Police shootings have heavy psychological implications

By Robert H. Woody, Ph.D., J.D.
May 1, 2007 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

With the exception perhaps of athletes and military personnel, few folks ever experience the exhilaration of having one’s mind and body changed as dramatically as graduates of a police academy. Recruits are transformed into “thinking like a law enforcer,” developing physical strength and prowess and being accepted by society as a special type of public servant – all of which happens in about five months of full-time training and continues to be extended and refined through one’s career.

Having studied the police culture (Woody, 2005), there is no doubt that a law enforcement officer (LEO) is a member of an exclusive culture and others, including family members and friends, are excluded. That is, the camaraderie, the danger, the profound scrutiny from an array of critical sources and the authority to arrest and use deadly force restricts with whom an LEO can identify, bond, trust, depend upon and confide.

It is well established that LEOs suffer an elevated incidence of stress-related problems (e.g., depression, alcohol and substance abuse, marital conflicts, divorce and suicide) with the negative effects impacting families and friends as well.
When an LEO is involved in a shooting, whether as the target of an offender or as a line-of-duty shooter, there is unbridled attention devoted to the incident by news media and the public.

It is commonplace for law enforcement agencies to require “administrative leave” (or something similar) while even a seemingly “clean shoot” is investigated. Media fan the flames and the burden of shooting someone (under any set of circumstances) results in profound stress.

It is estimated that about one-fifth of LEOs’ fitness-for-duty examinations conducted by psychologists involve a backdrop of a shooting, two-thirds of the LEOs involved in a shooting experience noteworthy psychological problems thereafter and 70 percent of these LEOs exit law enforcement within seven years (Bartol & Bartol, 2004).

Part of the problem is that our civilized society holds firmly to the notion that violence between people must not be countenanced (except in the commercial media!) This axiom applies even to LEOs who use any level of force, and most certainly deadly force, in the line of duty. The individual who must resort to taking the life of another person, even for the protection of self or others, has been reinforced to feel guilty and rendered incapable of finding psychological resolution of the relevant conflicts.

Certainly LEOs differ in their resilience to stress as well as abilities and resources for coping and affect regulation. Nonetheless, the social framework applies a special filter for shooting incidents, making life difficult for any LEO who engages in a shooting incident.

The typical LEO has great reservation about asking for or accepting psychological services for fear that it will jeopardize his or her career advancement. Indeed, Professors Samuel Walker and Charles Katz report: “Officers are more stressed out by what their own department does than by what citizens on the street do” (p. 174). An LEO suffering job stress tends to be dissatisfied with the work, which leads to a decrease in the LEO’s quality of performance and diminished resources for the employing agency.

For the psychologist seeking to provide professional services to law enforcement, the closed culture restricts openness to a non-LEO’s having unfettered access. One well-credentialed psychologist, who is also a sworn LEO, laments that “I can stay on patrol but my own agency does not want to make use of my training as a psychologist.”

The reluctance to involve psychologists in daily operations points to the fact that law enforcement agencies are mindful of liability and in general prefer to contract for external psychological assessments for hiring and fitness-for-duty issues. Exceptions have usually occurred because of the unique characteristic of the given psychologist and situation. For example, early in my career the fact that my office was in the county courthouse led to my having coffee twice a day with LEOs, prosecutors and judges, which yielded opportunities for me that I would not have otherwise received.

Is there an unmet market for providing psychological services to law enforcement? Without doubt, there is a need but the organizational, political and cultural barriers make it highly unlikely that “ask and ye shall receive” an invitation.

The most viable approach would seemingly be to become well entrenched in the community, gain skills in psychological assessment for hiring and fitness-for-duty cases, accept LEOs and their family members as private clients (they will often prefer to make personal payment to avoid their employing agency knowing about the psychological services), offer brief training experiences (probably gratis) for all community agencies with a special effort to get the chain-of-command to encourage LEOs to attend and then tactfully and slowly cultivate acceptance within the law enforcement community.


Robert H. Woody, Ph.D., J.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an attorney in private practice. He completed law enforcement training in Florida in 2004. His e-mail is: psychlegal@aol.com.

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