The Silent Killer of Police Officers

The Silent Killer of Police Officers

My days at the police academy were a lot of fun. I can remember the first day like it was yesterday.  We all showed up eager to learn, got our room assignments, did our physical tests and greeted each other in the gymnasium.  Most of the cadets knew each other and were from the same school.  I was the only one from my school, but it didn’t take long to make friends with everyone else.

Our day consisted of learning all the important skills police officers need to know on the job.  We spent hours at the gun range, participated in defensive tactics, drove the squad cars like we stole them, pepper sprayed each other, and went through numerous different scenario-type trainings.  After the day was done, we made sure to head to the local establishments to have a few adult beverages and share our dreams of where this great law enforcement career would (hopefully) take us.

Looking back, I noticed the instructors did a great job preparing us for the on-duty portion of job and how to maintain officer safety.  However, they didn’t speak much about how to handle the job, mentally, off-duty and the toll it could take on us. Law enforcement, in particular, is a very high stress job that will expose you to a lot of things most people should never experience. For the longest time, this career had a “tough guy” stigma attached to it. Sharing your thoughts and feelings about calls that you have been on was considered weird and taboo.

The Officer Down Memorial website (https://www.odmp.org/), reveals 62 police officers were killed by felonious assault, gunfire, vehicle pursuit and vehicle assault in 2019.   According to B.L.U.E. Help (https://bluehelp.org/) a website that provides statistics on suicides by police officers, 197 police officers took their own life in 2019.  That means for every officer feloniously killed in the line of duty approximately three more take their own life by suicide.  This is inexcusable. We need to do a better job of taking care of ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters in blue.

During my tenure, I was lucky enough to participate in a peer support group for first responders.  This was a great way to debrief after a call that exposed responders to trauma.  I believe these types of programs were setup for the right reasons and encouraged responders to share their feelings and how they were impacted.

According to Mary Wolf, a licensed counselor, with decades of experience: “It is time to normalize asking for help.  Let’s make it ok to reach out at the first sign of distress instead of suffering in silence for years.  Let’s make learning about common reactions and stressors of police work part of training from day one. Let’s make emotional health a real priority in an industry that has put it last.”

 A Call to Action

Let’s teach the skills needed to holistically be a police officer:  Coping with chronic and acute stress, utilizing exercise as the natural anti-depressant that it is, supporting your colleagues, and asking what you need to effectively do this important work.

Let’s talk about the difficulty of domestic violence calls, tragic accidents, and threats to your safety.

Let’s make it alright to bring your whole self to the job.

Let’s talk openly about what brings out our fears, anger, frustrations and overwhelming sadness in how some people treat their children.

Let’s make resources easy to access so everyone knows what to do when a challenge arises whether it’s personal or professional.

Let’s make it ok to talk about critical incidents and the affects it is having on us.

Let’s make it the norm to talk with supervisors, peers, and professionals about how we are feeling and how we are Really doing.

Let’s show some vulnerability and humanity in our work.

Trust and connection are key needs in order to sustain a meaningful career.  Everyone needs an objective and confidential person that they can confide in, where they can be themselves, and not have to pretend to be happy.

If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or suicidal thoughts, a licensed mental health professional is your best avenue.  You need a mental health provider who understands the unique aspects of police culture.  Search for a list of mental health professionals who are covered by your health insurance.  Many plans provide mental health counsellors for a small or no co-pay. You might have to make a few calls to find someone who understands the first responder world.

Key Takeaways

Suicide, depression, and other mental health issues are a silent killer among public safety personnel. We need to take better care of ourselves not just physically, but mentally as well.  We need to make sure we seek additional support if we are having a hard time in our career fields.  If you find you’re having disturbing thoughts that won’t leave after a high stress call, understand you’re having a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance.  We need to make sure we’re having a check-up from the neck up.

 Everyday Life

Our mental health is extremely important.  We need to make sure we have a clear mind and are getting things off our chest.  Gone are the days of bottling everything up until they spill over.  Find a healthy way to cope with the stresses of the job.

Remember, the consequences of not getting help impacts you as well as others around you.

Discussions

  1. Discuss healthy strategies for coping with the stresses of the job.
  2. Discuss what plan your agency has to assist public safety personnel having a difficult time dealing with the stresses of the job.
  3. Discuss ways your agency could implement a peer support group for your public safety partners, including what training should be provided.

