For 30 years, retired Miami-Dade police Sgt. Tony Monheim says, he had the same bad dream.
He is on the job. He is being assaulted.
Something is wrong with his gun.
“I couldn’t pull the trigger or there was something wrong with the bullet; it just fell out of the end of the gun. And I was still being attacked.
“Well, I came to find out lots of cops have this same dream.”
If buried dreams of assault are common among cops, so is the aftermath of a real shooting. True, only a tiny fraction of law enforcement officers will ever be in what is known as an officer-involved shooting.
But local enforcement agencies in Palm Beach County aren’t dealing with a single shooting. Four agencies are grappling with a stunning seven officer-involved killings in six months – four of them in a matter of weeks.
By comparison, just three people were killed by law enforcement officers in Palm Beach County in all of 2011.
And when an officer does fire his gun, the potential psychological backlash is predictable, troubling and can span months if not years: In the immediate aftermath police officers almost inevitably experience some symptoms similar to those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, entire departments can be shaken by a single fatal shooting.
There’s sentiment that police are facing increasing violence that can lead to such shootings. Figures compiled by the nonprofit National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington D.C. report 70 officers nationwide died in gunfire in 2011, a 19 percent increase from 2010 and a roughly 70 percent increase since 2008. Of the seven fatal shootings in Palm Beach County since the first of the year, four involved an exchange of gunfire.
Gun pulled; senses sharpen
The psychological effects on cops start as soon as their gun is drawn. For more than 60 percent of officers involved in a shooting, time slows down, said Monheim, who has lectured nationally to law enforcement agencies on how to handle such shootings. For roughly 20 percent, time speeds up.
Officers frequently report tunnel vision. Their sight is focused on the perceived threat in front of them. As a result, they can later describe extreme detail in their narrowed vision.
In one study, a police officer recalled seeing what he thought were flying beer bottles. He was all the more puzzled because they had the word federal on them.
It turned out he was seeing the writing on shell casings falling to the floor from his partner’s gun.
Officers’ hearing is diminished as their bodies automatically focus on other senses key to survival. That’s why so many involved in a shooting recall hearing gunfire as only “pops” or don’t recall hearing orders to stop shooting.
Hearing, though, can actually sharpen if the officer is in a dark environment, and for the same reason: survival.
It’s the body’s classic response to fight or flight – with a caveat. “The officer can’t retreat,” said Monheim.
Officers with tears
The body’s response may be universal, but in the minutes and hours after a shooting, “there is no one cookie cutter reaction,” said Russell Fischer, a chief with Miami Dade Police for 33 years who along with Monheim teaches courses on officer-involved shootings.
“Sometime an officer will be dazed or inattentive. I have seen officers with tears in their eyes, already starting to question themselves.”
Nightmares, fear for safety
If officers react differently at the scene, some later fallout is common to many, if not most.
Post traumatic stress symptoms are most commonly associated with soldiers who experience battle. But trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, and cops are not immune.
Even in the best cases, officers typically spend sleepless nights second-guessing their actions. “Normally, when they lay down at night, they would replay the incident over and over, only in so much more of a slow motion than actually happened,” said Christine Cunningham. She is team leader of the nonprofit Critical Incident Stress Management Team of Palm Beach County, which offers support to officers and others in the wake of traumatic incidents.
“That’s when those thoughts of coulda, shoulda, woulda emerge.”
Further, “It’s not just the officer,” said Sgt. Ron Davis,the Boynton Beach Police Department’s commander for the Critical Incident Stress Management Team. “It involves co-workers, it affects families and friends of those officers.”
One National Institute of Justice research paper found a host of potential problems. In the first 24 hours after the shooting, for instance, almost half of those interviewed reported trouble sleeping and fatigue. In the first 90 days, roughly half reported persistent thoughts, while one out of 10 reported nightmares, and more than one in 10 reported anxiety, fear for safety and fear of legal problems.
Angry with loved ones
Other studies have found that the range of reactions can be broader, especially in the early days: post-shooting problems can include anger at friends and family, for instance, and in worst cases, suicidal thoughts.
Symptoms can persist: A full year after he shot a suspect in the arm, one out-of-state officer wrote, the event had, in spite of extensive support, “changed my life and the lives of my family.”
That’s not to say cops are necessarily debilitated by shootings. Three months after an incident, most symptoms abate, according to the National Institute of Justice research. Only about one in five still suffered severe reactions after that time, the authors found.
That may be attributed to departments frequently having some form of post-shooting counseling. “I think there has been a change in philosophy over time,” said Davis.
“It used to be if you admitted you were bothered, it was this huge black mark and belief that you would be assigned to the rubber gun squad. That old-guard mentality is changing.”
In West Palm Beach, for instance, an officer is cleared to go back to work only if a psychologist deems him or herfit for duty.
But counseling can be tricky. In at least one study, researchers found cops were apt to lie to psychologists, even as they unburdened themselves to other officers. There’s a reason for that: Department-ordered therapy means therapists may report their conclusions back to administrators. Negative findings can keep a cop from getting back to work.
Boynton, Cunningham’s group and certain other departments offer something additional: peer-to-peer counseling in the immediate wake of a shooting.
Under public microscope
Whatever the psychological fallout, it will be played out against the court of public opinion — and, more rarely, a real court — as available details of the shooting are widely debated and formally scrutinized.
Usually, officers are placed on paid administrative leave immediately after a shooting. Two investigations can start: one by the department, to determine if any policies or procedures were violated and another by the state attorneys office to rule out criminal misconduct.
Investigations take a toll, said Fischer. “Until the prosecutors weigh in, it can weigh heavily on an officer’s psyche with possible long-term consequences.”
“By virtue of having risked their lives, they are now a de facto suspect in a felony crime,” said Alexis Artwohl, an Arizona-based international consultant who teaches seminars on behavior science to law enforcement agencies.
Recent history suggests local cops have little to fear in the way of criminal prosecution. During former State Attorney Barry Krischer’s 16-year tenure, only one police offer was criminally charged following a fatal shooting, he said.
Krischer, who does volunteer work for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office, points out that his predecessor took every officer-involved shooting to a grand jury. He came to office with a different philosophy.
“I made the decision that part of the job was to have moxie to decide ‘good shoot,’ ‘bad shoot’ or grand jury. If it was a good shoot, I was not going to put an officer through the mental anguish of a grand jury investigation.”
In fact, community support is a mitigating factor in whether a police officer will experience post-shooting symptoms, and if so, how severe they may be.
It helps, too, to know that they are not alone — or crazy. Says Cunningham, “What I always say is that the event is crazy, not the person going through it.
“These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.”