What happens after a police officer uses deadly force?

The physiological responses that occur during a shooting incident are widely known, but what goes through an officer’s mind after pulling the trigger is hard to predict

While all police officers pull their weapons during their careers – some more than others depending on the area they work in – only a small percentage actually end up firing them in a deadly force confrontation. Even among dozens of operators in SWAT, only a handful of us ever had to shoot anyone.

When officers have reasonable belief that we, our fellow officers, or the citizens under our protection, are in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, we are trained to react with deadly force. The effects that occur during a shooting incident are widely known – auditory shutdown, tunnel vision and a variety of other physiological responses to fear and stress. But what goes through an officer’s mind after pulling the trigger?

During a hostage rescue in Dallas, I was forced to shoot the suspect with my M4 in a small apartment bedroom. As I fired, I heard my rifle cycling and brass hitting the floor, but the actual sound of gunfire was tremendously muffled. Intellectually, I knew I had shot him, but my brain had to play catch-up for final confirmation. It felt surreal. And it was supposed to happen to someone else – not me.

A San Francisco Police officer places a marker on the street after shootings in San Francisco, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
A San Francisco Police officer places a marker on the street after shootings in San Francisco, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

We’re always trained and prepared for it, but most cops don’t really expect to shoot somebody until it happens. In my case, there was always an underlying thought that it was going be the other guy, until it was me. And then I became “that guy.”

Police procedure after use of deadly force

The procedures following a deadly force confrontation vary from department to department.

I was removed from the scene until the officer-involved shooting team from homicide showed up, along with the medical examiner, the physical evidence squad (PES), the district attorney, and my union-appointed lawyer.

All participants in the operation did a walkthrough to debrief their roles and actions. I was the last guy to go through, trying to recall every detail to the best of my ability while exhausted and numb.

Meanwhile, PES was busy counting bullets and collecting brass. They took photographs of everything, including me in my uniform. They wanted to make sure they had all the facts, including proof that I was immediately identifiable as a cop.

After my walkthrough, my commander looked at me and asked, “Who do you want as your companion officer?” That was the best thing he could have done for me that day. An hour later, I was sitting at a diner with a veteran SWAT officer I highly respected. I ate scrambled eggs and bacon in a bloody uniform, searching for some semblance of normalcy.

We headed to police headquarters afterward so I could give my official statement. I signed it and was sent home with the caveat that I would need to make an appointment with our departmental psychiatrist before I could return to full duty. At the time, administrative leave was only one day off, but I was allowed to take a couple of extra days.

The emotional aftermath of a deadly force incident

And then it started. I didn’t feel normal anymore because I had done something very abnormal – I killed somebody. I was justified in doing it, but it was still traumatic and I would eventually face a Dallas County grand jury to defend my split-second actions.

I replayed the incident over and over and felt like crawling out of my skin. Exhaustion set in. I had anxiety about what my peers thought. Whether they admit to it or not, other officers will Monday-morning quarterback you because you’ve become “that guy.” This is a huge disservice to the involved officer. The shooter has enough on his mind to worry about besides the rants of people who believe they could have done a better job.

Operators who were in the room with me during the shooting came up with their own versions of what happened to explain their actions and inactions. People who weren’t even there were probably my worst critics. The next day, I had a salty SWAT veteran question my judgment, and he was at home sleeping when all of this occurred. Whether it’s your peers or the news media, I can’t emphasize enough how brutal and unexpected the Monday morning quarterbacking is following an officer-involved shooting.

My phone rang off the hook. Most were concerned family and friends; some were colleagues who had heard multiple versions of the shooting and wanted to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s actually good for an officer to tell the story because it makes you feel normal. You also start remembering details you may have forgotten in the immediate aftermath. It’s like waking up from a dream and starting to recall different parts and pieces as the hours pass. I’d think to myself, Damn, I said I looked left and broke right, when I really looked right and broke right. I need to amend my statement.

When I went to see the psychiatrist, he went through a long checklist with me:

  • Do you have an appetite?
  • Can you sleep?
  • Are you depressed?

I returned to work immediately after that visit, probably sooner than I should have. There’s a much better understanding today of how important it is for management to give officers enough time to decompress. When they return, don’t throw them back in the saddle too quickly.

How to reintegrate a police officer after a deadly shooting

Officers involved in shootings shouldn’t be forced back into their operational duties right away. They have been through an incredibly traumatic experience, no matter how tough they act. Ease them back into work. Give them a few weeks of restricted duty or have them conduct training at the range so they can gradually assimilate their regular duties.

Don’t second-guess the officer’s decision and don’t allow other people to do it. Just leave it to the investigators.   

You experience a variety of unexpected emotions when you shoot someone. I was a highly trained SWAT officer; that’s why I made the decision to use deadly force, but the after-effects were still tough to deal with.

Going forward, I thought I was going to be involved in a shooting on every dynamic entry. I knew it was irrational, but I thought I’d be too quick on the trigger. On my first day back on duty, my sergeant made me the point man on a warrant execution. I burst through the front door, confronted a suspect in the first room, and ordered him to get down on the ground. He quickly complied, and I had never been more relieved in my life. It reinforced the fact that I was still tactically in control of my actions and making sound decisions.

With all its challenges, the best thing to come out of my experience was the opportunity to be someone else’s companion officer. A few years after my shooting, a patrol rifleman responded to a robbery at a Shell station. He took aim and fired after the suspect pulled a gun on him. This young man was completely shaken up when I arrived. I told him exactly what my sergeant had said to me: “Relax. You did the right thing.”

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