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Back to Archives | Back to January 2011 Contents 

Psychological Factors after Officer-Involved Shootings: Addressing Officer Needs and Agency Responsibilities

By Philip S. Trompetter, PhD, Immediate Past General Chair, IACP Police Psychological Services Section, Modesto, California; David M. Corey, PhD, ABPP, Police and Forensic Psychologist, Portland, Oregon; Wayne W. Schmidt, Esq., Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Chicago, Illinois; and Drew Tracy, Assistant Chief, Investigative Services Bureau, Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department

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he police use of deadly force is a consequential event for all parties: the officers and their families, the agency, the community, and the suspects and their families and survivors. In light of these profound consequences, the most critical investigation in any law enforcement agency is that of an officer-involved shooting (OIS).1 To ensure transparency and accountability, agencies have developed meticulous policies and procedures that address the administrative and criminal investigations of these events.

In recent years, many agencies also have devised strategies to attend to the psychological needs of the involved officers while maintaining the integrity of the investigative process. Many of the programs to support involved officers have become relatively uniform across agencies. Less consistent has been the manner in which agencies return the involved officers to work. This article suggests strategies for agencies to assist with the involved officers’ psychological needs following an OIS, in addition to examining how agencies can responsibly and lawfully consider the officers’ readiness to return to work.

Since 1985, the IACP has been host to the Police Psychological Services Section (PPSS). This section is dedicated to providing expertise to police agencies in psychological matters affecting law enforcement. Toward that end, the section has created five guidelines, each revised every five years and available at by clicking Resources, and then Guidelines. The guidelines include Preemployment Psychological Evaluations, Psychological Fitness-for-Duty Evaluations (FFDE), OIS, Peer Support, and Consulting Police Psychologists. Pertinent to this article are the OIS2 and FFDE Guidelines, 3 both revised in 2009 and approved by IACP in 2010.

The OIS guideline is consistent with the IACP Model Policy number 76, “Investigation of Officer-Involved Shootings,” particularly section III. Model Policy number 76 reads

1. Supervisory, investigative and other sworn and nonsworn employees shall be familiar with and follow the provisions established by this agency in its policy on dealing with post-shooting emotional trauma in police personnel.
2. All personnel shall be familiar with the provisions of this agency’s policy on employee mental health services and should avail themselves of these services following officer-involved shooting incidents where appropriate.

The OIS guideline is also consistent with the Concepts and Issues Paper by the IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center5 that accompanies the model policy. The Concepts and Issues Paper identifies several of the possible adverse or distressing psychological reactions experienced by many officers during and after an OIS (for example, perceived vulnerability during the event, perceptual distortions, or impaired recall).6

This article targets how agencies can attend and respond to these reactions both to assist involved officers as well as to ensure that when they subsequently return to work, agencies are prepared to properly address the officers’ psychological suitability to resume their public safety responsibilities.

Assisting the Involved Officers after an OIS

The IACP OIS guidelines were developed to provide information and recommendations to public safety agencies and mental health providers to constructively support officers involved in shootings and other use-of-force incidents that may trigger the investigative process. Many of these recommendations can also be applied to otherpotentially distressing critical events.

Before an OIS occurs, agencies should have a protocol to address the psychological needs of the involved officers. Arrangements should already be in place for the availability of a qualified, licensed mental health professional experienced with law enforcement culture and deadly force confrontations.

In addition, officers should be provided a companion officer as soon as possible, preferably a trusted colleague who has been through an OIS. Talking with peers who have had similar experiences can be quite helpful for officers involved in significant use-of-force incidents. Agencies should train potential companion officers in peer support techniques. The trained companion officer can provide guidance to the agency procedures, ensure the involved officer refrains from speaking about the incident except to those authorized to hear it, and offer support that is helpful and appropriate.

While officers may be asked to provide pertinent information soon after a shooting to aid the initial investigative process, it is suggested that they have some recovery time before providing a full, formal statement. Depending on the nature of the incident and the emotional status of the officers, this can range from a few hours to several days. The agency may wish to consider permitting a walkthrough while taking a statement from the officer to assist in gathering the most accurate information.

Similarly, the timing of when to offer a psychological debriefing is flexible and wide-ranging depending on the needs of the officer and the investigation; some debriefings occur before the officer secures from the shift during which the shooting occurred, where others prefer a debriefing within one week of the shooting.

After a life-threatening incident, officers frequently are most concerned about how they reacted physiologically and emotionally and whether these reactions were “normal.” Post-shooting interventions should be primarily educative as this reassurance reduces worry, anxiety, and negative self-assessment. Some officers would choose not to participate in the post-shooting interventions provided by qualified mental health professionals, yet, when required to attend, they often find them helpful. In addition, some may be unaware of the potential impact of the incident and choose not to attend. For these reasons, it is recommended that officers be required to attend one individual post-shooting intervention so they can, at a minimum, be provided with basic education and coping skills to better manage their reactions.

