Police psychology

How Fatal Encounters affect officers forced to kill in the line of duty

Illustration by Jonathan Buck

Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police Officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb has received a ration of hate from around the country.

And he may be the only person in the country who knows whether it’s deserved. It’s certainly not as black and white as it was presented in the early rush of reportage.

ABC News reported this exchange on Aug. 19 from an anonymous friend of Wilson’s: “The whole situation is a tragedy for both Michael Brown and his family, and Darren and his family,” Wilson’s pal said. “Both of their lives are ruined. I can tell he’s struggling. I can tell this is really hard on him. He’s been very careful about who he talks to, so he hasn’t spoken much about the situation.”

Reno Deputy Police Chief Byron “Mac” Venzon suffered similarly after killing a person in the line of duty, though he didn’t have the hate of 50 million people to compound it.

“I was working in undercover capacity, and we had information that a subject, a recent prison release, was up here stalking and trying to lure away a young girl that he had communication with in the past,” he said. “He had become involved in a shooting with a California agency on the way here. We learned of his whereabouts, set up a surveillance, and once we knew he was there, we set up kind of a perimeter. He came out, presented a weapon at me—from me to you away from one another [about four feet]—he presented a weapon to me and then I had to shoot him, and he died.”

It was as clean a killing of a known criminal as we ever hear about—cop faced with a gun kills the guy who’s wielding it to protect himself and others. And yet, there is no amount of training that can prepare an officer for the psychological and social repercussions, and Venzon ought to know, having worked as a staff officer at the police training academy and 16 to 17 years in a variety of law enforcement assignments.

“You know you go through a whirlwind of emotions, and as much as you try to prepare for that, until you are there, I know that you can’t,” he said. “Your safety was very, very tenuous at that time, right? So you start to do this whole flashback of ’I have a kid, what about this? What about that? What will it do to my family?’ And then you start to realize that, ’Wow, this person put me in a position where I had to do something that I didn’t relish the idea of doing.’ It wasn’t something I set out to do. I think you could talk to every officer in this department, and they will tell you that their preference is that every incident ends peacefully, and you know it’s tough—tough at home, it’s tough on my family. You always worry about civil litigation after that, and there is nothing you can do to stem off the civil litigation that comes from that, so you sit around two years and one day waiting for the civil litigation to come.

“It’s a lot of emotion you go through, and it takes some time, and I think what you find out is that you don’t know how you are going to react, and you don’t know how long it is going to take you to get over it.

“My first day back on the street I encountered another guy with a gun,” he said. “My first day back from admin leave, and I encounter another guy with a gun, and boy, that’s something. Emotions right back through the roof.”

“You know you go through a whirlwind of emotions, and as much as you try to prepare for that, until you are there, I know that you can’t.”<br><b>Byron “Mac” Venzon<br>Reno Deputy Police Chief</b>

Photos/D. Brian Burghart

He says he’s over the experience now, but there was an unexpected catch in his voice when he said so.

“The way it has been described to me, when you can talk about it and not feel the emotion, then you know you worked your way past it,” he said. “And so there was some offers of, you know, help with the counselor, and I took up some of those. Those were fantastic, and so it took me about probably six months before I could sit and discuss it with you and not feel emotional about the whole thing.”

Sentiments like those are echoed across the nation by officers who’ve had to face that fatal moment. But it’s hard to get some to talk about it—that blue wall that people talk about, that police belief that non-police simply can’t understand what they go through.

Still, there’s a commonly understood phrase to describe what happens to an officer who kills in the line of duty: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.

And in Northern Nevada, there are people to help. While primarily a sports psychologist, Dr. Dean Hinitz has helped out on officer-involved killings for years. He’s a former member of the Nevada Board of Psychological Examiners and was chief of psychology at West Hills Hospital. In his private practice, he specializes in life change issues, like anxiety and depression, and relationship concerns. Dr. William Danton is the former associate chief of staff for mental health at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System and is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Nevada School of Medicine. While his focus is in many ways still about veterans, the emotional challenges suffered by officers who’ve had to kill people in the line of duty are similar to that of soldiers, and he’s helped out with many officer-involved deaths. Reno Police Chief Steve Pitts also mentioned Trial Science, but Dr. Dan Dugan declined an interview, saying he doesn’t discuss clinical issues with the media.