 

About the authors

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Contributor

Mary Wolf, MS, LPC-MH, BCC. President of Veritee Partners LLC. Contact her via email at [email protected] or connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-wolf-veritee/.

Active Shooter Part 3: Citizen Response

Active Shooter Part 3: Citizen Response

ACTIVE SHOOTER TRAINING FOR CITIZENS

If you find yourself at work, school, church, etc., when an active shooter event unfolds there are a few things you should know and practice.  First, if you can safely do so, RUN!  Get out of the situation as fast as possible.  You will improve your chances of knowing where to run if, in advance, you are thinking about your way out far before you have to flee (think preplan). Once an event turns hostile, you will have little time to think about your escape route.

If running is not a safe option because the shooter is too close, then hide.  I’m not talking about hiding under a desk. That, in fact, may be your worst option.  Hiding under a desk makes you a sitting duck. Hiding under desks may work in the movies, but it’s a bad plan in real life.  Hiding means actively barricading yourself behind cover. If you cannot find cover, then find a way to conceal yourself.

Think of cover as a barrier that can stop bullets (e.g., the engine block of a car or a brick wall).  Concealment, on the other hand, is something that will conceal (i.e., hide) your body, but bullets can still penetrate through (e.g., drywall or a wood door).  When you hide, barricade and lock the door if possible. Put large heavy objects such as tables, computers, or desks in front of the door so it cannot easily be opened.  Remain quiet and wait there as long as you need to until law enforcement arrives.

Lastly, and only if the first two options won’t work, fight! If you are by yourself, your best option is to hurl any object available to you at the shooter and try to get away to cover or run out of the building. Use any means you can imagine to slow the shooter down. Active shooters are cowards and they won’t be expecting a fight.

OODA LOOP DISRUPTION

One of the things we teach civilians on how to survive an active shooter encounter is to disrupt the shooters OODA loop.  Let me explain. The OODA loop – developed by Air Force Colonel John Boyd – is a four-step decision making/action taking process. Colonel Boyd described it as:

  • Observing;
  • Orienting;
  • Deciding; and,
  • Acting

By disrupting an Active Shooters decision making process (i.e., their OODA loop) we can momentarily cause the shooter to pause their decision making process and this may be all the advantage we need to increase our chance for survival.

For example, during a hockey game if the Forward is on a breakaway and has no Defender or Goalie in their path, they can OBSERVE there is no one to block their shot.  The Forward can then ORIENT their stick in a way to ensure the shot can be made.  The Forward can then DECIDE to shoot the puck into the empty net and ACT on that decision by slapping the puck toward the goal and score!

However, the entire process can be interrupted if there is a Defender facing the attacking Forward.  If after Observing and Orienting, the Forward decides to shoot, the Defender may attempt to slap the puck away from the Forward.  This maneuver may be enough to disrupt the Forward’s decision making process (i.e., their OODA loop) and the Forward would likely avert the shot and start the OODA loop process over again. This can buy you a few precious seconds.

Think of the Flight 93 scenario, trained terrorists hijacked a plane. The passengers bonded together and took out the terrorists. And while all the passengers perished when the plane crashed, their heroic actions likely saved countless lives at the destination the terrorists where intending to strike with the plane.  They accomplished their mission by being brave, having a plan, and disrupting the terrorist’s OODA Loop.  They did a great job improvising weapons (e.g., a beverage cart, hot coffee).

KEY TAKEAWAY

Situational awareness is essential to your survival and may help save your life if you encounter an Active Shooter.  Consider conducting mental rehearsals of Active Shooter scenarios. During a mental rehearsal, you imagine yourself in an Active Shooter situation and think through (in advance) what it would be like.  Imagine using all of your senses. What would you be seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling? Vividly imagine the situation and how it would play out in as much detail as you can.

Practice “what if” decision making scenarios. For example, you might think: If I were in my office and I heard a gunshot in another part of the building, then I would ________ (fill in the blank).  Rehearse as many “what if” scenarios as you can imagine, building complexity into the scenarios as you gain confidence.

