-relevant data. Indeed, to have any credible program of psychological services, officers must feel secure that, unless they directly relate to a specific departmental referral question, personally sensitive information, thoughts, and feelings do not leave the psychologist’s office. It is the responsibility of police administrators and the mental health professionals they consult with to develop policies that will honor and institutionalize this bond of trust.

NOTE: To learn more about this topic, see:

Miller, L. (2006). Officer-involved shooting: Reaction patterns, response protocols, and psychological intervention strategies. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 8, 239-254. [Reprints available from the author: send request and mailing address to docmilphd@aol.com].

Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement . Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [Learn more about this book at www.ccthomas.com ].

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