Collateral Damage Control

Two headlines in USA Today tell the story: "Reservists back in police jobs raise concerns" and "Combat brain injuries multiply." Together, they point to a challenge that will affect law enforcement for years to come. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of their heavy use of reserve and National Guard troops, have already taken a toll on American policing. Many agencies across the country find the thin blue line even thinner as officers have been called up to active duty from reserve and guard units. Extended deployments and repeat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have only worsened the problem. Now, what should bring relief--the troops returning home and cops-turned-soldiers returning to the beat--instead may bring unanticipated problems.

Much as we describe ourselves as "warriors," use combat terms in training, and outfit our SWAT teams with military-style gear, cops aren't soldiers and policing is not war. But increasingly, policing and war take place in similar surroundings, with no easy way to tell the good guys from the bad. That combination makes for potentially tragic results when veterans return to policing at home.

The purposes of war and policing are different. War is undertaken to defeat an enemy, primarily by killing enough people and destroying sufficient resources that the enemy can no longer continue to fight. Law enforcement in the U.S. is intended to keep the peace, by preventing crime, containing criminals, and protecting the constitutional rights of all persons--including the criminals. The different purposes dictate different rules of engagement. In war, collateral damage--the unintended killing and wounding of non-combatants--is expected and condoned, although regretted. Very often the unspoken rule is "shoot first, and ask questions later." That makes good sense in war. Most of the time when you encounter the enemy, other people in the immediate vicinity are likely to be enemy as well. You often cannot run the risk of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

In policing, collateral damage is not tolerated. In fact, we set up very strict limitations on when an officer can use deadly force, and even stricter limits on the use of a firearm. We require (with rare exceptions) that an officer achieve target isolation before pulling the trigger. In other words, the officer must be reasonably sure that his or her bullet will strike only the intended person, and not an innocent bystander. An officer who plays fast and loose with those restrictions can expect civil and criminal charges will swiftly follow.

We know that the effect of training is magnified when accompanied by an emotional punch. What greater emotional punch can there be than war? When our soldiers come home, we will have to retrain them for law enforcement work. Some agencies are recognizing this and developing re-entry training. Often this includes interviews with psychologists, time at the firing range, and refresher courses on use of force. Important as these steps are, returning veterans may need more. It's one thing to make a shoot/don't shoot decision about a paper target at the firing range; it's quite another to make the same decision in a real confrontation--especially when you have a year or more of daily "training" in a combat zone.

We need to deal with this issue on two levels. First, we need to acknowledge its existence and potential impacts and train our trainers in that regard. Then we need to expose returning soldiers to carefully designed simulations that will both help retrain them and help training staff assess their readiness for the street. Just as we do for beginning officers, we should develop progressively more complex simulations for re-entry training; culminating in realistic, highly contextual situations. Officers may be able to handle the easier scenarios, but when pushed to respond automatically, may revert to their military mindset in making use-of-force decisions. And we should make sure to include some non-use-of-force scenarios, as well. After all, 99% of the time, officers do not even threaten to use force in their public contacts. Officers need to be able to choose an appropriate response and switch gears rapidly as the situation dictates.

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.