Volume XVI | Issue 1 | Spring 2016
Law enforcement respond to Umpqua Community College after reports of an active shooter on campus on Oct 1, 2015. Active shooter events, perhaps more than any other type of crime, impose an extreme stress on responding police officers. Photo: Michael Sullivan/The News-Review

Brief trauma can bring lasting stress

Responding officers had to be ready to fight, and they did

Six minutes after the 911 call about a shooter on the Umpqua Community College campus, two nearby Roseburg Police Department detectives rushed onto the scene. They immediately confronted the shooter, who fired on them as they fired back before he retreated into a breezeway and shot himself.

 Within minutes, more police, ambulances and other first responders flooded the scene with care for the wounded and survivors. The scene was personal for responders, especially those who had family members at UCC. One of the students who died was Treven Anspach, 20, son of a Roseburg firefighter.

The swift response by police, emergency medical teams and others undoubtedly saved lives. But what they saw and experienced in those first adrenaline-filled minutes could leave first responders with weeks, months, even years of psychological wounds and traumatic stress.

The Roseburg Police and other first responders were not available for interviews because of ongoing investigations. But the police response to the UCC shooting reflected modern practices, said Lt. David Okada of the Salem Police Department, who teaches classes on stress, trauma and psychological survival in law enforcement. 

The first goal of police confronting an active shooter event is to “stop the shooter and make everyone as safe as possible, whatever that means,” he said. 

It often means putting officers in more dangerous and stressful situations that can have long-term psychological effects. 

Lessons from Columbine

Not so long ago, law enforcement agencies commonly followed the protocol of confronting active shooters only with special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams. But that all changed after the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, where police waited for tactical experts while two shooters continued to murder students inside the school.

“Columbine brought a sea change in police tactics,” according to a 2014 report on police response to shooters by the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. “Columbine resulted in new approaches in which patrol officers are being trained to respond to active shooters as quickly as possible.”

Officers must be ready to fight, and for those who are first on the scene, that often means fighting the shooter alone, said the forum report. One study of 84 shooting events between 2000 and 2010 found that in more than half of those confronted by a single officer, the shooter was still killing people. In two out of three such cases, the officer shot the attacker, and in one of every four events, the suspect killed himself. One third of the officers who made solo entry were shot.

“Active shooter events, perhaps more than any other type of crime, impose an extreme stress on responding police officers,” said the report.

‘Working to survive’

The initial confrontation in an active shooter event typically is resolved within minutes with police either killing or subduing the attacker or with the attacker’s suicide. But the adrenaline continues to surge through police officers and first responders for hours as they work to secure the crime scene, treat the wounded and ensure there are no other threats to survivors, Okada said.

“You are in tactical fight or flight mode,” Okada said, “You are acting on tactical inputs and you are working to survive. Once that is done, it takes a while for your body and nervous system to get back to normal.”

Okada said the psychological stresses on police responding to a mass shooting are probably similar, though greatly magnified, to those affecting officers who have shot a suspect or handled multiple homicides or multiple traffic fatalities. Recognizing those pressures, the Oregon Legislature in 2007 passed a law, Senate Bill 111, requiring every county to develop a plan for police who use deadly force. The plans must require that involved officers get at least two sessions of mental health counseling and be restricted from active duty for at least three days. 

First responders to mass shootings could also benefit from those standards, Okada said.  Compared to the rest of society, “what we do every day as part of our normal duties is highly abnormal.”  

When to seek professional help

According to the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute, a first responder (or anyone who has experienced a traumatic event) who is still feeling the following symptoms a month after the event should seek professional help:

Hyper-arousal: increases in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure; physical tension, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, fear, irritability or anger. 

Avoidance: avoiding exposure to the trauma, including talking about it, thinking about it, visiting the place where it occurred or seeing people who shared the experience of it; withdrawing from friends and family; being unable to go back to work if it was an on-the-job trauma. 

Intrusions: intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event; flashbacks, in which people feel as though they are reliving the event with great intensity; and nightmares. 

Psychic numbing: a sense of being emotionally numb; a sense of unreality; “spacing out”; and using substances to “numb out.”  

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