While officers may be required to attend at least one mandatory session, this does not mean that it should be mandatory for them to discuss the event or how they feel with the mental health professional. Any participation beyond attendance should be voluntary on the part of the officers.

It would be helpful to provide officers and their significant others with written information that reviews physical and psychological reactions to shooting incidents. Topics covered should include what to expect, how to support each other, coping strategies, and whom to contact for further assistance.

The realities of deadly force confrontations have taught us that in these dynamic, rapidly unfolding, ambiguous, and dangerous situations there will be officers whose shots miss the target, or officers who for good reason decided not to discharge their weapons. It is not uncommon for these officers to struggle with a misperception that they failed to perform adequately. Intervening mental health professionals and agencies should be mindful to ensure these officers are included in mandatory interventions, too. The well-being of dispatchers, nonsworn personnel, and others centrally involved in the incident should also be considered.

Shooting incidents can result in heightened physical and emotional reactions for the participants. It is recommended that officers involved in such incidents be given a minimum three days leave, either administrative or through regular days off, in order to marshal their natural coping skills to manage the emotional impact of the incident prior to return to duty or the preparation of a use-of-force or incident report.

A single contact with a mental health professional may prove to be inadequate for officers who have been severely affected by an event. Also, a subset of officers may experience delayed onset of problems. The mental health professional should informally assess, for the sole purpose of voluntary referral, which officers may need additional or alternative types of support to further their recovery process. Follow-up sessions should be made available to every involved officer, and, if appropriate, referrals may be offered for further treatment and to peer support or chaplaincy programs.

Because delayed reactions may occur, all officers receiving an initial post-shooting intervention should receive follow-up contact by the intervening mental health professional either via phone or e-mail sometime within the first four months post-incident. In addition, contact should be made by the intervener prior to the first anniversary of the incident.

Life-threatening use-of-force incidents also have the potential to emotionally impact an officer’s significant others, who often can provide valuable support to officers following these incidents. Therefore, it can be beneficial for all concerned to include significant others in the psychological debriefing process.

Issues Involving Readiness to Return

Police executives have a legal duty to ensure that police officers under their command are mentally and emotionally fit to perform their duties, and failure to do so can result in significant civil liability7 and serious consequences to citizens, other officers, and an employing agency’s reputation.8 Various courts have interpreted this duty to include the authority to mandate psychological FFDE of police officers reasonably believed to be impaired in their ability to perform their job functions due to a known or suspected psychological condition.9

The employer’s duty to ensure a psychologically fit workforce does not, however, allow an unrestrained right to require such evaluations of any police officer in any circumstance. Instead, the employer’s duty must be balanced by the public’s interests and the employee’s constitutional, civil, and property rights and interests.10

By law, an employer may require an FFDE of an incumbent police officer only when objective facts pose a reasonable basis for concern about fitness. When making a disability inquiry or medical examination of an incumbent employee, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires the employer to meet a fact-specific, individualized threshold; namely, that the inquiry or examination is “job-related and consistent with business necessity” (42 U.S.C. §12112(d) (4) (A); 29 C.F.R. §1630.14(c)). In general, the ADA regards this threshold as having been met when an employer “has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that (1) an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; or (2) an employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.” In other words, legal justification for a compulsory mental health examination of an employee requires objective evidence of job-related performance problems or safety threats linked to a known or reasonably suspected mental condition. One of these in the absence of the other represents an insufficient basis for an FFDE.11

Accordingly, the IACP PPSS OIS Guidelines state

5.10 It should be made clear to all involved personnel, supervisors, and the community at large that an officer’s fitness-for-duty should not be brought into question by virtue of their involvement in a shooting incident. Post-shooting psychological interventions are separate and distinct from any fitness-for-duty assessments or administrative or investigative procedures that may follow. This does not preclude a supervisor from requesting a formal fitness-for-duty evaluation based upon objective concerns about an officer’s ability to perform his or her duties. However, the mere fact of being involved in a shooting does not necessitate such an evaluation prior to return to duty.

Thus, a blanket policy of requiring an FFDE for an officer involved in an OIS, standing alone, appears to be inappropriate. Yet, a brief online survey of agency OIS policies finds some departments requiring an FFDE before involved officers may return to work based solely on their status of having been in an OIS. Such a policy may be inconsistent with federal law.12

The licensed mental health professional providing the post-shooting intervention might appear to be in the best position to address the agency’s interest in determining an officer’s readiness to return to work. However, this intervention can only help to alleviate or mitigate readiness-to-return-to-duty concerns only if the officer is candid—an outcome made more likely by an assurance of confidentiality or privileged communication.13 A requirement that the intervener report readiness concerns to the agency impedes the efficacy of the post-shooting intervention to the extent that it motivates officers to be less candid and forthcoming with the mental health professional. The post-shooting intervention should be off-limits as an agency source of readiness-to-return-to-duty information unless the disclosure is initiated at the request of, and with the informed consent and authorization of, the officer, or unless other exceptions to confidentiality pertain, as discussed below.

