Law Enforcement Use of Deadly Force Incidents
Helping Reduce the "Second Injury"

Mark C. Johnston, PhD


Lots of questions, lots of talk, a report and some slaps on the back. Then, first stop was the “C G Inn” for a few cold ones; next, the “Hat Tavern” for just one more. It turned into a few boiler makers, two more hours and who knows how many brain cells vanished in a wash of alcohol. Two a.m. and we helped him stumble up the back stairs to his apartment and into the arms of his sobbing wife, with nearby crying infant, to complete the scene.

The foregoing scenario describes what we thought was critical incident stress management, ala thirty plus years ago. It describes our efforts to console a fellow officer who had been working a N.J. Safe and Clean walking post, responded to a nearby bank robbery call and in an exchange of shots had wounded one of the perps.

Fellow officers who arrived at the scene wanted to know the details first hand and some superiors even demanded to know them. Some 3rd Degree, a hastily prepared report and a retreat to the warm tingling sensational tranquility that a few cold ones can facilitate after such a stressful incident.

A more dramatic scenario for me was in the 1980s that left a fellow squad member of our FBI, NY Office dead. Taking in the scene of his murder, still sitting behind the wheel with a couple of holes in his head and his life blood sapped from him to a sanguinary Jell-O on the cars upholstery sickened us. And, day after day the news kept showing the scene.

The following few days were spent hunting for his assailant. Tired, weakened, infuriated and frustrated we searched, and attended wake and funeral. A time in which we squad mates were treated like 2nd class citizens by some managers and even some fellow agents/cops for the still lurking judgments to be made even before a full operations critique had occurred.

It further saddened us when we shot and killed a family pet German Shephard only a few days later. The dog bolted out of a doorway and into an alley as we approached to execute a search warrant for our brother’s killer. The dog, blasted with at least three 9mm rounds from MP5s ran right back into the living room of the basement apartment. There it lay down, bubbling wound side up and died right there in front of mother, father and the whole damn family of children. The shooter wasn’t there! With sadness now enveloping some of us and ringing in our ears we left another tragic scene. A few hours later, another half sleepless night would follow.

An even more recent but thank God, less dramatic incident involved a cold December evening, driving to a Police Department Christmas party and ending up in the line of fire of a pistol firing crazed doper shooting at some apparent associate ner’-do- wellers. A shot fired in my direction, subsequent chase with more shots, some tense moments and ultimately the retrieval of the shooter’s pistol resulted. Upon arrival at the scene, my supervisor, observing blood on the ground nearby inquired as to my welfare. He said: “are you alright?”, “… that’s (referring to the blood) not yours or any of our guys (law enforcement)?” My reply respectively was: ‘yeah, I think so” and “No, its not”. To which my boss responded: “OK, see you at the Christmas party.”

Do any of the three scenarios seem to you to be an appropriate Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) type response to those involved? Well, you’re right, probably none. But we have learned an awful lot in the last few years in responding to and supporting those involved in shooting or other critical incidents. This is particularly true when it comes to the potential “Second Injury” (John C. Snidersich, Critical Incidents in Policing, FBI, 1991).

The “Second Injury”, which for many may be the more devastating, insidious and long lasting one, is that of the emotional/psychological reaction. Often, the “Second Injury” is exacerbated by the employee’s fear of sharing experiences subsequent to a critical incident. The fears that the Department or another agency may pursue adverse action in a use of deadly force incident, or fear of civil action, fear of blame, appearing weak or of some pre-conceived stigma, second guessing by peers, superiors and the public, tend to only exasperate the trauma. Even worse perhaps is the real ignorance of and/or misunderstanding of the potential for “Second Injury”, by managers, peers and even well meaning EAP folks or colleagues. Add to this the employee’s frustration with the slow process of adjudication (a case of mine took over eleven months), the sometimes natural tendency of some managers and peers to distance themselves from the law enforcement officer(s) involved, and the frequent perception of those involved and their families that the Department isn’t doing enough. Experience has often taught us, that frequently the worst part of a critical incident is not the critical incident itself but what happens subsequent, and the treatment of those involved, especially in light of possible expectation distortions on the part of those involved. Knowledgeable and practical compassionate responses by managers, peers, Employee Assistance and CISM personnel to law enforcement officers involved in the critical incident can indeed be critical.

