Recently, I was reading an autobiography of a state trooper. He talked openly about his experience with PTSD after two on-duty shootings and facing a lawsuit brought against him by the father of one of the decedents. His writing was gritty, angry and full of emotion. It was all him and all his point of view—until the end. The last chapters included observations from others, including an interview with his wife. What struck me about her segment was her sentiment that she knew her husband carried a gun. She just never thought he would use it.
My initial reaction was to wonder how she could think that. When you have a significant other that is a law enforcement officer, it is a given that they have certain duty equipment, for example, handcuffs, a bullet-proof vest, a baton, sometimes a Taser, pepper spray and a gun. He or she could use any or all of these items at any moment. It is unrealistic to think that someone with a lethal weapon will never actually use it. As I pondered this, I realized my thinking was erroneous. My mind wandered to my own husband. Thankfully, he had never had to make the choice which led to the death of a citizen in the line of police duty, but this doesn’t mean he had never killed anyone.
As soon as this thought struck me, I understood exactly what the Trooper’s wife meant. It was really only a façade that I understood deadly force could be used at any time. Let me explain.
Killing in the Name Of…
“So, what happened?” I asked my former-Marine, current law enforcement officer husband. Although I asked the question inwardly I cringed and didn’t really want to know. My husband spent eight years in the Marine Corps serving over-seas in a variety of capacities. One of which including walking a perimeter in Somalia.
“He wouldn’t stop,” my husband replied. “He just kept coming towards me.”
I don’t remember why we started talking about his time in Somalia and I certainly hadn’t had a specific outcome in my head when I asked that question commonly asked of combat veterans, “Have you ever killed anyone?” After his response, we just sat there in silence. I didn’t really want to know anything else and he didn’t seem to want to elaborate. Throughout the rest of the evening as we went about our lives, I found myself just looking over and catching glimpses of him. “He killed another person,” I thought to myself as I’d look up at him. I’m not sure what I thought I would see but in my mind I was having a hard time reconciling the person who he was before I knew this detail and the person he was afterwards. It was as if I expected him to look different. More like a killer I suppose.
I wondered what it felt like to take the life of another human being no matter how necessary and how justified. I literally could not imagine how he felt. All I knew is that somehow, deep down, I felt differently about him. It wasn’t necessarily a negative change. It was just a change. I viewed him in a new light. After years of psychoanalyzing my viewpoint, I realize I had developed a cautious respect for him. Regardless, I still couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the fact my gentle, soft-spoken warrior was a killer.
Deaths Affect the Whole Family
“Critical incidents can traumatize the relatives and partners of the officers involved just as severely as the officers themselves,” The Counseling Team International explains in “Law Enforcement Stress Program.” “Family members’ fear and shock are compounded by their ignorance of the event since they were not on the scene.” It’s hard to believe our loved ones may have to kill someone let alone when they have to do so. When a family member finds out their LEO has been involved in a critical incident, I imagine there is a certain amount of relief that comes when he or she finds out their loved ones was on the right end of the gun. It’s the myriad of confusing, often contradictory feelings after the relief that can be stressful. Then as a significant other is trying to reconcile and work through their own feelings about the incident, they are needed to help their officer recover from the event as well.
Family members of an officer involved in an on-duty death should seek support for themselves and their officer. If their agency offers family critical stress debriefing, participate if possible. Utilize counseling to help sort through how you are feeling about the event and about your officer. Take care of yourself. Talk to others. Lean on your support systems. Recognize signs that your officer is not processing the situation in a healthy manner and encourage him or her to seek support. Recognize that your officer does not have to die in the line of duty for the job to have a serious emotional impact. Having to take the life of another regardless of the situation comes with mental and emotional consequences. Often the event creates moral or spiritual conflicts. Help your officer be aware that although they train for the potential case they might have to kill someone, it is not expected that the event will be just another day in the life of a police officer. This is an unusual event with unusual consequences. Help each other.
During our time together, my husband never had to kill anyone while in a law enforcement capacity. I did not have to witness and deal with the emotional aftermath of this kind of event. By the time we were married, my husband had enough time between his killing and the present to have worked through some things in his own head. I didn’t have to be that partner who goes through the chaos alongside my LEO spouse. I didn’t have to watch the media vilify him. I was blissfully safe from seeing his agency put him on administrative leave and investigate him for doing his job. I didn’t suffer with him through the feelings of isolation. His stress while running the situation through his head over and over trying to figure out if somehow it could have been different had been long since processed. I was lucky although I still found myself stealing a glimpse of the man I loved every time the thought he had taken the life of another crossed my mind.
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About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.