The benefits of mental rehearsals can be two-fold.  First, mental rehearsals can reduce surprises.  Your critical thinking skills can be impacted by the element of surprise.  (Coincidentally, disrupting critical thinking skills is what you’re trying to accomplish when you interrupt the Active Shooter’s OODA loop). When you find yourself in a real-world situation that you’ve mentally rehearsed, you’re far less likely to be surprised.  Rather, you’ll be expecting it to happen and you will have already thought through one (or more) decision options.

The second benefit of mental rehearsals is they can help improve prediction skills.  In active shooter situations, it is important that we are thinking ahead of the current situation – being mindful of not only what is happening right now, but also thinking about what is going to happen next (e.g., what/who might be waiting for me around the next corner?).

When practicing “if-then” scenarios and performing mental rehearsals, think beyond yourself.  Imagine the actions of others who will be present.  To take down an Active Shooter you may need to lead (direct) others on what to do.  For workplace Active Shooter preparation, talk with coworkers about what should be done if an event occurs. The actions of your coworkers could help save lives.  Or, their actions could cost lives.  Don’t assume everyone will know what to do.  That would be a mistake. Have a plan!  Remember, it’s much easier for the body to get through a tough time when the mind has already experienced and planned for it.

EVERYDAY LIFE

When we work with companies, we recommend annual training for all employees and the training cover all forms of potential violent acts at work.  Professional training ensures workers know what to do, but also how to do it.  Be prepared for an act of violence, this involves mental AND physical preparation.

Think about the phenomenal job firefighters have done teaching citizens how to Stop, Drop, and Roll if their clothing catches on fire.  What to do is quite intuitive now, but it took years of repetitive training and having a plan for it to happen.  Repetition improves physical and mental performance under stress. That’s why schools conduct multiple fire drills every year.  As a result of their diligent efforts, it is extremely rare for a student to die from a fire in a school.

We live in a world where, sadly, Active Shooter events are becoming more common. It’s time for companies to develop plans and to take the lead training workers on how to be prepared.

Discussions

  1. Discuss ways a person could disrupt an Active Shooter’s OODA loop.
  2. Discuss what objects in your home or at work could be used as a last-resort weapon to defend yourself against an active shoot.
  3. Review and discuss your family’s plan for an Active Shooter event.
  4. Review and discuss your company’s plan for an Active Shooter event.
  5. Discuss with your coworkers what each of you should (and should not) do during an Active Shooter event.

 

About the Authors

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.

Active Shooter Part 2: Collaborating with Fire and EMS

Active Shooter Part 2: Collaborating with Fire and EMS

When I was in the police academy and went through Active Shooter training it was designed solely for police officers. There was never a mention of EMS or fire department response and how they could assist in these situations.  It took approximately 8 years into my career until I went to a training that involved the assistance of EMS and firefighters.  It really opened my eyes as to how much value EMS and firefighters can add to these catastrophic events.

In the most recent trainings I have participated in, we have incorporated using EMS and firefighters to assist with rapidly evacuating people that have been injured and it significantly improved our efficiency.   We set up a rescue team where police officers provide protection and guided a group of EMS and fire personnel through a building to get the injured victims out.  Training as a single unit in these rescue teams and working in collaboration with each other has been very beneficial will save more lives.

One of the things I noticed that firefighters do well is they are very good at setting up incident command and being able to communicate well with each other on the radio.  Ever since I have been a police officer I have always been really impressed with how fast firefighters mobilize incident command and run their incidents so efficiently.  As police officers this is something we can definitely learn from our partners in the fire service.  This works well when an Active Shooter event is unfolding, and teams need to be organized before heading to the hot zone.  Firefighters have a lot of experience in incident command and it definitely shows during these collaborative training events.

WORDS OF ADVICE TO SURVIVE AN ACTIVE SHOOTER

Active Shooter events are becoming more and more common throughout the United States.  It’s a good thing to reach out to your fellow agencies to conduct joint training so that everyone is on the same page if one of these events were to ever unfold in your jurisdiction.  It requires coordinating a lot of moving parts and when we train together in a stressful environment we will be better prepared for when real event occurs.

If you’re a firefighter or EMS worker and you find yourself on a routine call that rapidly becomes an active shooter event there are a few things you should know and practice.  First, if you can safely do so, RUN!  Get out of the situation as fast as possible.  You’ll improve your chances of knowing where to run if, in advance, you are thinking about your way out far before you have to flee (think pre-plan). Once the event turns hostile, you will have little time to think about your escape route.

