Responding to an active shooter or mass casualty call is challenging, emotionally draining, and stressful for law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, it is a call that all too many officers experience in their careers.
Before exposure to traumatic events, it is important for officers to be mentally prepared for what to expect. Mental preparation helps officers keep their emotions in check and rely on their training and skills to survive.
Typical Physiological and Psychological Changes that Occur During Traumatic Events
When officers respond to an active shooter or mass casualty call, they must first control their heart rate, breathing and other physiological responses to stress. When the human body is in a fight-or-flight situation and under acute stress, the hormone cortisol is released in the brain in addition to other hormones such as adrenaline.
Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline increase mental concentration, physical reaction times and strength. They cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, cortisol and other stress-related hormones can result in tunnel vision that adversely affects an officer’s personal safety.
Auditory exclusion (or “tuning out”) is another condition that occurs when officers are responding to horrendous incidents and fatalities. They should listen attentively to important updates from the dispatch officer and pay careful attention to valuable information from victims on scene.
Fine motor skills can also be adversely affected, which impacts the officer’s dexterity. For example, a reduction in dexterity has implications if the officer is holding a firearm, a flashlight or other equipment while he or she is under stress.
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To counter the psychological and physiological effects of an event, responding officers should take a few moments to reduce distractions. They must think logically about the situation and create a controlled, methodical response.
Peer Support Offers Resiliency for Officers After Violent Events
Police training does a reasonably good job of preparing officers to address dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations. Training often involves active shooter simulations, marksmanship, and cover and concealment exercises.
But to promote resiliency after traumatic events, officers should take part in a peer support session before their shift ends. Peer support sessions give officers the opportunity to speak freely about the event with other officers who have had similar experiences.
Peer support is invaluable for stress recovery. It is an effective technique because affected law enforcement officers are more likely to talk with fellow officers about any post-incident stress reactions than with their family, friends or professional counselors.
It is also important to train supervisors to recognize emotional problems their officers might be experiencing after an active shooter or mass casualty incident. Officers should be advised to seek counseling through the department’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an adjunct professor with American Military University. He has spent more than two years studying police stress and its influence on the lives of police officers. Jarrod conducted a review of approximately 300 peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focused on topics associated with police stress and officer wellness. He interviewed veteran officers who have served in domestic and international law enforcement.
Based on his research, Jarrod is currently writing a book on effectively managing police stress through a successful police career, which covers in further detail the physiological effects of police stress and how stress can be managed. He has 20 years of policing experience between both federal and local law enforcement. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.