Post Traumatic Stress

Instructional Guide

The primary issues to be examined and discussed in this course are:

*  the type of events that can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

*  various informal preparations of past influences that play a role in shaping us and our attitudes

*  various formal preparations which help shape our professional attitudes and image

*  various agency and non-agency personnel who typically arrive on the scene of an officer shooting

*  the various reactions that can occur as a result of a shooting incident

The instructor should encourage student participation in exploring and examining each of these topics and solicit relevant individual experiences that would enhance understanding. Topics for group discussions are included that are designed for this purpose.

I. INTRODUCTION (5 minutes)

NOTE:  Self –Introduction.


Have you ever been awakened from a deep sleep by the ringing of the telephone and when answering, hear that you are needed immediately on the scene of a shooting incident. En route, while trying to rub the sleep from your eyes, you listen to the police radio and learn that the officer involved is well known to you. Upon arriving at the scene, the officer’s sergeant meets you and says, “God, Chaplain, I’m glad you’re here!”

The scene may be hectic, crowded with police, administrators, witnesses, media, or just on-lookers. The police chaplain is expected to respond appropriately and effectively to the matter at hand in a very short period of time – working through any personal issues that may interfere with his/her job as chaplain, such as: the officer is a personal friend or the victim is a small child who is the same age as the chaplain’s own child.


Display overhead #1: Student Performance Objectives.

As a result of this block of instruction, the student will be able to:

  1. recognize the type of events that can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome;
  2. recognize various informal preparations of past influences that play a role in shaping us and our attitudes;
  3. recognize various formal preparations which help shape our professional attitudes and image;
  4. describe the various agency and non-agency personnel who typically arrive on the scene of an officer shooting; and
  5. understand the various reactions that can occur as a result of a shooting incident.


In order to effectively assist and counsel law enforcement personnel involved in an event(s) that can possibly trigger Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the police chaplain must be able to recognize its signs, and be knowledgeable of typical reactions

II. BODY (2 hours 40 minutes)

This block of instruction will be dealing primarily with shooting situations. However, it is important to understand that post traumatic stress also can come from many different traumatic situations. A fatal accident in which an officer is involved; or where the officer is the target rather than the shooter; the death of a child can trigger many similar reactions. Other life events that impact us in our interpersonal relationships include divorce, the loss of a parent(s), the loss of a close personal friend or another officer Reactions can be immediate or may surface at a later time.

A. Informal Preparation

There are past influences that we may not even recognize that help to shape us and our attitudes. Our home environment in which we are raised help form our attitudes and expectations. Value systems are formed that reflect our views on the importance of human life, feelings of guilt, religious (or non-religious) beliefs. A common precept that is found not only in Judeo-Christian backgrounds and also generally throughout the population is “Thou shalt not kill”.

Childhood heroes play an important part in shaping individual attitudes and beliefs in a manner not appreciated or even noticed in the passage of time. Sometimes these childhood heroes or role models may not even be remembered – a favorite sports hero, a teacher, even a law enforcement officer may continue to have a real influence. Usually, one’s parent(s) is an indelibly instilled role model in most lives.

Television and movies also provide a type of hero or role model. Who can forget the image of Clint Eastwood snarling the phrase, “Go ahead, make my day!” These celluloid figures do little to match up with reality of modern-day policing by real people. This entertainment industry has presented fantasy figures with which we must deal when counseling officers in traumatic situations. The movies and television portray heroes who are unaffected by killing which sends a message that it is wrong to show the kinds of emotions that real people experience in traumatic situations.

War stories told by officers tend to alter details of the actual event, putting the storyteller in the best possible light. Additionally, war stories told in settings wherein the mind and tongue are lubricated by alcohol with an attentive audience often leads to further embellishment.

Ask the students to provide additional examples of informal influences that help to shape us and our attitudes. Write the responses on the chalk board/flip chart.

Ask the students if they have any questions concerning Informal Preparation.

B. Formal Preparation

In addition to this informal training, formal training in the form of either departmental or regional academy instruction serves to shape the professional image. Training in the use of the service weapon as a primary tool of the profession is a major part of the academy experience. Respect for the weapon’s capabilities is strongly ingrained but carries with it a non-emotional and mechanical view that depersonalizes the weapon. Standard Operating Procedures and Departmental Guidelines only deal with the impersonal and legal issues of shooting situations. Other avenues of training involve Street Survival and Shoot/Don’t Shoot courses which sharpen the skills of the officer. Role-playing and instruction in the use of stress-reduction techniques are particularly useful in establishing a foundation for an officer faced with a real traumatic event.