Here’s how we react. We perceive a threat mentally; say a man with a gun, now the hypothalamus in our brain notifies the pituitary gland. From there an urgent message is transmitted chemically to the adrenal glands (just above each kidney) which then start pumping adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol (the big guy among stress hormones). The process occurs in the blink of an eye and is referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These hormones charge receptors in the brain and burn a memory of the threat, and possibly everything related to it (like sounds, smells, sights, etc.), in place. Now, depending on the officer’s personal history, the intensity and duration of the threat exposure, the memory is imprinted quickly, drastically and often permanently. This is done whether the officer’s perceptions are right, wrong, exaggerated, real or not. And this can be for any traumatic event, auto accidents, sexual assault, use of deadly force, etc. The God/Nature given process can help us react, ‘Fight or Flight’ style, and help us make the quick association between the threat and negative consequences immediately and in the future. But, it may be so drastically and indelibly seared into the memory as to drive us to dysfunction in career and later living.

The process can become a vicious loop too. We perceive a threat mentally, that initiates the physical response which in turn reinforces the mind. Sometimes, if left unchecked, unaltered or mitigated, the loop can become vicious, debilitating and in need of serious intervention

This hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal routing is not the end of the story either. The stress hormones entrench the memories of the emotionally significant event via the Amygdala, in our brain, and the factual content in the Hippocampus. However, an officer operating with a predominantly competent cognitive process before the critical incident may end up with an emotional (or feeling) dominant process during and after the incident. The result may sometimes mean a clinical Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The horrifying memories may have been stored with such intensity, a setting too high, that the mechanism that normally regulates this may be overridden and the ‘emotional’ can dominate, during and subsequent to the incident. It’s not good for most and extremely precarious for a law enforcement officer. Sometimes it can become a career and life disabling emotional hangover. The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation suggests that as many as 75%, of officers involved in the use of deadly force either leave or loose their career. Perhaps, as the Bob Dylan song goes: “some things are too hot to touch, the human mind can only stand so much…”, “…some of these memories we can learn to live with and some of them we can’t”. And, being a tough guy doesn’t always help either. Trying to stoically stop the process is tantamount to telling someone with dysentery to just use will power. In fact, the image armor that we sometimes wear may even impede healthy recovery, sort of like some of the less than healthy age old law enforcement remedies like alcohol and isolating, which often lead to even worse scenarios. When, real strength can be found in the supportive atmosphere of friends, family and professional associates.

Recent research at Harvard University has had some success with medical intervention in reducing Post Traumatic Stress and even PTSD. In 2002, victims of trauma, including auto accidents, medical emergencies, rape and other traumatic events, were given a beta blocker (propranolol). The victims treated with propranolol within six hours of arriving at the emergency room showed fewer signs of PTSD. The beta blocker apparently mitigates the extreme emotional imprint of the memory (amygdala) and may reduce the likelihood of it dominating the victim’s thoughts later. This is done hopefully without drastically altering the factual content (hippocampus). Though it proves no panacea to PTSD, it does demonstrate the concern for memories stored too intensely and offers hope in future research.

What can we do as peers, managers, organizations, chaplains and Employee Assistance Program staff (EAP) to help mitigate “Second Injury”? Preparation and prevention are certainly paramount. Indeed the one ounce pill of prevention is superior to the one pound suppository of cure. Orientation and training concerning the “Second Injury”, expectations, its signs and symptoms and practical/compassionate response by all of the above can be very helpful. Fast, practical and basically sound intervention practices can help dramatically. Of course, these are to be facilitated by trained personnel. But in the meantime there are some basics that responding peers and managers can employ to help minimize “Second Injury” to those involved. A succinct and handy check list for a post shooting incident, but which is easily adaptable to any traumatic event, can easily be prepared. The following example gleaned from the FBI, and other public agencies can even be made into a vehicle sun visor placard for easy and immediate access.


1. Ensure your safety and the safety of fellow personnel; notify any necessary emergency services, such as: medical, fire and police assistance.

2. Broadcast critical information to responding units, such as emergency/safety factors or hostile subjects.

3. Contact office/headquarters and advise of incident, personnel involved and location. Office/headquarters will make all additional necessary notifications, including EAP, as per agency policy.

4. When safe to do so, secure the scene and protect evidence, including weapons involved. Do not immediately surrender firearms to anyone outside your agency. Involved personnel should not take part in the investigation at scene or follow-up. If practical, immediately replace the law enforcement officer’s weapon, if surrendered.

