By Marla Friedman, Psy.D. PC, Police Psychologist and Chairman of Badge of Life
Addressing the mental health of law enforcement officers and finding ways to help them cope with stress and trauma must be a priority for agencies across the country. In my work as a police psychologist, I’ve found that officers must receive training about how to cope with the stress and trauma they are bound to face during their career.
[Free Magazine: Rebuilding Officer Resiliency: A Treatment Guide]
When officers begin their career as a new recruit they have already undergone testing and evaluation. At this point, they are in fact mentally healthy. However, many officers report that even after just a few years as an officer, they are no longer the same person as when they started. The changes that occur are the result of more than just the normal changes a person experiences with age, maturation or life’s normal wear and tear. The job of being an officer changes people, and unfortunately this change is often in unhealthy ways.
Preventing Unhealthy Mental Health Changes
One concept that I’ve had significant success with in helping officers address trauma is the concept of “Left of Bang.” This concept originates from the book “Left of Bang” by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley, which was originally created as a military tactic book.
However, in my extensive therapeutic work with officers, I realized the information in this book could be translated into psychological terms and applied to those in law enforcement. This philosophy and the accompanying worksheet has helped many officers better understand that prevention, stress inoculation, training, and preparation can help them guard their physical and emotional health.
What is “Left of Bang?”
A “Bang” is where an attack begins, or damage is done. For example, a “Bang” could be when an officer is involved in a fatal shooting, investigating crimes against children, testifying in court, undergoing an internal affairs investigation, or any stressful or traumatic event.
Visualizing a timeline moving from left to right, “Right of Bang” is what happens after the violence begins. Officers need to stay to the “Left of Bang.” In that zone, officers need to be alert, ready, prepared, and able to respond before the bad stuff happens.
Officers can place any situation in the “Bang” position and then, using the worksheet below, come up with ways to avoid “Right of Bang.” Remember, when you are “Right of Bang” you are just cleaning up the mess.
[Download: Left of Bang Worksheet]
Understanding and practicing this concept offers clear advantages to new and current officers. It’s a game plan for life. Once officers master the theory and individualize it to their situation, they have a structure that can carry them through life’s challenges and traumas.
Officers can use the worksheet to individualize this model. They can place any situation in the “Bang” position and then come up with ways to avoid “Right of Bang.”
Example Scenario Using “Left of Bang” Model
To better understand this model, let’s use an example of an officer who is 14 years on the job and is under investigation for an officer-involved shooting. How can he use the above model to manage his anxiety, fear, and anger that are now featured prominently in addition to his feelings of guilt and shame? He also believes that some other officers feel that he over-reacted and should have de-escalated the situation.
In this case, “Bang” would be meeting with Internal Affairs to hear the determination about the shooting and what, if any, consequences there will be. In this case, “Bang” is inevitable. It will happen. To stay as healthy as possible, the officer must identify activities to avoid the stress, which is natural, from becoming full-blown panic. Be aware that it is normal for the officer to be upset both about the shooting as well as the outcome, which is in the department’s hands. Here are some things she/he might do:
Left of Bang:
- Talk to a peer-support team member.
- Set up an appointment with a therapist (seek out a therapist who specializes in working with police as well as Cognitive Behavior Therapy and current trauma management methods).
- During therapy, focus on anxiety reduction, confronting faulty beliefs, processing normal thoughts and feelings related to the shooting (e.g., guilt, shame, relief, fear, moral injury, pride, anger, etc.).
- Prepare for the worst-case scenario (e.g., gather contact information for your union representative and attorney).
- Practice tactical breathing.
- Engage in exercises that help manage your anxiety and reduce anger.
- Eat well and decrease sugars and bad fats.
- Hydrate regularly.
- Sleep well. If you cannot, ask your doctor for short-term assistance.
- Take time off.
- Communicate with your family and friends. Avoid isolating yourself.
- Avoid overuse of alcohol.
If officers don’t set up and follow through on the “Left of Bang” behaviors, they put themselves at risk for landing at “Right of Bang.” In this specific situation, that might look like this:
Right of Bang:
- Intense stress
- Panic attacks
- Intrusive and repetitive negative scenarios in your mind about the event or your future
- Avoidance behavior
- Anger/rage at the department and the person you shot
- Isolation from work peers, friends and family
- Family problems
- Suicidal thoughts
Using “Left of Bang” to Manage a Personal Scenario
A second example highlights how an officer can use this model to address a personal situation.
A 41-year-old officer in his second marriage has three children by two ex-wives and is involved in an extramarital affair that he is “trying” to end. By filling out the worksheet, the officer will have a better chance of breaking off the relationship and avoiding traveling to “Right of Bang.” This is his treatment goal:
Left of Bang
- Work with a therapist to figure out why the officer is repeating behavior that causes severe damage to his personal life.
- Discontinue complete contact with the person who he’s having an affair with (In such a case, a frequently asked question is: Can I contact or see the person to end the relationship? The answer is yes, but only once. After that, do not respond to calls, texts, or emails. Every time you break and respond to the other person, it rewards them and encourages them to contact you again.)
- Remember your goal: Disconnect with the other person and reconnect with your partner or spouse.
- Meet with a Chaplain, if appropriate.
- Take a wide view of your life and personal goals.
Right of Bang
- The person in your extra relationship knocks on your door at home and introduces him/herself to your significant other.
- Extreme discord, upset, possibly physical, verbal and emotional assault occurs.
- Lawyers may be called.
- Custody of your child/children are now at risk.
- Your children are damaged by the situation.
- Your children may need therapy.
- Your children may regress, wet the bed, cry, cling to you, do poorly in school, express anger, hate and rage.
- You and significant other may suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, depression, physical illness etc.
- Financial security is at risk.
- Thoughts of suicide may plague one or both of you.
- An actual suicide attempt may be made, or completion may occur.
These examples are composites of issues discussed by many officers over the years during training sessions. They have given their permission to use these examples in order to assist others in working through similar problems with the careful and thoughtful understanding of what is really at stake.
Planning, prevention, and resilience-building can help officers avoid a lot of these situations and help prepare them to face real-life dilemmas and conflicts.
What if when officers graduated from the academy they were taught to stay “Left of Bang?” How would that change their career and personal trajectory?
About the Author: Dr. Marla Friedman, Psy.D. PC, Police Psychologist is a national trainer, curriculum developer and creator of video training films for law enforcement. She publishes frequently on issues of mental health, trauma cessation, and suicide prevention for police and other first responders. She has trained for the FBI at the National Academy in Quantico, Virginia; ICAC Task Force Teams; FTO’s and police departments with her focused mental health protocol, “Building a Better Cop.” She is an Adjunct Faculty member at the College of DuPage Police Academy, (SLEA). Dr. Friedman is the current Chairman of “Badge of Life” and Chief Psychologist for “Field Training Associates.” She is the primary architect in building individualized comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention programs for police departments that are utilized nationally. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.