By Michael D. Ward, Ph.D.
Deputy-involved shooting (DIS) debriefs and other critical incident (CI) debriefs are not therapy. They are simply an extension of normal operational or tactical debriefing, where performance is reviewed and discussed with an emphasis on understanding and learning from what happened. In the case of psychological debriefing, it’s all about understanding the behavioral science of the “strange” but normal reactions that healthy, highly functioning human beings often have to life-and-death events. Many normal psychological reactions can be quite “strange” because they represent our bodies’ and brains’ reactions to extreme, abnormal circumstances, like confronting and exchanging fire with an armed suspect. However, it’s critical to differentiate the “normal” from the abnormal so that deputies know what to be concerned about and how to get through the “strange” experience without big disruptions in the normal course of their jobs.
Whether or not a given deputy is aware of it, confronting life-and-death events (e.g., shootings, vehicle fires, gruesome deaths) causes our brains to dump massive quantities of stress hormones into our bloodstreams. Even the most experienced and stress-hardy among us still experience involuntary hormonal reactions to these events, a fact repeatedly proven true in stress physiology research conducted in military and law enforcement contexts. These hormone releases are our brains’ way of supporting and ensuring our survival, but they can also lead to “strange” phenomena that can rattle a deputy who is unaware or unprepared for what is normal. Examples of this can include tunnel vision; sensory exclusion (not hearing shots); seeing vivid details; delayed memory for some details; jumpiness after the event; chest pains; shortness of breath; seeing spots; tingling face, fingers and toes; stomach pains; fatigue; replaying the “movie” of the event; time slowing or speeding up; and a myriad of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt and humor. All of these, and many other responses, are very common. Let’s review a few of these to illustrate how certain “strange” phenomena are really quite normal.
Tunnel vision and sensory exclusion are front and back of the same survival card. One way that sudden dramatic increases in stress hormones help us survive is by focusing our brain’s attention on the central details of the lethal threat we are facing. Even in the case of a gruesome death, where there isn’t logically an immediate threat to our survival, our brain is hardwired to search for the threat that led to the death and try to learn from the event. By focusing intensely on the central details — the suspect with the weapon, the position and movement of his body, the details of his clothing or hands — our brains are zeroing in, trying to find the most important details to ensure survival. With all this brainpower focused on new details, we can easily get a sense of tunnel vision. However, we are also left with left brain resources to worry about things that are not so crucial for our survival. Our own gunshots are one of those details. We get other feedback about the operation of our weapon — the recoil, for instance — and so our brains don’t really need to register the sound of our own shots. Our ears hear it, but our brains exclude it, push it aside, because it’s not as important as the myriad of survival-essential details sucking up our attentional resources at the time. It can be strange to experience tunnel vision and to not hear your own gunshots, or just hear faint clicking or scraping of metal. However, both of these phenomena are quite normal and understandable when you understand the behavioral science involved.
Likewise, another “strange” but normal phenomenon is jumpiness for several days and up to a couple of weeks after a shooting or critical incident. Our brains are very good at pattern recognition, and this ability is enhanced when we experience a critical incident and our brain’s attention resources are supercharged by massive quantities of stress hormones. Our brains will see and register a pattern related to a lethal threat — the position of cars in the street, the physical appearance and dress of the suspect, even their way of walking or swinging their arms — and then go looking for that pattern for days or weeks afterward, trying to enhance our survivability. After all, if we can avoid or quickly identify a similar threat, then we are better off. Unfortunately, this means that our brains often mistakenly “recognize” that same pattern — a place or person that looks vaguely familiar, the movement of a person in the peripheral vision, or an object that looks somewhat like a gun — and send the stress hormones flowing, getting the body and brain ready for another life-threatening event. The only problem is the brain most likely being too sensitive, which means a lot of “jumpiness” without any real threats to deal with. This can feel pretty strange, and in fact, feel really awful, but it’s normal when you consider the stress physiology.
Many of these “strange” but normal symptoms and phenomena can occur immediately and for up to three or four weeks after a shooting or critical incident. Anyone can experience any of them, but not all of them will occur for everyone. One of the most important things to know is that they should peak in a couple of weeks and then decline after that. Deputies can give themselves an edge by exercising daily to work the stress hormones out of their systems and talking about the incident to facilitate consolidation of memory and end the seemingly endless “movie” replay of the event that is common for most people. Recognize that immunity is impaired by stress hormones, so rest, good nutrition and good health habits are key for about a week. Alcohol is to be avoided for many reasons. The brain needs to be busy, both during sleep and while awake, processing the event and the memories. The body is also fatigued and impaired by the massive stress response. Alcohol sedates the brain and delays the body’s normal, healthy recovery processes, so it’s a big hindrance and should be avoided for a week or so. If symptoms increase after several weeks or if you notice increasingly problematic behavior and emotions after an event, like recklessness, heavy drinking or other risk-taking, these are not normal and should trigger a request for further assessment.
We are all fortunate to work for a Department that takes our health and performance seriously enough to mandate DIS and other CI debriefings. Most people won’t experience debilitating reactions, but some do need assistance to avoid an enormous loss to their career and personal life. The rest of us will likely experience some “strange” but normal events that we need to understand so we can move on without worry. If you have any questions about responses to critical incidents or would like to discuss an event further, feel free to contact Employee Support Services Bureau. You can call for a consultation or to make a confidential appointment at (213) 738-3500. To obtain additional information, you may visit our intranet site (http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm).