Posttraumatic stress disorder also known as PTSD is a condition that is commonly suffered by many people who have experienced a severe trauma. Many people who suffer from PTSD are law enforcement officers combat military personnel and even civilians. There are many different symptoms of PTSD that people can suffer from. Flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, difficulty breathing, headaches, nervousness, abdominal stresses and a myriad of other symptoms. PTSD is a disorder that can be life altering and debilitating. It can affect your personal life, your family life, your work ability and performance in even your ability to go out in public. If not treated with specific counseling, the possibility of it becoming debilitating is very high. There are many different types of counseling available but it needs to be specifically geared towards the individuals specific trauma. If you think that you suffer from PTSD, it is strongly recommended that you seek out counseling for your own benefit.
Our law enforcement officers and military combat personnel are probably the most common sufferers of PTSD. Many of them do not seek out assistance or understand why they have the feelings they do. There are limited resources that are available for these persons to gain assistance and counseling at a reasonable cost or no cost. Due to the stigma and stereotypical responses to admitting that you have a problem are just a couple of reasons why people afflicted with this disorder do not seek out counseling. Many feel that they will be shunned or looked at differently because they admit that they were seriously affected by a trauma that they witnessed or were involved in. The macho belief that men don’t cry is a serious stereotype in these communities of people. One of the traumas that many of our military and law enforcement people are involved with is the taking of another life. It is not something that is taken lightly in our society and when it occurs whether necessarily or accidentally it severely affects the people involved. This is probably one of the most severe examples of the trauma that a person will have in their life. When a police officer, as an example, is confronted with an armed subject and has to make a split-second decision reaction to that subjects use of force against the police officer or another person it falls to their training and not a thought process. They react to what they are seeing and perceiving at that immediate moment whether it be a knife, a gun or some other weapon. They have to react to what they believe is a threat to themselves or someone else. They need to make a decision as to what level of force is going to be used to be able to stop that action. When confronted by a lethal weapon that could take the life of another person, their reaction is to use lethal force. These situations are highly stressful and difficult to review after the fact. You cannot take a bullet back after it has been fired. Every police officer knows this.
During these situations many physical and psychological processes are occurring. Adrenaline starts to flow the mind starts to process much faster than normal and begins to send messages to the muscles to begin the fight or flight syndrome. Police officers are trained to try and control their emotions and their muscle memory to react in the most appropriate way. No one knows exactly how they’re going to react in any given situation, especially in an extremely stressful incident. Hopefully, a police officer will respond in the way that they have been trained. During a critical incident, the brain may perceive things differently than when in a low stress incident. The persons hearing, may shut down, there eyesight may narrow, their muscles may freeze and lock up or they may even collapse.
I would like to give an example that I was involved in in the year 2003 in Denver Colorado. I was a police officer with about 15 years experience in uniform patrol. Myself and two other officers were confronted by an individual with a handgun outside of a nightclub. It had been reported to us that this individual had been involved in a fight in the bar and was ejected from the establishment. The subject it made statements that he was going to go and retrieve a gun and kill the doorman. When we confronted the individual he had a handgun in the waistband of his pants, visible to us above his belt line. The three of us confronted him and gave him orders which he failed to comply with. He then pulled a gun out at which time the three of us fired our service weapons at him, stopping his action of attempting to use the gun on us. The incident took place during less than 30 seconds after we confronted him in the parking lot. It literally was a split-second decision as to whether to fire my weapon or not. During that split-second my hearing shutdown and my eyesight narrowed, also known as tunnel vision. I saw the subject with the gun in his hand and it raising towards one of my fellow officers. The decision to fire my weapon was instinctual and was not a thought process, based on my training. My thought was to stop the action and to find protective cover from any bullets that may be fired by the subject. During this time, I saw a rounds from my fellow officers striking and exiting the body of the subject. The subject fell to the ground at that time I stopped firing my weapon. My site and hearing began to return and I began to become aware of my surroundings again. At that time, we aired over our radios that we have been involved in a shooting and to start paramedics and additional officers to assist in securing the scene and crowd control. As officers began to arrive, one of my fellow officers was showing signs of stress, not being able to holster his weapon and fell to the ground in pain which we believed was as a result of a round striking him. Fortunately, when we checked he had not been struck but instead had a hot shell casing inside of his clothing that was burning him. Another officer, broke down crying. All of these reactions occurred within a very short period of seconds after the culmination of the subject falling to the ground. Yes, the subject was killed. My adrenaline was still flowing and I was walking around trying to figure out what to do next. This is the first time that I had ever had to fire my weapon on duty and off of the shooting range. I was worried about my fellow officers and their welfare and wanted to make sure that they were okay. I also was concerned about scene security, scene safety and whether there were any other suspects present that we need to be concerned about. The first arriving officer was ordered to guard the body of the subject and secure the firearm. It was about 1:15 AM and the nightclub would be closing soon and we would have hundreds of people wandering in the parking lot. As additional officers began to arrive, they were directed by myself and other officers to secure the scene. Our supervisors arrived and we were separated and transported to headquarters for our statements of the incident. Approximately, nine hours later I was released from headquarters and allowed to return
Several days later, I was able to meet with my fellow officers and debrief the incident. I found out, that each of us experienced different reactions to the event while it was occurring. One officer, as I stated earlier, did not experience the tunnel vision that I did. He had heard everything that had gone on unlike myself having my hearing shutdown. Another officer said that all he saw was the gun and did not see the subject anymore. We had all been trained to deal with situations like this but had never been told what to expect when they happen. We had never been trained on how to deal with the aftermath critical incident, such as this. We also did not know how to cope with the stresses and the aftermath of being involved in a shooting. The problem with this would soon raise its ugly head in just a few months.
After I was released from my headquarters, I was transported by my Commander back to our district station. I changed out of my uniform, less my personal firearm, which was provided to the Crime Lab and went home. I tried to sleep, but was not able to. I was not able to sleep for about two additional days. Myself and one of the other officers, were scheduled for vacation after this incident. He went on a cruise with his family having to remember and deal with this incident. I was left, sitting at home for two weeks trying to make sense of what had just happened. The third officer, returned to work a couple of days later to his regular duties.
Within six months after the shooting, I began to have flashbacks and nightmares. I also started having symptoms of anxiety and depression. I contacted the department’s psychologist and began to seek counseling. It was determined that I suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and that the shooting was the marker that started the suffering of PTSD. I found that after 20 years of emergency services experience but I never learned to deal with and learn to cope with the traumas of stressors of my career. Even after counseling, I continued to suffer from severe anxiety, depression, difficulty breathing, chest pain, unstable cardiac arrhythmia and numerous other health issues. I was prescribed medication to help control the anxiety and depression, which helped but never eliminated the symptoms. I continued to work for seven more years, until I had what most people would consider a nervous breakdown. Even after seeking additional counseling, I was not able to resolve the issues that affected my body. As a result, I was forced to retire and accept a medical pension for less than half of my normal salary. I have since lost touch with the other two officers that I share this trauma with. To the best of my knowledge, one is still working as a police officer but in the capacity as a detective and not in uniform patrol. The other officer, has been involved in several highly publicized incidents and as a result was fired from the force but is appealing his termination. It is my belief that these incidents he has been involved in since, including a second shooting with a subject that attacked him with a sword, may possibly be able to be tied back to this original incident and his suffering from PTSD. I am not a medical expert nor am I a psychologist but these are my observations and opinions because both these officers prior to this incident were excellent officers and loved working patrol.