Surviving Assaults after the Physical Battle Ends, the Psychological Battle Begins. (Perspective)

Article excerpt

Researchers have estimated that approximately 87 percent of all emergency service personnel will experience a critical incident--an extraordinary event that causes extraordinary stress reactions--at least once in their careers. (1) Such occurrences include, but are not limited to, line-of-duty deaths or serious injuries, officer-involved shootings, life-threatening assaults, deaths of children, deaths caused by officers, hostage situations, highly profiled media events, and multiple victim or mass casualty incidents. As a Wethersfield, Connecticut, police officer, I became part of this statistical prediction after surviving a violent, life-and-death struggle. (2)

THE PHYSICAL BATTLE

On November 19, 1982, while on patrol, I received a broadcast of an armed robbery that had just occurred in a nearby town. Shortly afterwards, I spotted the suspect and vehicle described in the broadcast and pursued it for several miles. The suspect stopped and abandoned his vehicle in an apartment complex; however, the vehicle continued to roll forward striking and seriously injuring a child. After a foot chase, I captured the suspect. As I attempted to handcuff him, a violent struggle ensued. The suspect managed to gain control of my holstered service weapon. As I fought for the gun, he shot me in the leg. Exhausted and in fear of my life, I managed to regain control of my weapon and fatally shoot the suspect once in the chest as he again tried to attack me.

I had been a member of the department for 2 1/2 years and had just survived the ultimate test as a police officer, or so I thought. I soon realized, however, that the ultimate test would be to survive the psychological battle that had just begun.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL BATTLE

I was apprehensive as to what would happen next. The department did not have a written post-shooting policy or procedure at that time, so for me, it became a live-and-learn experience. Over the next week, my emotional feelings began to break through. I was fearful that the victim's relatives or friends would retaliate against my family and me. I became angry when the media sensationally labeled the shooting racially controversial, and I was not allowed to publicly defend their embellished, untrue accounts of the incident.

As the investigations began, the emotional pressure increased. I became anxious for a quick and favorable conclusion. As the weeks dragged on, the victim's estate named me in a civil action seeking punitive damages. My doubts began to intensify. I replayed the shooting over and over in my mind, questioning if I could have done anything differently and wondering why this had happened to me.

I felt alone, coming from a department in which no one had been involved in a shooting situation resulting in someone's death. No one really knew what I was feeling, so I began to isolate my emotions.

Lack of Pre-Incident Academy Training

The extraordinary stress that followed was known then as post-shooting trauma, an aspect of policing I was never trained for. Twenty years ago, the police academy training covered most aspects of law enforcement and prepared me for physical survival. However, it ignored the psychological aspects of the profession. The term, critical incident stress, had not been conceived. As defined by recent standards, I had suffered three critical incidents as a result of the confrontation: a life-threatening assault, an officer-involved shooting that resulted in death, and a highly profiled media event.

Perceptions of the Mental Health Profession

The day of the incident, my department offered me the services of a mental health professional. That produced my initial denial: not me, I didn't need help. After all, the use of deadly force comes with the territory. I felt that seeing a "shrink" would stereotype me as weak or crazy. Instead, I began to search for a trusted peer who I could relate to, someone who could understand what I was going through. …