However, the agency may view its responsibility to the community as superseding the efficacy of the post-shooting intervention, and there is a legal basis to allow for disclosure of specified information to an employer from the intervener in limited circumstances. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), Public Law 104-191, §164.512 provides, in pertinent part

(j) Standard: Uses and disclosures to avert a serious threat to health or safety.

(1) Permitted disclosures. A covered entity may, consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct, use or disclose protected health information, if the covered entity, in good faith, believes the use or disclosure:

(i)(A) Is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public; and

(B) Is to a person or persons reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat, including the target of the threat . . . .14

Moreover, the patient-therapist privilege is not absolute. Typical exceptions to medical confidentiality include a duty to

  1. report patients who express a desire to harm themselves or others;
  2. report communicable diseases, such as STDs; and
  3. report gunshot wounds.

In view of this, some agencies require the intervening mental health professional to recommend whether or not to return the officer to field duty. For example, the Los Angeles Police Manual Sec. 794.40 explains that the commanding officer of an on- or off-duty employee who is involved in an officer-involved shooting resulting in an injury to any person or a categorical use of force resulting in death or the substantial possibility of death shall “[c]onsult with the BSS (Behavioral Services Section) after the involved employee’s mandated appointment to obtain their recommendation of whether or not to return the employee(s) to field duty. Other than the recommendation of BSS, matters discussed during the BSS evaluation shall be strictly confidential.”15

Given the broad legal recognition of an employee’s right to privacy, a mental health professional in this position must limit the unauthorized disclosure of confidential health information to a recommendation that the employee should or should not return to field duty.16 Moreover, since such a policy provides an exception to privileged communication, the intervener is ethically bound to inform the officer of the exception and limit to confidentiality at the outset of the intervention.17

An intervening mental health professional is not prohibited from reporting readiness concerns directly to the officer, and would be doing a disservice to the officer if such concerns were ignored. Honest feedback and a recommendation to the officer for additional time off to voluntarily continue counseling should be an objective, and, with the officer’s informed consent and authorization, the intervening mental health professional can communicate to the agency and coordinate a plan for addressing the noted concerns.

For agencies that wish to follow the PPSS OIS Guidelines to promote the efficacy of the post-shooting intervention without requiring the intervening mental health professional to disclose concerns to the agency about an officer’s readiness to return to duty, several alternative strategies can be employed to address the agency’s duty to protect the community. A commanding officer can interview the employee to assess the employee’s readiness and suitability to return to field duty. Some agencies offer returning officers a modified duty assignment partly as a way to provide a safe vantage point to assess their readiness and suitability to return to their pre-incident positions. Other agencies train supervisors in the signs, both obvious and subtle, that might be apparent in returning officers who are not ready or suitable to resume their pre-incident roles.18 Officers can also be evaluated in “shoot” and “don’t-shoot” scenarios to assess their readiness to return to their positions.19

These and other strategies provide a platform from which an employer can monitor and identify reasonably objective signs, or credible third-party reports, that a returning officer may have a “medical condition” (that is, a mental health condition caused or aggravated by the shooting incident) that warrants a referral for a mandatory FFDE from a licensed mental health professional experienced with law enforcement culture, deadly force confrontations, and the other requirements for a psychological FFDE of an incumbent police officer. If an FFDE becomes necessary, it should not be conducted by the mental health professional that provided the post-shooting intervention.


Attending to an officer’s psychological needs after an OIS is sound personnel management and good public policy. To accomplish this, agencies should require involved officers to undergo an intervention with a licensed mental health professional that is familiar with post-shooting interventions, law enforcement culture, and the realities of deadly force confrontations.

The most effective post-shooting intervention occurs if the officer is offered privileged communication, barring a statutory exception, or an officer who authorizes the disclosure. Mental health professionals who are required by agency policy to recommend whether or not their client officers should return to duty after an OIS should be mindful of the ethical obligation to disclose that requirement prior to the initiation of service. A blanket requirement that officers involved in an OIS undergo an FFDE appears to violate the procedural requirements of the ADA.

Agencies that wish to optimize the efficacy of the post-shooting intervention can employ several strategies to address the agency’s duty to protect the community. These mechanisms demonstrate the agency’s due diligence by addressing the officer’s readiness to return to public safety responsibilities while maximizing the efficacy of the psychological intervention.

