Use of Deadly Force: Multiple Explanations, No Simple Solutions

The death of Michael Brown in 2014 and subsequent high-profile officer-involved shootings have prompted police departments across the United States to evaluate their use of force and deadly force policies, as well as their training practices more broadly. Increased scrutiny of law enforcement training from the wider U.S. community has led to a growing polarization between law enforcement and a constituency that is demanding fundamental changes in policing and use-of-deadly-force policies. De-escalation techniques, improved communication skills, and enhanced less-lethal training have been proposed to address these latest deadly encounters. Adjunctive resources for police officers such as mobile crisis teams, crisis intervention training, and community support from advocates (such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness) are incorporated into the curricula of police academies and advanced officer training. Calls for higher educational standards, such as college degrees, for police applicants have been made in an attempt to enhance training. While improvements in hiring and training are critical, efforts to address the use of force and deadly force by police officers must not focus exclusively on a more sophisticated hiring process and a broader academy curriculum. The psychological and physical demands of police work can adversely impact responses to every call for service. Any effort to successfully reform policing must address the adverse psychological and physical effects of police work.

Looking Beyond the Rotten Apple−Rotten Orchard Paradigm

The Knapp Commission, which investigated corruption in the New York City Police Department in 1970, relied on a rotten apple metaphor to explain historical police misconduct, including excessive force. This theory asserts that rotten apples are

“either weak individuals who have slipped through the screening process or succumbed to the temptations inherent in police work or deviant individuals who continue their deviance in an environment that gives them ample opportunity.”1

This concept was later expanded on by Maurice Punch, who characterized police misconduct as a “systems failure.” The notion of a systems failure suggests the metaphor of a rotten orchard, rather than a rotten apple. The rotten orchard refers to “widespread and ‘institutionalized’ rule-bending and illegality,” which is “less a matter of bad people and more an issue of bad systems.”2 It presupposes that

The very structure of policing (exposure to unsavory characters, forgetting what you learned in the academy, clannishness, and overzealous, misguided approaches to crime control) provides plenty of opportunities to learn the entrenched patterns of deviant police conduct that have been passed down thru generations.3

The rotten apple−rotten orchard paradigm has gained greater acceptance as a result of reports of fatal shootings by police officers. A less severe and probably more accurate assessment would attribute these actions as a failure in the recruitment, hiring, and training of police officers, rather than a summary indictment of the law enforcement profession.4 Based on this assessment, inadequacies and inconsistencies in the police officer “intake process” would appear to be the source of police use of excessive force. Appreciating the enormous disparity among federal, state, and local training, as well as a challenging selection process for most law enforcement agencies, it is not surprising that law enforcement agencies struggle to implement consistent hiring and training strategies for the profession.

While significant progress has been made since Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice Law Enforcement Training in 1967, “the role of police in contemporary society has never been clearly defined or universally adopted.”5 Despite the efforts of federal and state governments, as well as organizations such as the Police Executive Research Forum, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the American Psychological Association, a significant gap remains between law enforcement training and models for practice that will serve to select and graduate more competent police officers.6 Applicants for employment to major city and municipal police departments must submit to personal and criminal background checks, physical and psychological assessments, and the rigors of a police academy. At any point during this process (and for many departments, during the probationary period), a recruit can be terminated should he or she not meet established criteria. The field training experience provides additional support to retain or terminate the newly graduated officer and can be the most significant element in the evaluation process.7 Despite these efforts, the criteria that police departments establish as predictive of a successful candidate often lack even moderate scrutiny. The assumption that poor decision-making, inadequate training, racial bias, or undetected psychopathology among police officers are the causes of using excessive force and deadly force is, at best, simplistic. While any of these factors may play a role in this current law enforcement crisis, additional elements to every call for service can contribute to an officer’s response, whether appropriate or excessive to the circumstances. Continued exposure to trauma and the physical and psychological toll of police work itself contribute to extreme responses in critical situations.

