Collateral Damage Control

An officer with a headache is no big problem, but an officer who can't multi-task may not be able to do the job.

Such training will help to identify those officers who need retraining in police use-of-force concepts, but it may also help to identify the walking wounded--those suffering from the effects of hidden brain injury. The prevalence of improvised explosive devices, especially in the Iraq war, means that thousands of soldiers have been exposed--some repeatedly--to the effects of bomb blasts. These roadside bombs can cause brain trauma that is not immediately evident, but is nonetheless real and not quickly healed. Some estimate the actual incidence of traumatic brain injury to be as high as 150,000, although official reports put it at around 20,000--but that only counts injuries discovered on the battlefield.

Many of these injuries go undiscovered because the symptoms can vary widely and are often subtle. Similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome, symptoms of hidden brain trauma comprise a mixed bag of physical, emotional, and mental problems including headache, nausea, inability to concentrate, irritability, jumpiness, short-term memory problems, impaired judgment, and inability to multi-task. Many of these are also symptoms of fatigue from shift work or too much overtime, unmanaged job stress, or simple burn-out. A vacation may resolve the effects of shift work or job stress, but it won't help a brain injury. The effects can take a year or more to resolve--or even be permanent – we don't know yet. Often these wounded soldiers do not themselves realize they're hurting. When there's no blood to be seen and they get the go-ahead from the medics to return to duty, they just assume they're ok and often don't make the connection between what they're experiencing and the explosion that left no visible scar.

An officer with a headache is no big problem, but an officer who can't multi-task may not be able to do the job. An officer who cannot concentrate or whose judgment is impaired may endanger others. Combine the potential problems caused by military use-of-force training with those resulting from hidden brain injury, and you're looking at a train wreck waiting to happen.

What can we do? We can use re-entry training as a vehicle to help identify veterans whose combat experience has left hidden wounds. By building scenarios for re-entry training that require multi-tasking or close judgment calls, we may be able to identify officers who are not yet ready to return to the street. When we find an officer who may have an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury, we can then ensure that he or she receives an appropriate medical assessment, as well as needed treatment, counseling, or other assistance.

The point is not to add further burdens to veterans who have already borne more than their share. We owe returning soldiers a debt of gratitude for their service, not an overdose of stress from putting them back on the street too soon. War and policing, while not the same thing, do share some aspects in common. Both demand intensity and focus, both extract a mental and physical toll, and both are high-stakes endeavors. Officers forced onto the street too soon endanger themselves, their partners, and the department they serve.

Let's provide well-designed scenario-based re-entry training and assessment to ensure that our brothers and sisters in arms do not themselves become collateral damage in a war they so gallantly fought on our behalf.

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