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After the gunfight

There is an important aspect of officer involved shootings that remains uncertain, and that is how we should we deal with an officer in the immediate aftermath of a gunfight. We know where to start with an injured or wounded officer. They get immediate attention (often against the rules of triage) because “ours come first!” But what about the officer who survives this life-changing experience?

A friend was the night shift sergeant when one of his best officers (and close friend) was gunned down during a foot pursuit. The paramedics, as is normal, spent several minutes trying to stabilize the officer before rolling toward the hospital. The sergeant complained about the delay to no avail, until he insisted and reached for his gun. Suddenly, the paramedics decided driving was the best option.

The sergeant rode along and told me he knew his friend was dead from shots to both his torso and head, yet he felt like he had to do something. So, he stuck his fingers in the torso wounds to keep his friend’s blood from dripping onto the floor of the ambulance. He washed his hands raw for several days, but couldn’t seem to get the blood off.

But, the sergeant’s stress load was to get even heavier. Another officer was sent to the stricken officer’s home to drive his wife to the hospital, but the driver didn’t have the courage to tell her that her husband arrived at the emergency room DOA. He merely said her husband had been shot and was at the hospital. The wife, an RN, was mentally prepared to see her husband in bad shape with many wires and IV lines attached. She was not prepared to walk in and see him covered with a sheet. The sergeant caught her when she fell.

That sergeant instructs in a critical incident program I manage, and tells this story in every class. As tough street cops wipe away tears, you can see in his eyes that the sergeant needs to tell this terrible story. He desperately wants other officers to be better prepared for such a hellish night.

The incidents we have the most trouble handling are those where the officer won, finishing the fight uninjured. Most agencies have learned of the need for post-incident defusing and tactical debriefing sessions, followed by professional counseling when necessary. Mandatory attendance at debriefings and employee assistance programs have become almost universal. But, what can a supervisor or fellow officer do in the first minutes after a life threatening incident to help an officer deal with their “life changing” experience.

First, remember that people react very differently to the huge adrenaline dump they face in a fight-or-flight episode. Adrenaline is one of our body’s most powerful chemicals, designed to keep us alive in spite of serious wounds. Wounded officers often do not realize they’ve been shot until someone points out their bleeding. Others may collapse after the fact and a severe case of the “shakes” is common.

In the course of teaching a couple hundred “stress” blocks in a critical incident program, I’ve heard horror stories of how supervisors and brother officers magnified the stress load of the affected officer. One cop was confronted by his supervisor with; “What the hell did you do this time?” The officer said that angry question made him feel like he had been kicked in the stomach by a horse. I can’t imagine a more destructive way for a supervisor to react to an officer that just shot it out for his very life.

A few years ago, a sniper on a SWAT team killed a barricaded subject that insisted on pushing the incident to suicide-by-cop. After the house was quickly cleared, the other team members were high five-ing the sniper. One even told him he’d “punched a perfect ten,” and invited him to go in and “score the target.” At that moment the sniper didn’t know what to feel. He had killed a man that pointed a rifle at his team, so he didn’t feel as though he had done anything wrong. But, the sniper told me, “I didn’t really want to feel good about it, either — I had just killed a man.” He certainly didn’t feel like dancing around and high-five-ing his buddies. The celebratory attitude of the other officers may seem cold to some, but glee and laughter can be one of the ways people release the tension of their own adrenaline dump.

So, what is the right way to approach a police officer that just survived an officer involved shooting? How can a supervisor turn this first contact into a “coaching forward” moment? Simply by showing calm and genuine concern for the officer.

The first statement should be, “Are you OK?” instead of an accusatory “What the hell did you do?” You don’t need to hug the officer or even join hands and sing Kumbaya. Just quietly and genuinely help them understand that your only concern at this moment is their well-being. Sit them in a car and keep away other officers and especially the media. Listen if they need to talk, but tell them there is no urgent need to describe the incident right now. Ease them through the shakes as they come down off the adrenaline high.

To the extent you can, consistent with your agency’s policies, resist the efforts of public integrity officers to get an immediate statement from your officer. It can take as long as 72 hours for the “fog” of adrenaline to fully wear off, so first statements are commonly confused and inaccurate. Forcing a statement too soon will increase the chance for conflicting statements, made after the officer’s head clears.

Many officers have told me the most stressful moment of the whole event was when their weapon was taken as evidence. They were disarmed. These officers said they were crushed with the feeling of having done something wrong when they looked down at an empty holster. Yes, we need their weapon as evidence. But, there is no reason they have to be disarmed. In many agencies they have a that when an officer is involved in a shooting, someone will retrieve a spare weapon from the arms room and take it to the scene for the affected officer.

Several years ago a police captain friend called me as he drove back to headquarters from an officer-involved shooting. One of his sergeants had shot and wounded a knife-wielding man who didn’t understand the “21 foot” rule. In his haste to get to the scene, the captain had forgotten to draw a spare pistol, but was well aware of the “empty holster” syndrome. As the captain took the sergeant aside and said, “You know, I need to secure your weapon,” he solved his dilemma by handing the sergeant his own pistol with a simple, “Here’s mine ... put it in your holster.” I’ve never heard a better description of leadership.

It is also a good idea to keep your officer away from the person he shot. Rifle and shotgun wounds can be especially ghastly, and your officer doesn’t need that image burned forever into his memory. He’s likely to see enough bad images in his sleep without adding another.

Your initial response to an officer-involved shooting can make the situation better or worse for the affected officer, the choice is yours. You can minimize the officer’s stress and start him down the road to recovery with two simple acts. Start the conversation by asking, “How are you?” Then fill their empty holster as soon as possible. Demonstrate your concern for them, not the felon they just shot. Show them you still trust them to walk in public with a weapon. That’s how true leaders takes care of their people.

Also read Critical incidents: Myths and realities



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