Managing your officers’ mental wellbeing in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting
Implement these steps to help ensure when your officers are asked how they are holding up after an OIS you’ll get an answer that’s better than “I’m okay."
My first deployment as a police psychologist was to a homicide scene. The page came out sometime around midnight. Deputies had the suspect contained at the scene, and patrol was attempting to establish communication as additional resources were arriving, with SWAT, the crisis negotiation team (CNT) and even command staff en route.
I arrived on scene, exited my vehicle, and headed toward our CNT sergeant to get the information I needed to start making phone calls. My role on the team is not to negotiate, but to gather intel, analyze the suspect’s behavior and provide support to the team. The brief lasted about 90 seconds before we heard it. The words you learn about in training but gut punches you in the field. Shots fired, an officer-involved shooting (OIS).
Before I go any further, I want to let you know our deputies were uninjured. Everyone was going to be okay. That is such a fascinating word, isn’t it? “Okay.” According to Google, “okay” means “satisfactory but not especially good”? Sounds about right. Physically our people were okay but what about emotionally? Or psychologically? What does it mean to be emotionally and psychologically okay anyway?
In my private office, I see a lot of officers and dispatchers who have been in officer-involved shootings. Some reach out within days and others within weeks, while some find their way to me decades after the incident has long since been tucked away.
Some of the people I see have trusted peer support teams, wellness resources (free counseling, wellness apps and a wellness team) and a healthy, supportive department culture. Others have nothing. Most have somewhere in between.
Every single officer and dispatcher, regardless of what a department does or doesn’t have, is human. The human condition demands that when you drink too much water, you have to pee. If drinking water was your job, you would probably make it a point to know where the closest bathrooms are, and your employer would likely have to provide a bathroom or two. If dealing with trauma is your job, which it is, why not make it a point to know where your closest resources are? Where do you go, who do you talk to, and what do you do when your body and brain (or kids, or spouse, or coworkers) tell you you’ve had enough? Why isn’t it the case that departments provide places to “dump” (excuse the pun) the trauma in a way that allows you to be stronger, mentally tougher and a healthier version of yourself at home and at work?
The answer is simple – because it’s hard. Because it’s the way we’ve always done it. Because mental health isn’t black and white and the injuries to the brain that result from trauma can’t be seen with the naked eye, thus the injury is questionable.
Most agencies have heard of things like peer support, critical incident stress debriefs and wellness checks. My intention is not to parrot what you can find in a workbook or in training but to offer some anecdotes based on my professional experience in the field and in my office in relation to officer-involved shootings. With that in mind, here are some considerations that will prioritize your officers' wellbeing following an officer-involved shooting:
1. Let your officers know what to expect
Many officers are unfamiliar with procedures following an officer-involved shooting. Agencies should have a one-page document that details what happens after an OIS. Essentially this is a what, when and how document:
- Who they can talk to and when
- Where they go and for how long
- When they will give their interview and to whom
- How long admin leave might be
- The role of peer support.
The more the officer knows, the less anxious and targeted they might feel while going through the process. Rather than think, “Is the department asking me to do this because they think it was a bad shoot?” you give them the opportunity to think “The department is asking me to do this because it is procedure and it has to get done.” This builds trust and lessens resentment between officers and agencies.
2. Check in with your dispatchers
Note, check in with your dispatchers is not a secret squirrel code for check a box. Have someone who was in the field, or a supervisor visit the comms center at the first opportunity. The weight that dispatchers carry when a call goes unresolved is heavy. The weight that dispatchers carry in relation to the mission – to get officers home safe and help people – is heavy. When there is a perception of a misstep, dispatchers become very hard on themselves and beat themselves up until they stop, until the alcohol makes it go away, until they burn out, or until the critical incident debrief. Don’t just show up during National Communications Week with an extra box of doughnuts and a Facebook post to recognize your dispatchers. Show up when it counts.
3. Have a decent understanding of the difference between fitness for duty and wellness check-ins
As an administrator or a leader in this age of officer wellness, I would argue strongly that it is your responsibility to know what you don’t know and have a place to go for answers when you need them. For example, some agencies are opting to mandate their officers to see a psychologist after an OIS for a wellness check-in. The difference between a wellness check-in and Fitness For Duty (FFD) is that the check-in is confidential and centered around the officer’s health and wellbeing and the FFD is not confidential and is centered around the department’s needs.
4. Let your people know ahead of time when BWC, press releases, names, etc. will be released to the public.
Law enforcement officers like having control. When you let your people know ahead of time what will be made public and when this gives the officers a chance to talk with their families and control the narrative before the narrative no longer belongs to them.
There will be some officer-involved shootings where the admin leave will be extended. There will be some officer-involved shootings where the FFD examination will result in the officer spending time out of work. Most of the time, at some point, the officer will come back to full duty. What training do you offer to reintegrate them into the here and now? Have policies changed? Laws? New academy graduates? Have the officers had a chance to shoot or go to arrest and control training before they are given their radio and gun and told to go forth and conquer and good luck?
If you can implement some version of the above, perhaps when your officers and dispatchers are asked how they are holding up after an OIS you’ll get an answer that’s better than “I’m okay.” That being said, the expectation that these interventions will offset the entire psychological and emotional response to an OIS is unrealistic. Trouble sleeping, anxiety, anger and panic are normal responses to stress – similar to the notion that if you drink a lot of water, you will have to pee. It means everything is working just as it should.