What You And Your Department Can Learn From Shooting Survivors

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Part 1 of a 2-part series

What helps and what hurts after a fatal shooting?

Nobody knows better than officers who’ve been there.

Recently a panel of 6 survivors of shootings in Wisconsin, along with 2 instructors who’ve collectively been involved in the aftermath of dozens of deadly police encounters, spoke their mind on the do’s and don’ts of the post-killing experience.

The instructors, Sgt. Mike Kuspa and Lt. Bill Skurzewski, are retired from Milwaukee PD, after years on the Tactical Enforcement Unit. The survivors, ranging from a tactical operator who was forced to kill 2 attackers within a 2-year period to an officer who was so close to the suspect she fatally shot that his blood gushed into her mouth, are still on the street.

“Shooting someone is the toughest decision you’ll have to make in your life, without a doubt,” said Skurzewski. “A lot of weak-kneed administrators don’t want to face the truth about what happens or what’s needed afterward. But officers who’ve pulled the trigger can talk the talk because they’ve walked the walk.”

In this 2-part series, we’ve assembled 14 action points highlighted by the panel and instructors during a day-long class on debriefing procedures for supervisors, administrators, trainers, chaplains, counselors, and investigators that Force Science News attended earlier this month [5/09] at the Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee, WI.

Today we offer 7 considerations for departments in helping surviving officers after they’ve taken a human life. In Part 2, we’ll present 7 responsibilities you have for helping yourself.


1. Properly identify “the victim.”

And it’s not the suspect lying dead in a pool of blood. Unless there’s compelling evidence to the contrary, the true victim in an OIS is the officer who’s been assaulted and forced to defend his life against an offender’s threatening behavior.

“The case should proceed in that direction,” said Kuspa. “The shooting location should be considered a crime scene. The offense report should list the officer as the victim. You don’t read Miranda to victims, and you don’t ask victims to write a report. The officer shouldn’t be treated as a suspect unless something turns up in the investigation that looks criminal on his part.”

Some 6 months ago, one of the survivors, Ofcr. Brent Smith of Mequon (WI) PD, shot and killed a suspect who was advancing on his partner with a .30-cal. rifle at the scene of a domestic. He recalled the comfort he felt when he overheard an exchange between his sergeant and an EMS responder.

“Where’s the victim?” the arriving medic asked, meaning the downed assailant.

“Don’t call him that!” the sergeant snapped. “Your patient’s over there.”

2. Remember: Small things matter.

Simple, humane gestures can have a significant emotional impact during the stress overload that typically follows a shooting.

Milwaukee Tac Ofcr. Kurt Kezeske recalls that at the scene of his second fatal shooting in 2 years, where a raging, crack-head parolee tried to stab him, “My sergeant grabbed me by the collar and dragged me out of the house 30 seconds after the suspect went down. It was one of the best decisions made at the scene because it saved me the emotional stress of having to watch the guy die.”

Ofcr. Kim Rau of Clinton PD remembered the quiet kindness of another officer after she’d shot a man who’d blasted his ex-mother-in-law in the back with a shotgun. “My hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t snap my holster,” Rau said. “Another officer stepped up and said, ‘I’ve got it,’ ” securing the strap.

Several survivors cited the special reassurance that derived from their chief saying after their encounter that he was proud of their performance and glad that they were still alive.

By contrast, one of the panel told of being coldly pressed into service as an evidence photographer at the scene of his shooting. And Milwaukee Det. Jasemin Pasho, the officer who swallowed her assailant’s blood, recalled the hurt caused by a fellow officer remarking off-hand, “If you’d been a guy you might not have had problems that night.”

Interestingly, she found that fellow officers with less than 10 years on the job—the least experienced—tended to be the most critical. “The older guys were more supportive.”

3. Don’t isolate the officer.

After Muskego Ofcr. Jim Murphy fired 9 rounds into a suicidal subject who pointed a rifle at him, he wandered outside the location for some 30 minutes “with no one paying any attention to me.” Then he was escorted to the chief’s office, where he sat alone for nearly 3 hours.

“When I stepped out to go to the bathroom I was told, ‘You’ve got to get back in there.’ No one came in to talk to me. I had nothing to do. I read every magazine and piece of paper I could find. A union attorney finally came in and interviewed me, but then he disappeared. No communication.

