Unfriendly fire: Dealing with the aftermath of a blue-on-blue death

You shot another cop — how the hell are you supposed to feel and what the hell can you do to survive and recover from this life-changing episode?

Back in May 2010, I wrote about police officers’ reactions to the One Big Mistake — or OBM — which follow the accidental shooting or other in-custody death of a suspect, and which may subsequently be investigated, criticized, exonerated, or demonized. But these situations apply to officers’ dealing with civilians. The recent story of police officers firing at one another outside a Baltimore nightclub raises the issue of what has been called cop-on-cop violence. What happens when a LEO injures or kills one of his/her own and how does he or she cope?

Cop-on-Cop Violence
Every year, at least 52 police officers are killed in the line of duty — and another 26,000 others are injured — in service-related assaults. Most officer deaths occur in the course of making an arrest with the next highest category during workplace or domestic disturbance calls. Law enforcement’s dirty little secret is that almost half of officers are killed or non-fatally injured by their own or a fellow officer’s weapon. While fatalities are rare, non-fatal shootings are far more common. A sizable number of officers also die in job-related car and motorcycle accidents. The most common scenario of cop-on-cop violence is a uniformed officer mistaking a plain-clothes officer for a criminal. The latter may actually be working on assignment undercover, or may simply be an off-duty officer in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Most — if not all — off-duty officers know how to respond to such situations to minimize the chances of their being killed or injured by their fellow cops. But even these mistaken-identity shootings are unintended events, however clumsy and negligent they may have been.

What happens, though, when a police officer gets into an off-duty altercation with another officer and injures or kills him/her in the melee? The application of the military term ‘friendly fire’ seems unsatisfying here, because the deaths of the military service members are still accidental in nature. In the aftermath, how does officer deal with this, the mother-of-all OBMs?

Officer Reactions to a Cop-on-Cop Shooting
Although I’ve never been personally involved in a cop-on-cop shooting case (because they’re so uncommon to begin with), I have done evaluations and consultations on officers who have gotten into physical fights with other officers, who have been arrested by other officers for misdemeanors or felonies, or have drawn weapons on other officers but with no discharge or injury. In all these cases, their actions have had expectable career-changing effects. In addition, I’ve worked with officers who have made what they — and/or others — consider to be negligent mistakes that led to the injury or death of another officer. Extrapolating from these cases and reviewing the sparse literature on cop-on-cop violence leads to some general conclusions about officer reactions. Many of these are similar to the reactions to other kinds of OBMs or officer-involved shootings (OISs), but have unique features attributable to the fact that fellow cops are the victims.

Fear and Isolation
This is going to have an impact on your career and personal life, and you know it. Even without a fatality and where the injury is mild, you’ll almost certainly be severely disciplined. There’s a good chance you’ll be fired. And you might also be arrested and prosecuted. Worse, the kind of foxhole camaraderie that often allows an officer to garner support from his/her peers while under investigation for an ordinary shooting (“Hey, we’ve been there, we’re not judging you, pal”) may be conspicuously absent in the case of cop-on-cop violence (“Hey, you shot one of us, we sure are judging you, asshole”). Even if not overtly rejected, other officers may be unable to commiserate with you because, rare as an “ordinary” shooting may be, most officers can at least imagine the day when they may be faced with a critical situation requiring them to use deadly force — a kind of “proactive empathy.” But few officers will allow themselves to believe that they could shoot another cop, so their own self-protective denial may keep them from supportively identifying with your predicament.

Anger and Defensiveness
You may be mad at fate (“Why does this shit always happen to me?”), at the shooting victim (“How the hell was I supposed to know he was a cop — why didn’t he say something?”), or at the authorities (“Hey, he started the fight, and now I’m the criminal?”). This defensive “F-you-all” attitude may further alienate even those few sources of support you have left. On the other hand, putting up this kind of psychological barbed wire may be preferable to experiencing the alternative:

Guilt and Depression
You shot another cop — how the hell are you supposed to feel? Again, the unique aspect of this scenario is that you may be ostracized by the very people on whom you most depend for support: your colleagues. Most officers get their professional identity — and, indeed, their life identity — from their role as a law enforcement officer Now, not only has this been stripped from you administratively, but you feel like an outcast from your tribe. Like a mental virus, depression stemming from one area of your life has a way of infecting all the other areas, such as family and personal relationships, and soon you may come to believe that you’re just a one hundred percent screw-up at everything. At this point, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts may become a distinct risk.

