How to Provide Real Emotional and Psychological Support After an Officer-Involved Shooting
DR. CHERYLYNN LEE
My first deployment as a police psychologist was to a homicide scene. The page came out sometime around midnight. I remember sucking down the leftover coffee from breakfast as I threw on my polo and headed out the door. Deputies had the suspect contained at the scene, and patrol was attempting to establish communication as additional resources were arriving. SWAT, CNT and even command staff were en route (someone has to manage the CP and buy the troops breakfast burritos). I arrived, exited my vehicle and headed toward our CNT sergeant to get the information I needed to start making phone calls. My role on the team is not to negotiate, but to gather intel, analyze the suspect’s behavior and provide support to the team. The brief lasted about 90 seconds before we heard it — the words that you learn about in training but that gut-punch you in the field: shots fired, OIS.
Before I go any further, I want to let you know our deputies were uninjured. The good guys shot the bad guy and everyone wearing tan and green went home. None of my friends had holes in them. Good. Everyone is going to be OK. That is such a fascinating word, isn’t it — “OK”? I firmly believe that word is responsible for half of the arguments in my marriage (the other half usually start with my husband telling me to relax, but I digress). Did you know that according to Google, “OK” means “satisfactory but not especially good”? Sounds about right. Physically, our people were OK, but what about emotionally? Or psychologically? What does it mean to be emotionally and psychologically OK, anyway?
In my private office, I see a lot of officers and dispatchers who have been directly involved in OISes. Some reach out within days, others within weeks, and some find their way to me decades after the incident has long since been tucked away. Some of the people I see have trusted peer support teams, wellness resources (free counseling, wellness apps, a wellness team) and a healthy, supportive department culture. Others have nothing. Most have something in between.
Every single officer and dispatcher, regardless of what a department does or doesn’t have, is human (some more so than others, depending on how much time they have on, of course). The human condition demands that when you drink too much water you have to pee. If drinking water was your job, you would probably make it a point to know where the closest bathrooms are, and your employer would likely have to provide a bathroom or two. If dealing with trauma is your job, which it is, why not make it a point to know where your closest resources are? Where do you go, who do you talk to, what do you do when your body and brain (or kids, or spouse, or co-workers) tell you you’ve had enough? Why isn’t it the case that departments provide places to “dump” (excuse the pun) the trauma in a way that allows you to be stronger, mentally tougher and a healthier version of you, at home and at work?
The answer is simple: Because it’s hard. Because it’s the way we’ve always done it. Because mental health isn’t black and white, and the injuries to the brain that result from trauma can’t be seen with the naked eye; thus, the injury is questionable. Now take those excuses, fold them into an airplane and throw them out the third-story window, because in today’s age, with today’s cops, with the demands that are placed on all of law enforcement, excuses aren’t good enough. Excuses equate to weakness. Excuses are no way to lead.
Most agencies have heard of things like peer support, critical incident stress debriefs and wellness checks. My intention is not to parrot what you can find in a workbook or in training, but to offer some anecdotes based on my professional experience being in the field and being in my office in relation to OIS incidents. It may be the way we’ve always done it, but moving forward, we have an obligation to our people to do better.
Let Your Officers Know What to Expect
Many officers are unfamiliar with OIS procedures. Have a one-pager with “What happens after an OIS” — essentially a what, when and how document. Who they can talk to and when. Where they go and for how long. When they will give their interview and to whom. How long admin leave might be. What role peer support has. The more the officer knows, the less anxious and targeted they might feel while going through the process. Rather than having them thinking, “Is the department asking me to do this because they think it was a bad shoot?”, you give them the opportunity to think, “The department is asking me to do this because it’s procedure and it has to get done.” This builds trust and lessens resentment between officers and agencies.
Check in With Your Dispatchers
Note, “Check in with your dispatchers” is not secret squirrel code for “Check a box.” Have someone who was in the field, or a supervisor, visit the comms center at the first opportunity. The weight that dispatchers carry when a call goes unresolved is heavy. The weight that dispatchers carry in relation to the mission — to get officers home safe and help people — is heavy. When there is a perception of a misstep, dispatchers become very hard on themselves and beat themselves up until they stop, until the alcohol makes it go away, until they burn out or until the critical incident debrief. Don’t just show up during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week with an extra box of doughnuts and a Facebook post to recognize your dispatchers. (I mean, don’t not do that, though. A hungry dispatcher is not good for anyone.) Show up when it counts.
Understand the Difference Between Fitness-for-Duty and Wellness Check-ins
If you are an administrator or a leader in this age of officer wellness, I would argue, strongly, that it is your responsibility to know what you don’t know and have a place to go for answers when you need them. As an example, some agencies are opting to mandate that their officers see a psychologist after an OIS for a wellness check-in. The difference between a wellness check-in and fitness-for-duty (FFD) is that the check-in is confidential and centered around the officer’s health and well-being, and the FFD is not confidential and is centered around the department’s needs.
Let Your People Know When Information Will Be Released to the Public
You may not know this, but people in the law enforcement profession like having control (no extra cost, you’re welcome). When you let your people know ahead of time what will be made public and when — body-worn camera footage, press releases, names, etc. — this gives the officers a chance to talk with their families and control the narrative before the narrative no longer belongs to them.
There will be some OISes where the admin leave will be extended. There will be some OISes where the FFD examination will result in the officer spending time out of work. Most of the time, at some point, the officer will come back to full duty. What training do you offer to reintegrate them into the here and now? Have policies changed? Laws? New academy graduates? Have the officers had a chance to shoot or go to ARCON training before they are given their radio and gun and told to go forth and conquer and good luck?
If you can implement some version of the above, perhaps when your officers and dispatchers are asked, “How are you holding up?” after an OIS, you’ll get an answer that’s better than “I’m OK.” That being said, the expectation that these interventions will offset the entire psychological and emotional response to an OIS is unrealistic. Trouble sleeping, anxiety, anger and panic are normal responses to stress — similar to the notion that if you drink a lot of water, you will have to pee. It means everything is working just as it should.
We are now several years removed from my first deployment as a police psychologist. There have been many since, and there will be more to come. And in a weird way, I look forward to showing up and putting forth my best when the time comes (which may be weird-sounding to the public, but you get it). In law enforcement, our mindset demands not an “if,” but a “when.” So, when the time comes, what are you going to show up with? Excuses or answers? There are two things cops hate: when things change and when they stay the same. Keeping things status quo is hard. Changing things for the better is hard. Choose your hard.
About the Author
Dr. Cherylynn Lee is a police psychologist and works full-time for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office as the Behavioral Sciences manager, overseeing the mental health co-response teams, CIT training and Wellness Unit, including Peer Support. As part of her duties, Dr. Lee is a member of the county’s threat management team and serves on the crisis negotiation response teams for both the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Barbara Police Department. Dr. Lee is the clinical operations director for First Responder Wellness, The Counseling Team International, for the Tri-Counties area. She has a private practice in the Santa Ynez Valley where she sees first responders exclusively, specializing in trauma, post-traumatic stress, mindfulness and job performance improvement. Dr. Lee has led many critical incident stress debriefings for OIS, LODD, natural disasters and as requested by both local and state fire and law agencies. Dr. Lee is also a subject-matter expert with CA POST on both officer and dispatcher wellness and has participated in several training videos and initiatives aimed at supporting and encouraging wellness for departments and their personnel. She can be reached at email@example.com.