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First responders and gallows humor: When joking becomes harmful

Laughing in a tough situation releases feel-good brain chemicals that help alleviate stress; however, problems arise when not everyone is on the joke

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I was working the graveyard shift in pre-dawn suburbia. By dumb luck, I happened to notice the silver, four-door sedan double-parked in front of a house. I’d been to this address several times on unrelated domestic disturbance calls, so I was already on high alert. When I ran the license plate, the registration came back as stolen.

Before I could light the guy up, he sped right past me.

Cue the flashing lights

This was the good stuff – the calls new police officers crave. A thief in the dark, a car chase, nobody else on the road, no one jogging or walking their dogs. I called in the pursuit and the chase was on.

The suspect in the stolen car raced through the pre-dawn neighborhood, rounding corners and smashing taillights on parked cars. Per departmental policy, we were allowed two cruisers in the chase, plus a canine car if one was available. The supervisor had the option of joining in or just meeting us at the pursuit’s termination point. Since nothing else was going on in our quiet suburb on an early Tuesday in March, we had at least four cars in the pursuit.

The chase didn’t go on for long. After evading us for a mile or so, the suspect hit another parked car and crashed into the back of a travel trailer in front of someone’s house. Luckily, nobody was sleeping inside — that could’ve been devastating. The driver flung open his door and took off at full speed toward the back of the darkened home.

One of the most dangerous aspects of a foot pursuit is not knowing where the suspect went or whether he was armed. There’s always the possibility that he would lie low somewhere, waiting to ambush me or another officer. We would’ve been easy targets. As we followed him on foot, we had no idea what obstacles or dangers we might encounter.

But we didn’t have to go far to catch up with this car thief. As it happened, he had jumped the side fence into the residence’s small backyard and run straight into the tall, wrought-iron bars surrounding the pool area. The only way out was over the fence on the far side. Panicking in the dark, the suspect pumped himself up and vaulted over the bars. Instead of landing gracefully on the other side, though, he impaled himself on the sharp spikes sticking up from the top. The man hung there, screaming – waking up the whole neighborhood – unable to free himself as blood oozed down to the pool deck.

The sticking point

It goes without saying that we arrested the man and took him immediately in for medical care. After his wounds were stitched and dressed, we booked him into the county jail.

The officers on scene spent hours rehashing the chase and its shocking conclusion. We made jokes like, “He won’t have the guts to do that again,” and “I don’t know what got into him!” Somebody quipped: “He really stuck the landing,” and another said, “Do you think he got the point?”

Anytime there is a critical incident, whether scary or tragic or just plain weird, public safety personnel will find humor in it and often openly laugh about what happened. It’s just what we do. This might not be such a bad thing when you’re standing around the station break room, shooting the bull. But it can be a terrible thing if sleepy neighbors wake up and overhear your callus comments. And it’s another thing altogether in a crowd equipped with cell phones.

When it comes to cops and gallows humor, we often use jokes to deal with all the sadness and stress from the horrific things we see on the job. When we do this instead of dealing with our trauma, though – laughing at things the average person wouldn’t find even remotely funny – we can easily cause problems.

Hanging tough

In 1856, a man named William Palmer was publicly hanged for murder at Stafford Prison in England. Stepping onto the gallows, he saw the trap door and joked to the hangman, “Are you sure it’s safe?” When another murderer, James W. Rodgers, was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1960, the sheriff in charge asked him if he had any final requests. According to reports, he asked for “a bulletproof vest.”

So-called “gallows humor” is the grim or ironic humor we sometimes see in a hopeless or tragic situation. It is most often characterized as a witty comment made in a humorless situation. William Palmer’s quip is an example of literal gallows humor – an effort to lighten the mood with a grisly attempt at levity. The same goes for James Rodgers’ last request.

Police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel often find themselves leaning on gallows humor as a coping mechanism. Laughing in a tough situation releases feel-good brain chemicals that help alleviate stress. Another reason for dark humor is to bond with colleagues. Sharing a tragic experience with a coworker can leave both of you with a need for a shared connection, the knowledge that whatever you just went through, you’re not alone.

A problem can arise when not everyone is on the joke. If an outsider overhears rude or insensitive comments, this can raise questions about your ethics and professionalism. Members of law enforcement are often criticized for not considering how the things they say or do affect the general public. Those of us on the force see this humor as a needed outlet, but not everyone would agree.

For example, when a suspect does something that may seem really stupid, do we really know why? Yes, some people are stupid, and people often do dumb things when they’re under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. But what if the person is suffering from a mental illness or emotional crisis? Is it really funny to have a laugh at something somebody did while they were in the midst of a mental breakdown?

