It was a quiet day. The squad car ambled down the road with its windows down, sirens off, music playing softly in the background. The police radio let out a short, static sound interrupting the calm; it was a report of an individual armed with a gun, in the middle of a street close to the cop car. The music disappeared, the windows went up and the sirens blared as the car picked up speed.
The tales of police always begin the same: a cop involved in a shooting, a person, injured or dead, sparks an investigation. Police shootings affect everybody involved: the individual, his or her family, bystanders, witnesses and the police officers.
“There’s a lot of ways that shootings affect [police] officers,” Northwestern Division Captain Mark Hanten said. “I think every officer in every situation perceives that a shooting is going to have some impact. Whether or not they were in imminent peril, [or being threatened,] plays a great effect.”
According to psychologist Suzanne Best, who has extensive experience in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and other trauma-related conditions, an officer’s trauma relates to the degree of danger that they perceive themselves to be in.
“[A regular person with] a gun pointed at [him or her] would undoubtedly be traumatized by that … [but police officers] know that they’re skilled at defending themselves and stopping the threat,” Best said. “There are plenty of cases where [officers] are traumatized also because there could be innocent bystanders, there could be hostages or they could be in situations where their equipment doesn’t work or something goes wrong where they’re unable to deal with a situation.”
The personal backgrounds of the officers involved play a huge part in how they are affected by shootings, according to Detective Sergeant Jeff Sterling of the Northwestern Division.
“A lot of officers are former military, so they may [or may not] have been involved in something [like a shooting] beforehand,” Sterling said. “Some officers are more prepared mentally, based on their life experience, than another officer that may be brand new.”
Officers new to the police force who are involved in shootings are impacted more than seasoned officers who have gone to “a lot of different calls, incidents [and have had a] different police experience,” according to Sterling.
As for specific psychological effects, it varies depending on the individual.
Often, police officers experience anxiety, stress and sleep problems, as a result of a shooting incident, according to Best. She has met with servicemen that have gone through certain traumatic situations, and Best often tells them to “stay grounded,” or stay in the present rather than dwelling on the past since they will often go through the incident and replay it in their mind, according to Best.
“They will run the incident around and around in their head, and it’s kind of like running a tape over and over again,” Best said. “It’s partly because that’s what the mind does trying to process [the incident,] but it’s also partly that they keep … wondering if there’s anything [they] could’ve done differently.”
Over time, the police in San Diego who have gone through traumatic events like shootings, have begun to get more time off of work to help them process the events.
“We wanted those officers to be better taken care of so they do return to work and [so] they can process [the event] correctly and carry on with their career,” Sterling said.
Immediately after a shooting and once enough additional officers are called to the scene, the police officers who were part of the event are removed as quickly as possible. An investigation is started, and the various departments involved take photographs of the officers and get a detailed statement about the incident.
“All of a sudden, you’re in limbo,” Sterling said. “You’re not going to be going back to work or going with your squad and doing what you normally do … all those plans are changed until the investigation goes along far enough to make sure that there’s no question about what happened.”
Officers’ body security cameras have made investigations easier than they were when officers had to try to put together their recollections, according to Hanten.
Body camera footage often gives police insights in to most of the physical events that occur during a shooting, but it is not able to capture what is going on in the officer’s mind.
“When you get involved in a critical incident you get tunnel vision,” Sterling said. “You circle in on the threat … your mind is on overload so you don’t hear the gunshots. A camera only catches part of it … you might not be hearing anything that the person [next to you] may be saying”
To train the police officers of the SDPD on how to react in a situation that may result in the use of deadly force, the police academy is equipped with a Firearm Training Simulator, or FATS, which is used to give cadets a sense of what a high-stress situation is like.
To allow San Diego citizens and government officials experience the stress of a high-risk situation, the SDPD invited them to experience the FATS system. The Falconer was given an opportunity to visit the FATS system and experience the tunnel vision and mental processing that an officer goes through during a situation that warrents deadly force. During a moment of high tension, The Falconer also experienced a great amount of second-guessing.
Officers second-guessing themselves after a shooting is something Sterling also sees.
Many departments, including the District Attorney and the Homicide Unit, analyze a shooting, and as the investigation into the incident is happening, officers “may second-guess themselves because they don’t have all the answers and they’re worried about” possibly being fired or charged in court, according to Sterling.