5. As soon as practical, the on-scene commander is to direct that involved personnel should be insulated (not necessarily isolated) and/or removed form the scene (e.g., emergency room, headquarters safe area, etc.); medical evaluation/attention should be provided. The support and presence of a trained/experienced peer officer, chaplain, or EAP staff is strongly recommended.

6. Involved personnel should not prepare a report or make a statement to any authority until the individual has had sufficient time to regain composure. Early consultation with private legal counsel may also be appropriate under the circumstances.*
Managers and co-workers are encouraged not to ask involved person(s) specific details or release identities of those involved. If practical, management personnel are recommended to speak to other participating employees who are not directly involved in the incident.

(*Note: An agency may provide emergency interim legal representation, possibly limited to assessment of the officer’s ‘acting within the scope of his/her employment’ at the time of the incident. However, attorney-client privilege and/or conflict of interest issues may arise. It is therefore important to know your laws and facilitate access to private counsel before an emergency occurs.)

7. Responding managers are encouraged to instruct involved personnel to contact spouse and/or family pursuant to their well being. If, personnel are injured and unable to make such contact, management should consult with the employee as to whom he/she wishes to make contact and/or for provision of transportation for the spouse/family members.* Managers are also reminded, if possible, to communicate brief, practical explanations to involved personnel as to all significant directives and attempt to address the emotions of those directly involved.

(*Note: Managers should consult a prepared emergency notification list, if time and circumstances permit, for all employees under their supervision, including names and numbers of person(s) an employee would like to make such emergency notification to
spouse/family. Death notifications should be made by trained personnel and as per sound policy.)

8. Personnel involved in a critical incident, such as the use of deadly force, should be afforded administrative leave for emotional and physical well-being.

9. EAP and Chaplains should facilitate follow-up coordination for any support services for officer, spouse and family. This should include coordination with the officer’s co-workers. Ensure compliance with CISM S.O.P.s for all involved personnel.

10. Management, as soon as practical, should advise co-workers of status of situation (via Demobilization, Crisis Management Briefing or other crisis management tools, if warranted) and update as necessary.

11. Details and additional instructions, including on-scene investigation, critical incident response, officer involved care, etc. should be available via agency policy, general orders, or manual, etc.


Johnston, Mark C. (2006). FBI’S EAP NORTHEAST REGION QUICK GUIDE Federal Bureau of Investigation, Employee Assistance Unit, Washington D.C.

Lasley, Elizabeth Norton. (2007). “Memory Research Helps Tone Down What’s Best Forgotten”. “Brain Work The Neuroscience Newsletter”, The Dana Foundation, Vol. 17, No. 4, July-August 2007

Snidersich, John C. (1991). “Second Injury” Critical Incidents in Policing, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Behavioral Science Unit, Washington D.C.



Mark C. Johnston, Ph.D., has appeared before hundreds of government and private sector audiences nationwide, as a law enforcement and management Employee Assistance Program (EAP) professional, utilizing a motivational theme throughout. Recently retired from thirty years of law enforcement and as the FBI’s Northeastern U.S. EAP Manager, Mark managed fifty EAP Staff members serving approximately five thousand FBI employees. He is certified and holds membership in numerous professional associations, including the EAP Professionals Assn., the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and is Board Certified and a Diplomate in the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.

Mark received a Doctorate in 2002, from Honolulu, HI University, in Philosophy, emphasizing practical spirituality perspectives in Law Enforcement. His Master of Arts Degree was earned from Rutgers University, Criminology. He also received a Post Graduate Degree in Justice Management/Public Administration, from the University of Southern California, Washington, D.C. Public Affairs Center, and a BA (Poli. Sci./Ed.) from N.J.’s William Paterson University. His works: FBI Deployment Handbook, “A Guide for Individual, Families and Managers”, 2004; EAP Quick Guide, 2006; and “Law Enforcement Trauma and Stress, Minimizing Our “Second Injury”, have received wide acclaim and use. Mark authored “Spirituality, A Practical Law Enforcement Perspective”, a featured presentation at the national ‘Spirit of the Law’ Police Chaplains Conference, 2004.

For his volunteer work with children, Mark received the first “Judge William Webster Humanitarian Award” in Toronto, Canada, in 2001. Mark now lives in the greater Philadelphia area and is the Police In-Service Training Program Manager for the Anthony Canale Law Enforcement Training Center. He continues instructing, lecturing, writing, hosts a radio show and is currently working on chronicling personal law enforcement experiences and the sometimes “private price of public service”.