Even insiders might not appreciate the so-called humor they hear. If one of our officers on the scene at the backyard pool had a loved one who accidentally died by being impaled (say, in a car or industrial accident), that officer might have very good reason to get upset when hearing our jokes.

Once we begin leaning into gallows humor, it can become a crutch to get us past calls and situations no one could possibly think were funny. Putting a sad or sadistic twist on events like this is meant to blunt their edge and reduce their impact on our feelings. I wonder, though, whether doing this manages just to further embed the traumatic event into our mental vault. It can get to the point when nothing seems funny anymore, and everything is fake irony and jokes about the misfortune of others.

Gallows humor considerations

I can almost hear the complaints from seasoned public safety workers across the board. I am not saying gallows humor should be abandoned on any level. I’m just saying we should acknowledge their potential impact on ourselves and others, and think before we joke.

So, before we all stand in a huddle and fire off one-liners about the less fortunate in any situation, consider three factors:

  1. Audience: First of all, who are you joking with? This includes your primary audience (other first responders) as well as anyone who might overhear you. Is the joke being made in the middle of a homicide scene behind secured police tape inside an evacuated building? Or is this a death notification in someone’s kitchen while other family members wait in the living room?
  2. Potential offense: Not everyone is in on your joke, and not every public safety employee thinks gallows humor is funny – or worth the risk. If the joke happens to be recorded by somebody with a camera phone or body camera, or if the message is electronic and someone grabs a screenshot, are you willing to take the punishment if the joke spreads out to the public? What if your snarky comments (funny or not) are played back in criminal or civil court? I have known many officers who sent gallows humor via mobile terminal messages (or worse, on a public Facebook post) only to have others read and report them.
  3. Personal impact: Finally, stop and think about what this grim humor is doing to you. Gallows humor often comes from a negative outlook on life. It requires the brain to take something horrific and find levity in it. Over time, this can wear down our normal coping mechanisms. You family may notice you are always poking fun at the worst aspects of life. You might push people away with your fatalistic comments. Gallows humor can set you up for finding the worst in all situations.

I am not suggesting there is never humor in some of the pretty strange calls first responders get. Indeed, there are movies and television shows that highlight the craziness we go through as part of our routine shifts. What I am saying, though, is to look at why you’re using gallows humor in the first place. The goal should be to get to retirement in one mental piece. Are all the jokes helping or hurting?

Karma strikes again

I’ll end with the story of one other foot pursuit. I was driving past a convenience store that was part of my regular beat. The store was near the edge of town, backed up to some old farmland. The land did not have any animals or crops – just tall, dry grass surrounded by a barbed wire fence.

As I cruised by, I saw a young man running from the store. Less than a minute later, a call went out that an armed robbery had just taken place at that location.

The presumably armed suspect was already around the side of the building and headed toward the open land by the time I got out of my car and gave a radio description and direction of travel. I rounded the building’s far corner and looked out into the field. I could see the suspect dangling upside down and not moving, not even a little.

When my backup arrived, we drew our guns and approached to take the man into custody. He was alive but not moving, for reasons we soon discovered. When he had tried to hurdle the wire fence, the sharp barbs had caught his pants and all the soft tissue between his legs. Tumbling, he collapsed and fell forward, spinning the wire in a complete circle around his now inverted body. Breathing, he told us, only made the pain worse.

I’ll admit we all made some pretty hilarious comments at his hopeless and grim situation and at his very criminal expense. At the time, I didn’t even feel sad about doing it. But looking back, I have to wonder whether this was a healthy approach to dealing with the craziness of the job, or an indication that I was suffering from compassion fatigue. I can’t change things now, but if I had a chance to go back, I might think twice about it.

NEXT: 10 funny habits that follow you off-duty

Missy Morris started in public safety as a juvenile probation worker after graduating from University of California Santa Barbara in 1991 with a degree in behavioral psychology. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work in probation before quickly transitioning to police work. She spent three years with the Palo Alto and Mountain View police departments as a patrol officer. She spent the following 22 years of her 28-year career at the City of Roseville. Missy worked in critical incident negotiations, eventually becoming the multi-city team leader and serving seven years on the state board of hostage negotiators. Missy feels her greatest assignment was a five-year stint as a traffic motor officer riding a BMW and working fatal accidents. She held several special assignments before retiring in 2020 as a lieutenant. Missy now works with the Lexipol Professional Services Team, working closely with Cordico wellness solution.