Peritraumatic Dissociation and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

 Studies of police officers exposed to potentially traumatic situations (or critical incidents) have found the incidence of duty-related post-traumatic stress disorder to range between 7 percent and 19 percent.8 Others have reported the prevalence of PTSD among police, fire, and emergency service workers to be as high as 32 percent.9 Many in the law enforcement profession might have traditionally viewed these data with cynicism; denial; or extraordinarily, as statistics relating collateral damage. A trajectory of acute or chronic symptoms often follows a traumatic situation. Co-morbid conditions associated with PTSD, such as depression and substance abuse, can also appear. A second and more consistent response to a life-threatening situation is peritraumatic stress, defined as an individual’s physical and psychological responses to a perceived life-threatening situation either during or immediately following the event.10 Peritraumatic dissociation, also a response to a life-threatening event, potentially involves “disturbed awareness, impaired memory, or altered perception during or immediately after a traumatic experience.”11 It is associated with “emotional numbing, reduced awareness of one’s surroundings, depersonalization, and amnesia,” and what has been described as “expectancy of threat.”12

Many variables account for the severity and longevity of these symptoms, which are themselves strong predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The relationship between peritraumatic dissociation and what Brian Marx and others refer to as experiential avoidance is, perhaps, most relevant to law enforcement.13 Experiential avoidance has been defined as “an unwillingness to remain in contact with aversive private experience (i.e., bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, memories, behavioral predispositions), as well as the steps taken to alter the form or frequency of those events and the contexts that occasion them.”14 In the context of a law enforcement setting, police officers and other first responders are exposed to significantly more incidents—and those of greater intensity—than the general population. As a result, potential responses to future critical incidents can include many symptoms associated with acute stress disorder and PTSD. The psychological and physical consequences of symptom development might result in physical risks to the officer and citizens in a deadly force encounter. Peritraumatic dissociation, altered perception, and experiential avoidance have the potential to negate departmental training and judgment. Despite reliable and valid assessment tools, certified academy instruction, and field training, peritraumatic dissociation, experiential avoidance, and undiagnosed PTSD are likely contributing factors of many deadly force encounters. Other contributors such as physical and cognitive panic, childhood trauma, and the degree of anticipated threat to the individual can significantly affect an officer’s response to a deadly force situation.15 In an effort to simulate life-threatening situations, police academies present scenarios that are intended to produce the peritraumatic stress responses in their students. Some recruits might exhibit extreme responses to these scenarios, which can lead to an extended evaluation or possible termination. In many cases, however, marginal responses result in passing grades with the probationary period and field training left to determine a young officer’s ability to respond to extremely stressful or life-threatening calls for service. The reality of police work can only be approximated through classroom and scenario-based training. Direct confrontation with deadly force situations by vulnerable officers can result in a disruption of cognitive functioning acquired through training and can trigger symptoms of panic and dissociation.16

 Central to this discussion is the question of what factors distinguish those officers who become disabled as a result of exposure to life-threatening situations and those officers who are able to respond with appropriate levels of force. The answer might be an aggressive review of an agency’s application process, with special attention to assessing psychological history and psychosocial evaluations. Additionally, police academies can benefit from employing scenario-based training from the recruits’ first week until graduation. Responses to use-of-force scenarios and the recruit’s ability to learn and utilize effective de-escalation techniques should be integrated into the curriculum and supported by the instructors. Efforts in the form of advisory boards, citizen police academies, and community forum might help humanize those men and women who have daily interaction with citizens. As previously noted, field training officers and supervisors can support training initiatives or sabotage them.