But Sterling doesn’t want officers, doubting themselves or second-guessing their actions.
“You’re reacting to what the suspect does … and we don’t want an officer that [does not have much information] to go there … and in a critical time, [second-guess themselves,]” Sterling said.
The police officers are racing to the scene. Static fills the air as updates keep coming in, the dispatcher on the phone trying to create a comprehensive scenario from the series of frantic calls coming in from witnesses at the scene.
“If you go to a call involving a robbery or a gun … you’re driving there … and you’re hopefully getting some updates and more information,” Sterling said. “The officer [does not get very much information] … Witnesses or victims calling are trying to describe things on the phone .. and they’re not getting everything right.”
Although police shootings are very rare, according to Sterling, every case is unique, containing a different set of details that affect each officer in a differently. Factors such as the subject’s gender and shooter’s classification can change the mindset of the officers involved in the event, especially if that person is a minor and the purpose is suicide, Sterling said.
According to Kathleen Chang (12), killing a child probably amplifies the effect on the police officer, and in her opinion, officers are probably never able to truly recover after such an incident.
“In essence, [the police] are being used by the person who is suicidal,” Best said. “They, as officers, are being used as a weapon, and for them to be put in that position is really a terrible burden for them.”
The car skids to a stop and its doors slams shut. The officers are cautious, but move quickly toward the potentially dangerous, half-established situation that they were called in to check on. It is a standoff. The lone figure in the distance is just a few yards away, a gun pointed at the cops. A few muffled words are shouted. No response, no change. A command this time, louder and stronger than before. No change.
In the aftermath of a shooting, it is not only the officer that feels the effects, but the family of the cop as well.
“The impact that these events have on the spouses and family members of the officers [is often overlooked],” Best said. “They often struggle a great deal with these types of events … even the children.”
At the SDPD, although it is not required, it is often encouraged that families also attend the formal wellness programs offered to help the officer to work through any psychological and emotional struggles related to the shooting.
“We have a pathway back to full duty where [officers] get time to reflect and get themselves back together before they go straight back out into the job,” said Hanten. “Frequently, it’s a situation where they’re wanting to get back to work after they’ve been out at home with their families for a few days and then in a light duty assignment for a while.”
Effects felt by both the family and officer are also greatly attributed to the media coverage the shooting gets, as well as the reaction of the community.
“Being vilified by the public for [the events] and being ridiculed … those things have a huge impact on officers when they’re involved in shootings as well,” Hanten said.
In many cases, the media attempts to contact the officer soon after the shooting, hoping to get an interview or statement, but it is against SDPD policy for officers to make a statement and clarify anything, according to Sterling.
For Sydney Wilson (9), whose great uncle was a police officer killed in a Las Vegas shooting while protecting the people around him and his police partner, the media and community were respectful to both the memory and legacy of her uncle.
“People really took it the right way,” Wilson said. “[The people of the community] actually named a street and school after him.”
Waiting for an investigation to be finished before jumping to conclusions is very important to Hanten. When an event like a shooting occurs, it is best for a community to wait for the facts to be revealed before forming opinions.
“[The most important factors of a community are] good community leaders who don’t rush to judgment, and find out what is going on before they offer to weigh in with their input,” Hanten said. “When they recognize the totality of the situation, they recognize it for the tragedy that it is, and give all tremendous support.”
Cops are figures of authority in society, but when it comes down to it, they are not perfect, said Sterling.
“Sit down and talk [with a police officer],” Sterling said. “Because if [people] do, it might change [their] philosophy and outlook. Cops are just people, too, from all walks of life … we’re not robots.”
The individual’s arm twitches. Silent shots are fired and officers begin to show up on the scene. The original officers know that the coming investigation will not be a simple process, and their careers may never be the same.
“Our whole life gets turned upside down on one radio call,” Sterling said.
Captain Mark Hanten and Sergeant Jeff Sterling wanted to contribute to this story in order to help the community better understand some of the issues surrounding officer-involved shootings, hopefully to help in the healing process for both the community and the officers who are involved in these types of incidents. While they spoke about several aspects of officer-involved shootings, they could not comment or discuss the recent shooting at Torrey Pines High School.