Ask the students for other examples of formal preparation which help in shaping the officer’s professional image. Write the responses on the chalk board/flip chart.

Ask the students if they have any questions concerning Formal Preparation.

C. Agency Response

Each agency has standard procedures for responding to a shooting incident. The police chaplain should be familiar with the procedures established by his/her agency primarily due to the profound effect they have on the officer involved, both immediately and residually. Personnel found at the scene can include commanders, chiefs or deputy chiefs, lieutenants, sergeants, crime scene technicians, homicide detectives, other officers, coroner or medical examiner, a representative from the district attorney’s office, various medical personnel, witnesses, on-lookers, and, of course, the news media with their bright lights, cameras, and microphones. Added to this are the flashing lights of patrol vehicles and the noise of various radio frequencies of officers from different sections of the Department. All this can have a very disturbing effect on the already distraught officer. Additionally, in most jurisdictions, the involved officer’s weapon is taken from him/her which increases the stress and unease.

The shooting scene seems to take on a surreal atmosphere, particularly at night. The adrenalin flow is heightened as well as emotions and stress levels of all around. Yet, in many cases it seems that no one really focuses on the officer. This is where the police chaplain steps in.

Ask the students for personal experiences involving agency treatment of the officer involved in the shooting incident.

(Ask students if they have any questions concerning Agency Response.)

D. Reactions

  1. Isolation

    The officer/shooter very quickly finds himself/herself in the middle of chaos but with everyone else going about performing their well- defined duties, he/she often feels somewhat left out or ignored. The officer feels a sense of unreality. A common response is, “Chaplain, this is not what I thought it would be like.” Or “I can’t believe this is happening to me!” Often, investigators require the officer to be physically isolated or removed from the scene for the moment. The police chaplain’s vehicle can be used in this case.

  2. Physical Effects

    Typical physical reactions to watch for in the officer are numbness and coldness resulting from shock, the need to cry, nausea, trembling, dryness of the mouth. In most cases, the officer may need to move around due to the amount of adrenalin generated.

  3. Emotional Effects

    Guilt, anger, remorse, confusion are typical emotional responses as well as a concern for what others will think, i.e. spouse, peers, parents, children. If possible, the chaplain should assist the officer in contacting family or significant persons to advise them of the situation before they hear it on the news. If the officer is injured and taken to the hospital, another officer (preferably known to the family) should go to the home and transport them to the hospital. If possible, the police chaplain should accompany this officer or at least meet the family at the hospital with an update of the officer’s condition.

  4. 4. The Cross-Over Syndrome

This reaction occurs when the officer is treated as an offender. It can begin when the officer’s weapon is taken from him/her and/or when he/she is read Miranda rights. This syndrome reinforces negative feelings and can often totally overshadow any positive input. Either at the scene or later, the officer begins to feel that everyone and everything is against him/her. Subjected to endless interviews, questions, and attention, combined with loss of sleep and lowered levels of adrenalin, it is not uncommon for the officer to experience this form of depression. Since no firm absolution can be immediately given by the Department, the district attorney’s office, the investigating officers, or supervisors, the officer commonly feels that the Department is out to “hang him/her”. The police chaplain’s support is vital at this point. But to be as effective as possible, the chaplain must be knowledgeable of this typical process of events and the people involved. It is also helpful for the chaplain to develop contacts with other officers who have experienced this type of traumatic event and who can offer support and understanding as peers. This type of support can extend to the families of the officers.

E. Other Possible Early Reactions

The following reactions do not necessarily occur after a traumatic event. Therefore, it is important not to precipitate problems by suggesting that they will happen to every individual in every case. Each case is unique where the variables of the individual’s life experiences, religious background, personal philosophy, training, family and peer support shape a wide range of response.

  1. Denial: “This can’t be happening to me! Is he/she really dead?”

  2. Fear: The fear of the unknown: “What’s going to happen to me

    now?” “Did I do the right thing?” “Why all the questions?”

