Police Responses to Officer-Involved Shootings

Final report submitted to NIJ, Police Responses to Officer-Involved Shootings, David Klinger, grant number 97–IC–CX–0029, available from NCJRS (NCJ 192286).

What goes through police officers’ minds when they are involved in shootings? How does facing deadly force affect what they see, hear, and feel? Prior research has found that many officers involved in shootings suffer from “postshooting trauma”—a form of posttraumatic stress disorder that may include guilt, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.[1] However, it may be that officers are more resilient than previously thought. One study has found that most suffer few long-term negative emotional or physical effects after shooting a suspect.

The study explored the emotional, psychological, and physical reactions of 80 officers and sheriff’s deputies during and after 113 incidents in which they shot someone, using a combination of questionnaires and personal interviews.

Among the findings:

  • Most officers reported that just before and as they pulled the trigger on the suspect, they experienced a range of psychological, emotional, and physiological reactions that distorted time, distance, sight, and sound. (See table 1.) Many officers found their recollection of the events of the shooting to be imperfect. In extreme cases, officers could not recall firing their guns. In the days, weeks, and months that follow a shooting, officers may suffer adverse reactions such as sleep interruption, anxiety, and depression.

  • Although some officers did not feel fear during a shooting, they still sensed imminent danger to themselves or others that met the standard for using deadly force.

  • Contrary to earlier research findings, few officers in the study suffered long-lasting negative effects following a shooting. Officers’ postshooting responses were influenced by the attitudes and actions of investigators, colleagues, family members, and friends; these reactions diminished markedly as attention and activity around the incident lessened. (See table 2.)
Table 1. Officers’ perceptual distortions during shooting incidents (n = 113)

Distortion

At any timePrior to firingUpon firing

Tunnel vision

51%31%27%

Heightened visual detail

56%37%35%

Both visual distortions

15%10%11%

Auditory blunting

82%42%70%

Auditory acuity

20%10%5%

Both aural distortions

9%0%9%

Slow motion

56%43%40%

Fast motion

23%12%17%

Both time distortions

2%0%2%

Other

13%6%9%

Total

95%88%94%
Table 2. Officers’ responses following a shooting

Physical response

At any time
(n = 113)
First 24 hours
(n = 112)
First week
(n = 113)
Within 3 months
(n = 111)
After 3 months
(n = 105)

Trouble
sleeping

48%46%36%16%11%

Fatigue

46%39%26%7%5%

Crying

24%17%7%2%2%

Appetite loss

17%16%8%2%1%

Headache

7%6%4%1%1%

Nausea

4%4%4%0%0%

Other physical response

19%18%11%12%6%

Thoughts and feelings

Recurrent thoughts

83%82%74%52%37%

Anxiety

40%37%28%13%10%

Fear of legal or administrative problems

34%31%25%19%11%

Elation

29%26%19%11%5%

Sadness

26%18%17%5%5%

Numbness

20%18%7%4%3%

Nightmares

18%13%13%10%6%

Fear for safety

18%9%10%9%8%

Guilt

12%10%5%6%2%

Other thoughts
or feelings

42%33%23%20%14%

Note: The different n values reflect the timing of the 113 shootings. For example, two of the shootings occurred within 3 weeks before the interview and another six occurred between 2 and 3 months before the interviews. One officer was critically injured and unconscious for 48 hours following her shooting, so questions regarding the first 24 hours after her shooting did not apply to her.

What Happens in the Months Following a Shooting?

Most officers reported experiencing no negative reactions 3 months after the shooting, and fewer than one in five reported “severe” reactions (two or more negative emotional or physical reactions) 3 months after the shooting. Even in the short term, many officers experienced no or only one negative reaction during the first day and week following a shooting (38 and 52 percent, respectively). Only one specific reaction—recurrent thoughts—persisted past the 3-month mark in more than one-third of the cases, and only two other reactions exceeded 10 percent—fear of legal problems and trouble sleeping, both of which were reported in 11 percent of the cases.

The emotions that officers experienced were not all negative. Following about one-third of the shootings, officers reported feelings of elation that included joy at being alive, residual excitement after a life-threatening situation, and satisfaction or pride in proving their ability to use deadly force appropriately.

Expressions of support from fellow officers, detailed discussions about the incident with officers who had previously shot a suspect, and taking department-mandated time off following the shooting were associated with slight or moderate reductions in officers’ negative reactions. Conversely, officers who felt a lack of support from their colleagues and supervisors or that aspects of the investigation into the shooting were unfair or unprofessional reported more severe and longer-lasting negative reactions following the shooting, particularly after 3 months. Less predictably, support from intimate partners or family members and attendance at mandatory mental health counseling sessions were not associated with officers’ postshooting reactions.

What Does This Mean for Police Agencies?

Training. The finding that most officers in this study experienced little long-term disruption as a result of shooting a suspect calls into question the appropriateness of training that stresses the severe guilt and depression felt by some officers who shoot. Focusing on severe responses that occur infrequently may be misleading and counterproductive. Several officers indicated in interviews that they thought something might be wrong with them because they did not experience the symptoms that training taught them to expect; others felt that, through the power of suggestion, their reactions were more severe than they would have been otherwise.

Mental health counseling. Many officers who underwent mandatory postshooting counseling reported that the experience was not positive (although three officers who reported long-term depression found counseling to be helpful). Most officers who held this opinion said they believed their department required counseling to shield itself from legal liability, not to help the officers themselves. They stated that they did not talk frankly to the counselors because they did not trust them to keep the sessions confidential; in some cases, they thought the counselors were incompetent.

Several officers admitted that they lied to counselors about their reactions because they did not want to divulge their thoughts, feelings, and experiences to a stranger with ties to the department. This contrasts with officers’ willingness to discuss the shooting with fellow officers who had also been involved in shootings and suggests that peer counseling may be more helpful to these officers than mandatory critical incident debriefings.

Officers may honestly say they cannot recall some aspect of the incident or report information that conflicts with other evidence. Investigators faced with problematic statements from officers can try to fill in the gaps or reconcile conflicting evidence through further investigation.

In addition, because officers may fire at a suspect without realizing it, investigators may want to check the weapons of all officers who were immediately present at a shooting for evidence of firing, even if the officers report that they did not fire.

NCJ 212266

Note

[1] See, for example, Stratton, John G., David Parker, and John R. Snibbe, “Posttraumatic Stress: Study of Police Officers Involved in Shootings,” Psychological Reports, 55 (August 1984): 127–131; Solomon, Roger M., and James H. Horn, “Postshooting Traumatic Reactions: A Pilot Study,” Psychological Services for Law Enforcement Officers, ed. James T. Reese and Harvey A. Goldstein, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986; Campbell, John Henry, “A Comparative Analysis of the Effects of Postshooting Trauma on the Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Educational Administration, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 1992; Nielson, Eric, “Salt Lake City Police Department Deadly Force Policy Shooting and Postshooting Reactions,” unpublished paper, Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake City Police Department, 1981.