Forensic Psychologist breaks down police-involved shootings

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP

Psychologist Police

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with Bridgette Matter from Action New Jax to discuss police-involved shootings. She asked me the following questions.

After showing a series of videos, what do you notice about the officer body language, The suspect body language?

I observed both the officers and suspects to be afraid. I found the officers, despite being very calm under pressure, to still be fearful while at the same time trying to take control of a very dangerous situation. What was telling was when one officer said, “I can’t help you until we make it safe.”

When an officer shoots someone what kind of psychological trauma would they normally experience?

When an officer shoots someone they often have psychological trauma like someone going to combat, but they are not returning to base that night, where there is lots of support, and instead, they are returning home to their spouse and children. They are typically noticeably shaken, cannot calm themselves, experience nightmares, and flashbacks. Sometimes they feel okay just after the situation and sometimes not. Often they begin to become distressed about the situation sometime later when it triggers the memory. Like the military, officers are typically debriefed and given office duty until the situation is reviewed. Often the first night is difficult to come back down emotionally. If this continues, it is important to see a psychologist or other mental health professional with experience treating law enforcement professionals.

By the tone of their voice after the shooting has happened, what are you noticing about their voice and body language and overall reaction to what it’s just happened.

I observed that both the officers and the suspects are in a state of fight, flight or freeze. Officers are tasked with an admirable job. They run toward danger when everyone else is trying to escape it. 

In addition to these questions, we discussed other issues related to police shootings and the effects of such. We often focus so much on the suspects’ experience rather that the trauma and dangers law enforcement professionals face each day. It is unfortunate that the public does not see the body cam videos in their entirety, as I have the fortune of doing when participating in these stories, as more context is needed to truly fathom what occurs rather than watching a 15 second clip on the news.


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