Isolation, Intrusion and Disassociation

Dr. Hinitz sits comfortably in his intimate office on treelined Humboldt Street in Midtown. He looks a little like a police officer, with carefully cut hair, fit physique, and the somber, steady gaze of someone who’s thinking carefully about the words that are being said. He’s got road rash on one forearm from what looks like a mountain bike crash. There’s a gentle ticking of a clock that both modulates and propels the conversation forward. The topic is anything but gentle, though.

“It’s a rocking event, and I don’t mean that in a cool way. I mean that in terms of ’really rocks the boat’,” he said. “The sequelae [emotional consequences] have been profound for the individuals that I’ve worked with almost to a man, which is the profundity of taking a human life, the unexpected jolt of how hard it is and the meaning of it when oftentimes they’ve not known ahead of time the sorts of things that it was going to bring up.”

Even for those who are experienced and trained, there is something about taking a human life that is more than just “real,” but a psychological sea change that can shake an officer to his or her core.

“I’ve known very few who could have been prepared for what happened, and they were all trained,” Hinitz said. “The two cardinal features are sort of an alternation between sort of hyper-arousal and intrusion where thoughts of it and memories of it and cycling through it repeatedly alternate with distancing and disassociation. It sounds like these competing forces of ’You’ve got to work this through,’ and ’You’ve got to metabolize this,’ against ’You’ve got to get away from this nightmare’.”

Hinitz said there are basically three stages in the healing, although he’d be quick to say that to narrow it down this far tends to diminish the complexity of individual reactions.

“There’s almost a pariah effect, I think, when somebody’s on admin leave. A lot of guys have complained to me that their usual friends and cohorts kind of leave them alone.”<b><br>William Danton<br>Psychologist</b>

The first stage is distancing, kind of a psychological numbing that follows closely after the event. It makes the moment hard to remember clearly, a sort of pain reaction.

“The second stage is the stage where you—if you’re going to be involved in recovery process—where it’s a stage of narrative. So you’ve got hyper arousal [which is a high mental alert stage], you’ve got intrusion and numbing followed by some form of remembrance and mourning, which is, ’I’ve got to get the sequence right.’ There’s no shortcut. It’s got to be metabolized.”

Third stage is reconnection.

“’I’m going to come back from this new person that I am, not new and improved, but new because I’m changed, and I’m going to relate to my wife, this community and who I’ve become.’”

Hinitz talks about the importance of that time off, the paid administrative leave that people on the outside seem to think as a rewarded vacation. But a moment’s thought about how people suffering with PTSD act, and there’s no question that a logical person does not want that officer on the street with a gun.

“I think it’s one of the most sensible policies there is because either somebody’s going to be prone to threat immediately after until they’ve worked it through or if they’re going to be prone to avoidance, over-avoidance in situations where they would need to be more reactive right away. … And despite people’s appearance and despite the bravado sometimes of the role, I’ve never seen one that didn’t review and go, “Did this have to happen? Was this OK? Was this necessary?” So it has to be examined at a level of meaning. … And the repetition, the review and the emotional involvement is letting the brain sort of prepare and get ready for future events that could occur. And without that processing, as we said, you either have over-avoidance or over-involvement.”

But the utility of the time off is possibly the one area in which Dr. Hinitz and Dr. Danton slightly diverged in opinion. There must be some kind of acceptable medium, because time off tends to isolate the officer when he most needs his support system, his fellow officers.

Misconceptions and adjustments

“I think in police work, one misconception is that people that get into that have a value system that’s kind of assertive, directing and authoritarian, and they like the authority and so forth,” said Dr. Danton.

Danton’s office is more collegiate than intimate. It looks sort of like you’d expect from somebody high up in a university’s administration, except it’s in one of those labyrinthine complexes that would make a well-adjusted person pull out his or her eyebrows.

His office, again, is calming, but large enough for a small group session. Danton himself is also academic, dressed more casually than business-casual with a rumpled, nonthreatening, friendly feel. He’s a sincere helper, passing along emails of related information after the interview concludes.

“I’ve known very few who could have been prepared for what happened, and they were all trained,”<b><br>Dean Hinitz<br>Psychologist</b>

“The primary value system of a lot of cops going into police work is being a member of a team,” he said. “And so one of the things that happens when you’re involved in a shooting event, use of deadly force, is you get put on administrative leave, and you get your gun and your badge taken away, and you get separated from the team. That’s not always a good thing, and a lot of cops will say that separates you from your support group. Some of these guys don’t go home and talk—many of them don’t go home and talk to their families—about what they do. So it’s a very isolating kind of event and sometimes that makes the PTSD worse because you don’t have anybody to share it with.”