“I started to get paranoid. I kept wondering, What are they looking for? I thought I’d done things right but now I wasn’t sure.” By the time he was cleared by the DA’s office of any wrongdoing 3 days later, “my stress level got pretty high.”

Since then, his department has instituted a buddy system, where a fellow officer is assigned to the shooting survivor to provide a reassuring presence, explain the procedures that lie ahead, help in managing personal needs, and answer questions.

Beyond the first hours after a shooting, supportive human contact and communication should be on-going, Kuspa stressed. “Supervisors and detectives should make themselves available for any questions or concerns the involved officer may have as the case moves through the system,” he explained.

“After a shooting is a dangerous time for cops, psychologically,” said Smith. “If you reach out to them in a non-judgmental way, they’ll know you care and they won’t ever forget it.”

4. Don’t press for an immediate statement.

Kuspa recalled a chief who insisted at a shooting scene where the smoke had scarcely cleared that the involved officer give a full account of what happened right then, “or I’ll have the sergeant arrest you!” Obviously, that administrator was not a contemporary thinker.

The instructors and panelists agreed with the Force Science Research Center that a recovery period (perhaps 24-48 hours) is desirable in most cases before a formal statement is made, allowing stress reactions to abate and memories to replenish and organize.

Sgt. David Moldenhauer of Wauwatosa PD’s SRT was not consciously aware of how stressed he was after killing an EDP who threatened him with a shotgun, until he tried to make a sandwich after he got home. “I picked up the bread…and dropped it,” he recalled. “I picked up the knife…and dropped it. I picked up the peanut butter…and dropped it. My wife got to me before I dropped the jelly.”

His department had wanted a statement “right away” after the shooting, but his union said no on his behalf, and the department backed off. Twenty-four hours later, he said, he was in better mental and physical condition to comply.

Smith said it took him “2 to 3 days before I could give a reasonably accurate account of what occurred.”

5. Watch for collateral damage.

The impact of a shooting can ripple out beyond the involved survivor and even beyond other officers who were at or near the scene. On his small department, Moldenhauer pointed out, “Several officers who were not personally in the incident did not perform well afterward.” There were instances, for example, in which prisoners were put in a cell and officers walked away without closing the door.

“You need to check all your officers,” he said, and make certain that debriefing and counseling regarding the incident are available department-wide.

A concern for well-being may need to extend outside the department, as well. As Murphy explained, not only was his own family affected by his brush with death, but, he was surprised to learn, “other officers’ wives were stressed out, too.” (We’ll have more on spousal reactions in Part 2 of this report.)

6. Know your department’s limitations.

“Many smaller departments should not attempt to do a criminal investigation of an OIS,” Kuspa asserted. “Larger agencies in your state are likely to be more experienced in these matters and will volunteer to help out, leaving you free to focus solely on the internal investigation.”

Murphy agreed wholeheartedly. His shooting, which occurred more than a decade ago, was the first OIS in his suburban department. “If it had been a questionable shooting, there could have been problems for me because at that time the department didn’t know what was going on.

“Now we would work in conjunction with the shooting team from Milwaukee PD, which handles these investigations on a regular basis.”

7. Involve your trainer(s).

Kuspa, a firearms trainer, insisted that “training people need to be involved as the investigations go forward. They may need to educate the command staff on current training protocols and procedures. They will need to learn what happened in the shooting encounter and fix anything in the training program that needs to be fixed. In every case, the involved officer should be brought back to training for a practical review before he or she goes back to the street.”

In the absence of critiquing and correcting, he warned, the department may be vulnerable to accusations of deliberate indifference. To underscore the point, he described an officer who had been involved in a series of 4 shootings, yet was never sent back for retraining or even required to confer with a department rangemaster before being released for duty once again. His city was sued, could not adequate defend itself, and lost a fortune.

NEXT: How to prepare yourself and your family for a deadly force showdown…and what you can do to help yourself successfully meet the challenges of the aftermath.

[Our thanks to the Assn. of SWAT Personnel-Wisconsin for alerting us to WCTC’s debriefing class and to Jodi Crozier, director of the college’s Law Enforcement Academy, for her assistance.]

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