Note: This article first appeared at In Public Safety.
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Active shooter incidents involving mass casualties can result in unprecedented harm to the victims, their communities, and the nation as a whole. Responding to these incidents is extremely challenging for police officers. It is their responsibility to quickly enter an active shooter scene, reduce the loss of life, and end the threat.
Typically, active shooter scenarios become engrained in the responding officers’ minds for the rest of their lives. Therefore, it is important to call attention to the psychological effects associated with responding to such events.
2016 and 2017 Saw a Rise in Active Shooter Incidents
Active shootings in the workplace occur almost on a weekly basis, according to Steve S. Bhimji and Scott Goldstein, authors of Active Shooter Response. Furthermore, according to the FBI, active shooters killed 221 people and wounded 722 others between 2016 and 2017.
These casualty numbers were substantially higher than past years. The rise in casualty numbers are attributed to large mass casualty shootings, including the Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando and the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Resiliency Varies among Officers, So Preparedness Is Key to Recovery
Dealing with active shooter scenes with multiple casualties is not easy for any officer. They commonly display different levels of resiliency.
It is important to mitigate the emotional toll of experiencing these horrific events. Responding to an active shooter situation appears to be increasing, so preparedness is key.
Preparedness involves tactical and emotional preparation. Tactical preparation can involve active-shooter simulation training whereby officers develop tactical protocols to follow instinctively. Emotional preparation involves having a plan in place to address potential changes in officers’ behavior, emotional distress or signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following an incident.
Officers must maintain patterned breathing and avoid tunnel vision when they enter an active shooter scene. They must ensure that all available information from dispatchers, witnesses and victims on the scene is accurately understood and relayed to other responding officers. Having good intelligence prior to entering an active shooter scene gives responding officers the best opportunity to reduce civilian loss of life and increase officer safety.
Accurate intelligence can also help officers accurately identify the location of the threat, especially if the shooter is inside a building. On-scene officers can triangulate the threat and evacuate victims who are no longer in the line of fire. This practice reduces cross-fire situations.
Speaking with family members about the emotional toll an officer experiences from an active shooter incident can help them to look for signs of trauma affecting their loved one.
Police officers are problem solvers. But experiencing these incidents are not “part of the job.” They can have subtle effects on an officer.
Planning time off, speaking with clergy, and having a recovery plan in place if the officer experiences an active shooting with mass casualties might help reduce its effects. A recovery plan may include a written plan that details a timeframe for speaking with employee assistance program personnel and speaking with police administrators if problems begin to occur from the traumatic experience.
Police agencies have an important responsibility to support their officers who experience mass casualty situations. Peer support programs, access to confidential employee assistance counseling and being sensitive to the potential psychological effects of witnessing a trauma are critical to recovery.
Officers should realize that experiencing mass casualties is actually rare in the U.S. However, the emotional toll is likely to be much more significant than the more common stresses of policing, even responding to shooting incidents when the perpetrator has fled.
Understanding the risks of responding to active shooter situations involving mass casualties is critical. When an officer does experience such a situation, it is important to utilize available peer support and counseling services. Also, it is critical to spot changes in diet, emotions or the onset of PTSD.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been a member of the Coast Guard since 1997. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has received commendations from the Coast Guard. Currently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.