So sometimes, that paid vacation can exacerbate the problem.

“Sometimes it does,” Danton said. “Think about the primary value system with being one of and belonging to a team. … You’ve got somebody who’s involved in use of lethal force, and they go home. Their family doesn’t really understand what’s going on, and the people who would understand, they’re isolated from. And there’s almost a pariah effect, I think, when somebody’s on admin leave. A lot of guys have complained to me that their usual friends and cohorts kind of leave them alone during that period of time.”

The key during the times immediately following a fatal encounter is a concerted effort on the part of the individual, police administration, families and friends, to get the individual past the traumatic incident. And that’s where guys like Hinitz and Danton come in. Danton says his strategy varies with the individual. He first looks at what skills and tools they have when they walk in the door. How do they typically handle stress?

“Part of it is remapping the idea of avoidance and exposure,” he said. “In anxiety reactions, there are three components: There is an uncomfortable body sensation of some kind, there is an avoidance of trying not to feel that uncomfortable sensation, and there is what I call ’anticipatory incompetence.’ The person anticipates they won’t be able to deal with it, and they’ll go crazy or fall apart or have a heart attack or something.”

Psychiatrists and psychologists have a specific and arcane language they use, like most practitioners of specialized activities. Dr. Danton is particularly adept at using a word and then bringing it down to us hobbyists.

“Almost all therapies for anxiety-related disorders are at the bottom line exposure therapies. You want to have the person be exposed and not have that [negative] reaction. EMDR, the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a kind of therapy that has the person re-imagine the traumatic event and what kind of unconstructive cognitions did they have about the event at the time like, ’Oh, I was an idiot. I did the wrong thing.’ And then they’ll have the person re-imagine the scene, and then you’re reconnecting them with the event and having them come up with something more positive like, “I can handle this. I did the right thing.” Something like that. So you’re remapping. You’re creating a new map.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is also used. It relies on the idea that it’s not the event that causes the problem. It’s the meaning of the event for the person. The person must remap it in a way that’s more productive for them, that helps them feel healthier about the event. Group therapy can be effective in seeing that other people have been through the same thing and have coped with it and are OK with it. Part of the problem with this is simply coming up with a group of police in any region who’ve killed somebody.

Educating families is another crucial task: For some families, their husband or wife was a hero, and they’re the one that handles all the stress. And now the hero is messed up, and they’re wanting support. It is, as Danton said, a role reversal.

“So then the police officer is uncomfortable in a non-traditional role,” he said. “They’re not the protector of the family now; they’re somebody who is in need of protection from the family. You got kids, how do you go to take your kid to soccer, and you got all these people running around and doing stuff, how can you feel safe? What do you do? How do you protect your kid in that situation?”

Both doctors said that the cliched movie stereotypes of police drug addiction or alcoholism, domestic abuse or divorce are not more prevalent after one of these events. Cops have high divorce rates without having to kill someone. In fact, in these really overwhelming events, they tend more toward shielding their spouse and children, which is why family counseling is so important. It’s really all about healing the PTSD.

“The policy is part of that, and I think also really understanding PTSD and how do you deal with cops involved in these things because people I have seen would have liked a much higher level of support. A lot of cops, interestingly enough, involved in these situations, they’re really good guys. They feel sometimes betrayed by the administration and so forth. They don’t like hypocrisy. They’re really black and white thinkers sometimes about those kind of things. And that’s hard on them.

“We could do better. We could show them our support and not that kind of support of ’Let’s all lock arms and not let reporters know what’s going on with the situation.’ But support like ’You’ve been through a trauma, and you still belong to this group, to this team, and if you made the right calls on this, we’ll support you on them. If you didn’t, we’ll try to understand that, but you still have to pay the consequences for it’.”

After the news crews and the National Guard leave that little suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, the Ferguson Police Department is going to have to deal with these issues. Whether Darren Wilson turns out to be a courageous warrior caught up in a circumstance beyond his own making, or the racist murderer that so many have made him out to be, the entire U.S. is going to have to deal with these issues.