If running is not a safe option because the shooter too close then you should hide.  I’m not talking about hiding under a desk. That, in fact, may be your worst option.  Hiding under a desk makes you a sitting duck. Hiding under desks may work in the movies, but it’s a bad plan in real life.  When I say hide I mean actively barricading behind cover. If you cannot find cover, then find a way to conceal yourself.

Think of cover as a barrier that can stop bullets (e.g., the engine block of a car or a brick wall).  Concealment, on the other hand, is something that will conceal (i.e., hide) your body, but bullets can still penetrate through (e.g., drywall or a wood door).  When you hide, barricade and lock the door if possible. Put large heavy objects such as tables, computers, or desks in front of the door so it cannot easily be opened.  Wait there as long as you need until law enforcement arrives and the officers retrieve you.

Lastly (and only if the first two options don’t work) you will need to fight.  As a firefighter or EMS worker you can improvise weapons (e.g., SCBA, oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers, scissors).  If you are by yourself, your best option is to hurl any object available to you at the shooter and try to get away to cover or run out of the building. Use any means you can imagine to slow down the shooter.

If you are with a group, your best chance of survival is to improvise weapons and throw them all at the shooter all at the same time.  Once you are able to distract or confuse the shooter, try to incapacitate the shooter until law enforcement arrives.  Think of Flight 93, the group of passengers on that plane used improvised weapons (e.g., hot coffee, carts) and subdued a group of armed terrorists.  A group effort is the way to go, it requires training and leadership but will give you the best chances of survival. Keep in mind that acting aggressively toward the shooter is your last resort option.

DOS AND DON’TS OF RESPONDING TO AN ACTIVE SHOOTER

I always knew when I arrived on a house fire or accident scene that this is the fire department’s jurisdiction.  I also knew that when I arrived on a medical scene it belonged to EMS and I was there to provide support.  For my fellow brothers and sisters in fire and EMS I have a question for you:  Does it frustrate you when a police officer parks in front of a working house fire?  How about when a police car blocks your access where someone was having a heart attack and you can’t back your ambulance into the driveway?

I would be lying if said I’ve never done this. It took a few reminders from fire and EMS to help me remember not to do that.  Well the same applies for police officers when it comes to a dynamic shooting scene.  Make sure on an Active Shooter scene you’re parking far enough away to allow law enforcement personnel to be able to access the scene.  Our job is to take out the shooter and establish a safe perimeter as quick as possible.  Blocking our routes with fire trucks and ambulances makes are job more difficult – and dangerous.

Also, do you have a member that loves talking on the radio?  (We have those people in law enforcement too.)  During a rapidly evolving active shooter event, we would all serve each other better if we keep radio traffic to a minimum (i.e., only transmit the most essential information).  Early on, the scene is going to be chaotic and confusing. It is very important for law enforcement to keep lines of communication open and accessible. Non-essential chatter is distracting and can draw an officer’s attention off-task and increase their risk.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Situational awareness is key for survival and saving as many lives as possible in an active shooter situation.  Consider mentally rehearsing active shooter events thinking through, in advance, what your actions would be if you found yourself in that situation. Conducting simulated active shooter training (under stress) and practicing rapid response techniques, can improve a firefighter’s and EMS crew member’s ability to predict what may happen in these events and help you prevent bad outcomes.

Not all law enforcement officers have advanced training on how to handle an active shooter situation. Do not depend, entirely, on the officers to keep you safe. Use situational awareness best practices to improve the safety of your crew. (Here’s a hint: There’s more to situational awareness that paying attention and keeping your head on a swivel.)  Be prepared to take quick action, if necessary.

One final note: According to the FBI, from the years 2000-2018, 98% of active shooter incidents had only one shooter.  Statistically speaking, chances are your event will only be one shoote.  However, there’s always that chance there could be more than one. History also shows that when there are more than one shooter they are, most often, together.  But, as you can imagine, there are no rules for active shooters to follow.  Put yourself in the mindset that anything is possible and anything can happen.

Discussions

  1. Discuss what you would do if an active shooter situation were to evolve unexpectedly during a fire or medical call.
  2. Discuss how you could work more collaboratively with your local police departments to prepare, train and coordinate during active shooter events.
  3. Discuss ways you could build stress into active shooter training to improve realism and to ensure you are prepared for the stress you will experience during an actual event.

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.