The “forget everything you learned in the academy” mantra can leave rookies with no foundation except what they hope to learn under immense pressure. Alternatively, inexperienced police officers might fall back to a personal repertoire of behaviors that are both inappropriate and potentially harmful for them. Police officers and leadership have a growing realization that internal or external Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) for personnel, both sworn and civilian, are now essential. It is imperative that, in addition to the criminal and departmental investigations and administrative policies and procedures following a use-of-force incident, a comprehensive debriefing is provided for the officers and collateral personnel. This debriefing is an opportunity to assess, in a confidential setting, possible contributory factors that, unless addressed, can contribute to future problems for the officer. Perhaps the most effective response to acute stress and PTSD symptoms is an active social support system beginning with the agency leadership. As police departments attempt to recruit men and women with high ethical standards, integrity, and emotional stability, individual characteristics, family background, and career stressors play a significant role in every citizen contact.17

In particular, in order to progress from the rotten apple−rotten orchard metaphor, one must recognize the extraordinary physical and psychological demands that are placed on an officer during every deadly force encounter.

In particular, in order to progress from the rotten apple−rotten orchard metaphor, one must recognize the extraordinary physical and psychological demands that are placed on an officer during every deadly force encounter. Organizational support in the form of mandatory confidential debriefing, available individual or family counseling (or both), and tactical assessment can be incorporated into agency policy. Explanations of deadly force encounters and resulting fatalities must look beyond the rotten apple−rotten orchard metaphor to include the physical and psychological stressors placed on law enforcement personnel and the support systems that should be fundamental components of every law enforcement agency.



1 Jeffrey Ian Ross, Policing Issues: Challenges & Controversies (Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2012), 135, citing the Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption (New York, NY: G. Braziller, 1973).

2 Maurice Punch, “Rotten Orchards: ‘Pestilence,’ Police Misconduct and System Failure,” Policing and Society 13, no. 2 (2003): 171–196.

3 T. R. O’Connor, “Police Deviance and Ethics,” 2005,

4 Jeffrey M. Jones, “In U.S., Confidence in Police Lowest in 22 Years, Politics,” June 19, 2015, Gallup,

5 John Connolly, “Rethinking Police Training,” The Police Chief 75, no. 11 (November 2008): 18.

6 Olga Bykov, “Police Academy Training: An Evaluation of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Police Academies,” Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science 2, no. 1 (2014), article 9.

7 Ronald H. Warners, “The Field Training Experience: Perspectives of Field Training Officers and Trainees,” The Police Chief 77, no. 11 (November 2010): 58–64,

8 Shira Maguen et al., “Routine Work Environment Stress and PTSD Symptoms in Police Officers,” Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease 197, no. 10 (October 2009): 754–760.

9 H. Javidi and M. Yadollahue, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 3, no. 1(January 2012).

10 John Briere, Catherine Scott, and Frank Weathers, “Peritraumatic and Persistent Dissociation in the Presumed Etiology of PTSD,” American Journal of Psychiatry 162, no. 12 (December 2005): 2295–2301.

11 Pamela McDonald et al., “The Expectancy of Threat and Peritraumatic Dissociation,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 4, no. 10 (December 2013).

12 Ibid.

13 Brian P. Marx and Denise M. Sloan, “Peritraumatic Dissociation and Experiential Avoidance as Predictors of Posttraumatic Stress Symptomatology,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 43, no. 5 (May 2005): 569–583; Deniz Fikretoglu et al., “Peritraumatic Fear, Helplessness and Horror and Peritraumatic Dissociation: Do Physical and Cognitive Symptoms of Panic Mediate the Relationship between the Two?” Behaviour Research and Therapy 45, no. 1 (January 2007): 39–47.

14 Marx and Sloan, “Peritraumatic Dissociation and Experiential Avoidance.”

15 Fikretoglu et al., “Peritraumatic Fear, Helplessness and Horror and Peritraumatic Dissociation”; Kate Johnson, “Childhood Trauma ‘Profound’ Predictor of PTSD,” Medscape Medical News, Psychiatry, April 17, 2012,; McDonald, et al., “The Expectancy of Threat and Peritraumatic Dissociation.”

16 Fikretoglu et al., “Peritraumatic Fear, Helplessness and Horror and Peritraumatic Dissociation.”

17 Larry E. Capps “Perspective: Characteristics of An Ideal Police Officer,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2014.