How each person copes with stress and grieving is as diverse as personalities. There is no established protocol to follow or systematic set of instructions that work for every officer after being involved in a lethal force encounter.
Law enforcement training focuses on making critical decisions under stress within the laws and department policies. Police officers spend hundreds of hours during their career preparing for the worst-case scenario they pray never comes. However, when forced into these deadly situations, officers must react instantly and rely on their experience and training to survive.
The reality of today’s society when officers use lethal force
Any officer who has had to use lethal force to protect life has the burden of second-guessing his own reaction and behaviors for the rest of his life.
Today, social media and news reporters immediately analyze an officer’s decision and actions and seem more interested in shock factor and ratings rather than presenting facts or having the patience to allow for a proper investigation of the incident.
The incident and officer’s actions are on trial in the court of public opinion — immediately. Meanwhile, the officer involved is placed on administrative leave while the investigation is conducted and reviewed by the prosecutor’s office for a recommendation of action.
The investigation and public opinion trial are ongoing simultaneously. This combination of events adds to the officer’s stress and increases the possibility of developing mental health problems that can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Not all officers will develop mental health problems after a lethal encounter. However, they are now in a high-risk category and need to find coping strategies that work best to decompress, reflect and move forward. Even if an officer seems fine a month or more after the incident, the lingering effects of the violent encounter has the possibility to effect the recovery and grieving process even for the most resilient officer.
Many departments now have critical incident protocols. These protocols provide officers with access to mental health professionals as part of the officer’s process to return to active duty. This mandatory step allows an officer access to mental health care that might otherwise be perceived as a weakness by police culture and supervisors.
Living with pulling the trigger: The grieving process
Everyone grieves differently, depending on one’s emotional intelligence.
1. Denial and Isolation: This is a normal stage of the grieving process to rationalize the overwhelming emotions that can occur from using lethal force. The denial and isolation are a reaction to the immediate shock of the violent encounter and replaying the incident by retelling the story. This is a temporary stage and normal first reactions.
2. Anger: This is also a normal reaction of using lethal force and the feeling of not having control. An officer might display anger at family, fellow officers and close friends. Many times the anger focuses on the offender of the lethal encounter.
3. Bargaining: This is a way to regain control and move forward. This stage is way of rationalizing and coping with the legal and department process.
4. Depression: This is also a normal stage after using lethal force, and the reality that this is now a part of the officer’s professional and personal life. When an officer cannot move out of this stage and depression lasts longer than a month, than professional follow-up is needed because PTSD is a risk factor for the violence. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that the officer will develop PTSD.
5. Acceptance: Forgiveness is a gift an officer gives himself or herself. Letting go of the emotional pain and anger has to occur so that the officer can move forward. Acceptance is a personal journey that can be lonely, but the officer does have access to support and professional care. This stage is not always achievable, depending on the officer’s emotional intelligence.
The more mentally prepared an officer is by understanding the grieving process that is associated with using lethal force, the better chances the officer will have at making a healthy recovery and resuming his life and law enforcement career in time.
The reality is that we live in a society in which violence can occur without notice. Officers face making split-second decisions when encountering an aggressive offender whose attention is to force a violent confrontation.
The lethal encounter in most situations lasts only a few seconds. But those seconds are filled with extreme terror and violence, and they change lives forever. The officer must find a way of dealing with the aftermath for a healthy recovery and working toward acceptance.
About the Author
Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.