The Psychological Side of a Defensive Shooting Incident, by B.D.M.

I have been reading survivalblog now for about 2 years and enjoy the information provided in the articles. I have often wondered what if anything I could contribute to the site.  After reading “After the Shooting” by Tupreco, which emphasized the legal aspect of a shooting, I thought this article would be a good follow up concentrating on the psychological side of it.
My background: I have been a police officer for 8 years and was involved in a shooing in February of 2008.  You can watch the dash cam view of it here on YouTube.

Basically, I stopped a car for a defective tail lamp. The driver stopped initially but then pulled away and turned down a dead end road. Just before the car came to a stop the suspect exited and started shooting.  Thank god he slipped at first.  One round hit the bottom of my radiator three feet directly underneath where I was seated.  There was an initial exchange when I exited my squad and then a second when he circled around the house he ran behind and a third when he came down the driveway closer toward me right by the front of the house.  He was hit twice (unknown to me at the time) and was later captured about a half a block away. He was hit once in the shoulder and once in the other arm breaking his humerus bone in two places. Even though he was hit he still managed to climb over a chain link fence.  At the trail a jury of “peers” from my community decided that despite the clear video evidence and they fact he shot at me at least 6 times, they convicted him only of the lesser charge of “recklessly endangering” safety. His defense was that he had a bad day and snapped.  He didn’t deny anything really. He got sentenced to seven years for basically trying to kill me and five years for being a felon in possession of a stolen gun.  I have researched shootings on my own and been to several tactical classes and read numerous books and articles.  Dave Grossman has some great works on the psychological side of shootings/killing. 

Commonly believed concepts of shootings: You will have audio exclusion, tunnel vision, not be able to use small motor skills, a perception of slow motion, you will feel regretful, have memory lapses, revert to your training, will not use your sights, it will probably be 3-5 shots and a few seconds in duration.

Reference audio exclusion, tunnel vision and slow motion. I can’t say that I really experienced any of them.  My ears rang for days and my Glock was very loud on that zero degree night.   While I was certainly focused on the target I didn’t feel like I was looking through a tunnel.  While I felt in the “zone” time didn’t seem any slower or faster. Just be aware you may or may not experience these effects.  Each person is different and there is no way to predict your experience.

Memory lapses. A few hours after the shooting I had a verbal interview with a detective and did a scene walk through.  While initially I felt completely justified I later doubted myself. Did I really see him point a gun at me or just a muzzle flash? It was so dark out. There were casings in between my squad and the car I moved to for cover.  I didn’t remember shooting on the move but there was the evidence.  Was my backstop clear? Some rounds hit the house. I prayed that no one inside was hurt. How many rounds did I shoot? I don’t remember but I knew I had 6 left.  When traumatic event like a shooting occurs your brain is flooded with chemicals. Some state it takes up to 72 hours for them to clear out. Until they do your brain will not be functioning normal. Your interview if possible should be put off until that time frame is over.  An intense cardio workout will help clear those chemicals out of your system quicker. You will not be able to clearly recall everything. This is normal. 

Small motor skills: First off, I will say that I believe in using gross motor movements and keeping manipulations as simple as possible. I did use my slide release which most consider to be small motor skill during my shooting. I think this proves that they can be done with enough training. I now changed my training to the overhand slide grasp.
The shooting will be few rounds and quick: While most shootings will be, mine was a good example where it was not.  I don’t believe that if you get in a shooting you will ever wish you had a smaller gun with fewer rounds.   I do believe that it is likely you may wish you had a larger gun with more rounds.

You will revert to your training: ABSOLUTLEY.  The first probably thirty seconds of my shooting I was on complete autopilot.  I moved out of my squad, which was where he expected me, and took a better position behind another parked vehicle. I preformed a tactical reload once I moved to the car.  My breathing was controlled. I was using radio codes and trying to update other units.  I did all of this without ever consciously thinking about it. Train, train, train and induce stress.

You will not use your sights: I don’t recall seeing them at all for most of the event. Toward the end when he moved close in to me I remember a voice saying, “if you don’t calm down and aim, this will end bad for you”.  Toward the end I remember lining up the sights and that is probably when I hit him.  BTW our department didn’t allow us to have night sights at the time. 

You will feel regretful: The media likes to portray the shaken, disheveled, citizen who is distraught over shooting/killing the  usually well intentioned suspect who made a bad choice. If you do feel that way that’s fine. But you may very likely not. This person just tried to seriously harm or kill you or another person. You survived they didn’t. That is an intense experience. You should feel good about it.  You won. You triumphed during an extremely intense situation.  Many of us train and never know how we will actually perform when something real happens.  Be proud of yourself, you performed and did what you had to. You may be angry. I was. That was my strongest emotion at the time.  I was furious.  Here I am trying to do my job and was probably just going to give him a warning and he tries to kill me.  Any blame should be on the suspect. It was his choice to commit a crime, arm himself illegally and not listen to orders. If one goes to the zoo and jump into the lions den he shouldn’t mad at the lion when he gets bit.  That’s his fault.

Emotional considerations after the shooting.  Talk it out.  Certainly not to the media but to people you trust and may have  legal privilege with. Clergy, attorney. spouse. You will need to talk about it to let it process.  Your sleep with be effected. Those chemicals are pumping through you and you are amp-ed up.    Don’t consume alcohol. Use calming techniques and stay out of stressful environments. Use routine to  help feel at ease.   A common experience I had and is often reported is what I’ll call the movie reel effect.  The event kept replaying in my head.  It felt like I was watching a movie replay over and over. This is normal and will diminish with time. Anxiety will occur. Our brain is an amazing organ. When you touch a hot stove it stores a message not to do that again. It is a protection mechanism when a negative result occurs.   After my shooting my first probably 20 traffic stops were filled with anxiety.  You will likely experience a similar response when you attempt to do something similar to what triggered your incident. Examples of this could be walking from the store to your car, waking up to a crash in the night, going to the ATM. Try to calm yourself and realize this is normal.

Monday morning quarterbacks. This can come from several sources.  Friends, media, pundits, co-workers. Few people can say they know what fighting for your life feels like. Few will take the time to read all of the details. But many will say you should have done A then B. They will say that they could have done it so much better hitting moving head shots at 50 yards with a pistol etc. This can be hard to swallow. Here you did what you could and everyone seems to think they could do better. I got ridiculed for shooting 40 rounds. I was told I should be re-trained and was just spraying and praying. Neither one is the case and most of them probably would have soiled themselves. After trying to explain the facts of case to people  including: the distance involved, actively taking rounds, low visibility at night,  the cover the suspect used etc. I learned it didn’t matter. My advise it to not read any forums, papers or listen to radio or anything after your shooting. It will only anger you.  If you’d like review some of your tactics seek other professionals who have been in shootings.

If you think you need professional counseling, then get it. It is nothing to be ashamed about. If you broke your ankle you would seek a doctor.  This is no different.

I hope this will give others a little insight toward a subject that is not often discussed and prepare you mentally for what to expect.