The tension between offering the most efficacious post-shooting intervention to the officer and safeguarding the agency’s duty to ensure the officer is ready and suitable to return to public safety responsibilities is manageable, but will differ between jurisdictions. ■


1Drew J. Tracy, “Handling Officer-Involved Shootings,” The Police Chief 77 (October 2010): 38–48.
2“Officer-Involved Shooting Guidelines,” IACP Police Psychological Services Section (2009), (accessed November 23, 2010).
3“Psychological Fitness-for-Duty Evaluation Guidelines,” IACP Police Psychological Services Section (2009), (accessed November 23, 2010).
4“Post-Shooting Incident Procedures,” IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center (1998). For more information on up-to-date model policies, and their related papers, please contact the National Law Enforcement Policy Center by e-mail at or visit
5Ibid. and “Investigation of Officer-Involved Shootings,” IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center (August 1999).
6The following papers are excellent resources for discussions of specific psychological reactions during and following an OIS: Alexis Artwohl and Loren W. Christensen, Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight (Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press, 1997); Alexis Artwohl, “Perceptual and Memory Distortions in Officer Involved Shootings,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 158, no. 10 (October 2002): 18–24; Audrey L. Honig and Jocelyn E. Roland, “Shots Fired: Officer Involved,” The Police Chief 65 (October 1998): 16–19; Audrey L. Honig and Steven E. Sultan, “Reactions and Resilience under Fire: What an Officer Can Expect,” The Police Chief 71 (December 2004); Ellen Kirschman, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know (New York: The Guilford Press, 2006).
7Bonsignore v. City of New York, 683 F.2d 635 (2d Cir. 1982).
8David M. Corey, “Principles for Fitness-for-Duty Evaluations for PolicePsychologists,” in Handbook of Police Psychology, ed. Jack Kitaeff (Oxford, England: Routledge Psychology Press, in press).
9Brownfield v. City of Yakima, 612 F.3d 1140 (9th Cir. 2010); Colon v. City of Newark, 188 N.J. 490, 909 A. 2d 725 (2006); Conte v. Horcher, 50 Ill. App. 3d 151, 365 N.E. 2d 567 (1977); Deen v. Darosa, 414 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2005); Kraft v. Police Commissioner of Boston, 417 Mass. 235, 629 N.E. 2d 995 (1994); McKnight v. Monroe Co. Sheriff’s Dept., 90 FEP Cases (BNA) 35 (S.D. Ind. 2002); Tingler v. City of Tampa, 400 So. 2d 146 (Fla. App. 1981); Watson v. City of Miami Beach, 177 F.3d 932 (11th Cir. 1999).
10Denhof et al. v. City of Grand Rapids, 494 F.3d 534 (6th Cir. 2007); Holst v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 298 Fed. Appx. 974 (Fed. Cir. 2008); Jackson v. Lake County, 14 AD Cases (BNA) 1609 (N.D. Ill. 2003); McGreal v. Ostrov, 368 F.3d 657 (7th Cir. 2004).
11Liza H. Gold and Daniel W. Schuman, Evaluating Mental Health Disability in the Workplace: Model, Process, and Analysis (New York: Springer Science and Business Media, 2009).
12The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Compliance Manual, volume II, section 902, no. 915.002 (Washington, D.C.: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).
13In Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1; 116 S. Ct. 1923 (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court majority held that the communications of Redmond, a police officer, to his psychotherapist in a post-OIS intervention were privileged. The Court observed, “Effective psychotherapy depends upon an atmosphere of confidence and trust, and therefore the mere possibility of disclosure of confidential communications may impede development of the relationship necessary for successful treatment. The privilege also serves the public interest, since the mental health of the Nation's citizenry, no less than its physical health, is a public good of transcendent importance.”
14Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, Public Law 104-191, §164.512, “Uses and Disclosures for which an Authorization or Opportunity to Agree or Object Is Not Required,” Title 45 Public Welfare § 164.512 (65 FR 82802, Dec. 28, 2000, as amended at 67 FR 53270, Aug. 14, 2002).
15“Officer-Involved Shootings, Custodial, and In-Custody Deaths, and Use of Force Incidents Resulting in Injury,” Los Angeles Police Department Manual, Personnel Management, volume 3, chapter 794, (accessed November 23, 2010).
16Pettus v. Cole, number A060253, 49 Cal.App. 4th 402 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1996).
17“Ethical Principles of Psychologist and Code of Conduct, 2010 Amendments,” ethical standard 3.11, American Psychological Association, (accessed November 23, 2010).
18Philip S. Trompetter, “Assessing the Psychological Well-Being of Returning Officers following a Critical Incident,” The Journal of California Law Enforcement 27, number 3 (1993).
19Drew J. Tracy, “Handling Officer-Involved Shootings.”

Please cite as:

Philip S. Trompetter et al., "Psychological Factors after Officer-Involved Shootings: Addressing Officer Needs and Agency Responsibilities," The Police Chief 78 (January 2011): 28–33, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 1, January 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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