Coping with the Aftermath
Although there’s no magic pill that’s going to make this all go away, there are some things you can do to help yourself get through this.

Feel the Burn
There’s no way to sugar-coat this, so let the crappy feelings wash over you — at least at first. This doesn’t mean you should wallow in misery, but rather let yourself experience how bad it can get, then say to yourself: “Okay, this hurts like hell, but so far I’ve lived through it, so maybe I can move forward.”

In psychology, defense mechanisms are mental strategies that the mind uses to protect itself from unpleasant thoughts, feelings, impulses, and memories. While the normal, adaptive use of such defenses enables the average person to avoid conflict and ambiguity, most psychologists would agree that an overuse of defenses leads to rigidity, loss of reality, and dysfunctional coping with life, which is why a good deal of psychotherapy involves helping patients relinquish defenses and cope more effectively with ordinary life challenges. However, in the face of immediately traumatizing critical situations, the last thing an affected person needs is to have his or her defenses stripped away. If anything, the proper utilization of psychological defenses can serve as an important, if temporary, “psychological splint” that enables the person to function in the immediate posttraumatic aftermath and eventually be able to productively resolve and integrate the traumatic event.

So, for now, use a little creative rationalization to keep yourself focused on the positive. I don’t mean live in a fantasy world — remember what I said above about sugar-coating. You need to have a clear view of your realistic options in order to take effective action on your own behalf, but as much as possible, try to keep the worst-case scenarios in the background and constructive goal-setting in the foreground.

Okay, maybe you did really royally screw up: now what? Although it’s much easier in theory than in practice, sometimes by mentally taking your lumps and vowing to yourself not to be that person anymore enables you to begin a new “identity project.” I’m not getting all cosmic on you, but rather suggesting that real changes in attitude and behavior only stick when they feel natural and internal to the person. Maybe you can’t undo what’s been done, but by internalizing the resolve to make changes in your life, you can reasonably assure you won’t get into this kind of situation again.

On a practical level, what can you do to make this situation come out the best way possible? Find out what resources and support you’re going to need — legal, financial, mental health, family, etc. Discuss your plan with someone you trust. Get the facts about your case. Brainstorm ideas with your trusted persons. If you have legal representation, always check ideas and plans with that person. See if there’s some way you can make amends without further harming yourself.

Seek Support
Hey, somebody must still love you — or at least like you. I’m not being flippant here. When you feel that those you most identify with are rejecting and reviling you, it’s easy to generalize that feeling to the point of believing that the whole world hates your freakin’ guts. So, whether it’s an old friend, your spouse, or a favorite great aunt, try to spend some time with someone who accepts you unconditionally. They might not approve of everything you’ve done, but they won’t stop being in your corner. This can be a powerful antidote to the poisonous sense of isolation, alienation, and ostracism that can lead to crippling depression.

Seek Professional Mental Health Assistance
One good thing about mental health professionals is that our job description includes being objective and nonjudgmental. Again, this doesn’t mean that we won’t provide a reality check when it’s needed, but since we don’t have a dog in this fight, we can dispassionately help you figure out how to best negotiate the practical and emotional challenges that you’re going to face. On the one hand, we’ll try not to let you marinate yourself in anger and self-pity — on the other hand, we’ll try to curb any wildly unrealistic ideas or impulsive actions that might get you in further trouble. And because conversations between you and a licensed mental health professional are covered by psychotherapist-patient privilege (with some isolated exceptions, which the clinician will explain to you), you can unload yourself in safety.

Getting Through It
In general, if you can maintain your dignity through the post-cop-on-cop violence ordeal, learn from your mistakes, defend yourself honorably where you’re right, make whatever amends you can where you’re wrong, and absorb whatever consequences your actions may bring without letting it destroy you, you may be able to look back on this event as a life-changing episode that you survived and recovered from. Fair or unfair, people come back from all kinds of mistakes, but usually only if they’ve really made some changes in their fundamental attitudes and the actions that express them.

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