Responding to school shootings: A former police officer’s viewpoint
A look at the psychological impacts for responding officers and how to cope with potential trauma
Content provided by American Public University System
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Associate Criminal Justice Professor, American Public University System
School shootings including the ones that happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut are devastating for everyone. When an active shooter is present in a school, every second counts. Law enforcement’s quick response and engagement with an active shooter are essential, because schools are by and large unable to protect themselves from this type of evil-doing.
As a former police officer who is currently a criminal justice professor at American Public University System, I have studied police stress and resilience from police stress for many years. I have also interviewed numerous officers on the topic around the country and in different parts of the world.
From a law enforcement perspective, responding to 911 calls involving multiple child victims, massive trauma and the loss of life is one of the most psychologically challenging events for police officers. It is unlike any other 911 call, because of the vulnerability of children and school staff who are unequipped to deal with active shooter incidents. But, sadly, several more of these incidents will likely happen in the future ─ there have been 119 school shootings since 2018, and 27 school shootings thus far in 2022, according to Education Week.
The Psychological Impact for Officers who Respond to School Shootings
While the effects of shootings on the families and friends of those who have died are horrible, the psychological toll on officers who respond to school shootings is also a reality. This is a topic that doesn’t get much media attention, but it is often a problem for those officers exposed to traumatic scenes associated with school shootings. The senselessness of school shootings, the helplessness to aid innocent child or adult victims, and the loss of life can be very difficult for responding officers.
In general, officers tend to compartmentalize their stress after experiencing traumatic events; they may try to rationalize what occurred because of its environment. For example, an officer responding to a homicide between two drug dealers or a traffic fatality involving someone who was intoxicated and on their fourth DUI can sometimes compartmentalize and rationalize these traumatic scenes.
However, it is different for police officers when innocent children are involved in school shootings. These incidents can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially if fatalities are a part of the school shooting.
Physiological Changes for Police Officers in High-Stress Situations
For officers who respond to an active shooter event within a school, it is essential to understand the changes that happen within an officer’s body in a high-stress situation. According to Harvard Health School, when an officer is exposed to intense danger, the part of the brain called the amygdala provides a distress signal to the hypothalamus. Adrenaline is then supplied to the bloodstream.
Similarly, another stress hormone called cortisol is released in the body, which affects the officer’s body and thinking. The elevated level of cortisol causes rapid breathing, an increased heart rate, auditory exclusion and tunnel vision.
The Hazards of Auditory Exclusion
Auditory exclusion, experienced in highly dangerous situations, may prevent police officers from hearing important information from dispatch, witnesses or other officers. As a result, those officers can miss key information relayed to them.
Tunnel Vision and Its Implications for Safety
Tunnel vision occurs when police officers become so focused on one area or target that they unknowingly reduce their peripheral vision. As a result, their situational awareness might be hampered, increasing the danger for police officers and anyone trapped by an active shooter. With tunnel vision, it is all too easy for police officers to miss multiple threats at school shootings.
Some Physiological Changes Can Be Managed during School Shootings
Ideally, police officers should understand how their own bodies react to highly stressful and dangerous situations. These physiological changes will impact their ability to quickly and correctly respond to an active shooter threat within a school.
During a highly stressful and dangerous event like a school shooting, some physiological changes can be managed, while others cannot. However, police officers can control their breathing and monitor themselves for tunnel vision or auditory exclusion. If police officers realize they are experiencing vision or hearing problems, they should increase their situational awareness through applying critical thinking to the situation.
For example, if police realize they are not scanning an area due to tunnel vision or are not listening to radio traffic, they can change their behavior. For instance, patterned breathing can be used to help police officers get their breathing under control, which increases their focus and their attention on the threat. Patterned breathing can also reduce a rapid heart rate.
Stress Management after School Shootings
For officers who respond to school shootings, the stress and trauma associated with handling these incidents has an impact on police officers’ mental health and their family life. These feelings can also cause anger, despair and depression.
For police officers who struggle with the stress associated with school shootings, it is crucial for them to receive the necessary support overcome the trauma they experience. For instance, this support can involve participating in a police peer-support program, talking to a mental health counselor, or entering an employee assistance program, among other things.
In addition, police officers should monitor themselves for indicators of PTSD. PTSD symptoms include:
- Reliving the traumatic experience through flashbacks or nightmares
Resources to Help Police Officers to Cope with Traumatic Events
If an officer experiences mental health challenges associated with school shootings or other violent events, one resource is COPLINE, which provides counseling and connect officers with useful resources. COPLINE is staffed by trained former officers who serve as counselors. This resource is especially beneficial because police officers experiencing mental health challenges after violent events are more likely to open up to someone with a law enforcement background.
Another resource gaining notoriety among the law enforcement community for those struggling with experiencing a traumatic event is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR). EDMR is a psychotherapy treatment that heals the mind from psychological trauma. It has an 84%-90% success rate and assists police officers in reframing negative memories and mitigating the effects of trauma.
During their law enforcement careers, police officers will inevitably undergo a tremendous amount of stress, especially if they respond to school shootings. But the trauma and mental stress they experience should be quickly addressed. Doing so can promote officer resilience, health and wellness. Police officers who don’t pay attention to these issues will be at higher risk of health problems, suicide and family issues.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has over two decades of experience in the field of criminal justice and is an associate criminal justice professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University System, which offers online degree and certificate programs for service-minded individuals through American Military University (AMU) and American Public University (APU). Jarrod provides police training both domestically and internationally on relevant law enforcement topics such as human trafficking and police stress management. Jarrod can be reached through his website at www.Sadulski.com.