  3. Anger: Anger can be directed toward anyone or anything present. Example: Anger at the media, particularly if there are video cameras present.

  4. Replay: The officer replays the event by telling and retelling the story to anyone and everyone who will listen – looking for corroborating versions and support from others who were present. “Did ya see what he did?”

  5. Guilt: Deep feelings of guilt can arise even from those who have no particular religious background. Questions develop such as, “What happens when you kill a person?”, “Will I go to Hell?” To effectively deal with this reaction, the police chaplain should be as well versed as possible in all religious backgrounds and be both sympathetic and understanding without trying to convert anyone to a particular belief.

  6. Concern: The officer may be anxious about his/her family seeing the media treatment on the news and worry about what they will think or say about him/her. What the officer is seeking here is an affirmation of life, that the relationships that matter are still there, still unchanged despite the present turmoil. Concern may also be for the safety of the officer’s family if the deceased was known for having a vindictive family.

Ask the students if they have any questions concerning Other Possible Early Reactions.

F. Possible Protracted Reactions

Protracted Reactions are reactions that may happen sometime in the future. The same cautions outlined in the above Possible Early Reactions apply here. The police chaplain should be aware of these reactions so that the officer can be reassured and, if necessary, be of assistance in helping him/her find competent psychological help – not only for the officer, but perhaps for the officer’s family as well.

  1. Sensory Distortion: In remembering the event, the officer may see the incident happening in slow motion and become upset with the apparent discrepancy between what others tell him/her and what he/she perceives as the truth about such time frames.

  2. Flashbacks: Flashbacks for the officer can occur when passing the scene of the incident, during media replays, reading newspaper accounts, curious inquiries from people, during the investigations, and hearings that can drag on for months.

  3. Fear of Insanity: Fear of insanity may be tied to normal grief reactions taking place in an abnormal situation.

  4. Regret: The officer may begin to have feelings of regret or sorrow over taking a human life. The taking of human life conflicts with early up bringing and religious values as well as cultural taboos.

  5. Crying at odd times and places: This should be seen as connected to the unresolved grief and sorrow and viewed as a proper way to ventilate one’s emotions.

  6. Reaffirming of life: This becomes almost an obsession for some officers. It is an attempt to revalidate that one is still lovable and, more important, still alive. This can also be observed in the spouse and children.

  7. Nightmares: Nightmares are frequent for some and not for others. They may occur after the officer thinks he/she has already dealt with the incident. A dream of futility in the use of the weapon is not unusual. This includes shooting and the target is unaffected, or the bullet falls from the muzzle, etc.

(Ask the students if they have any questions concerning Possible Protracted Reactions.)

G. Responses From Others

  1. Inappropriate Responses

    Inappropriate behavior in which others deal with the trauma often include humor. Humor is usually the last response the traumatized officer wants hear. The officer typically is very resentful of jokes that make light of his/her agony, pain, and guilt.

    On the other hand, compliments, though intended as a supportive response, often generate negative results, since the one who has done the shooting is dealing with feelings that none can truly appreciate. The level of the officer’s feelings of guilt and remorse may be such that a remark about good shooting might only increase the pain.

  2. Appropriate Responses

    Support and silence are considered appropriate responses. Reassuring the officer that you are glad that he/she is alive is one way of being supportive. Officers do not get paid to get killed. Do not offer clichés. Your non-judgmental approach and presence alone can be the greatest acts of support demonstrating that you care. Listening is vital. Allowing the officer to talk at their own pace is very important.

3. Administrative Responses

In recent years, administrative responses have become more complicated and guarded. Legal issues and liability are of great concern to today’s agencies requiring that procedures to determine whether a shooting is “righteous” have to be rigorously followed. The police chaplain must be aware of these procedures and be as supportive as possible throughout the entire investigative and recovering process.

(Ask the students if they have any questions concerning Responses From Others.)

III. CONCLUSION (5 minutes)

  1. Summary

    During this block of instruction, we discussed the following issues:

    1. the types of events that can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome;

    2. recognize various informal preparations of past influences that play a role in shaping us and our attitudes;

    3. recognize various formal preparations which help shape our professional attitudes and image;

    4. describe the various agency and non-agency personnel who typically arrive on the scene of an officer shooting; and

    5. understand the various reactions that can occur as a result of a shooting incident.