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Lessons Learned: Practical Tips For Overcoming The Challenges Of An OIS

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Part 2 of a 2-part series

The suspect Tactical Ofcr. Kurt Kezeske was after had just stabbed his girlfriend in the neck and chest so viciously that when she fled their residence and collapsed in a snow bank, she bled to death in moments.

Kezeske shoved open the kitchen door, and there he was, 3 feet away, drenched in blood. The suspect raised his knife against the officer, and Kezeske fired 2 fast rounds from his M4 carbine. Hit in the chest, the man fell dead at the officer’s feet. Kezeske had to kick the body off his legs.

It was the second time in 2 years that Kezeske had used deadly force against a violent, threatening offender. His wife had warned him after the first time that if he was ever in another shooting, she’d leave.

“We take care of threats on the street on autopilot,” Kezeske observed recently. “It’s what happens to us afterward that’s often trickier.”

Kezeske, a member of the Tactical Enforcement Unit for Milwaukee PD, was 1 of 6 police survivors of lethal encounters in Wisconsin who talked candidly about their aftermath experiences during a day-long class on debriefing procedures last month [5/09] at the Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee, WI. Along with 2 instructors who’ve been associated with dozens of OISs, they offered their hard-won opinions about what helps and what hurts officers who are grappling to restore equilibrium to their lives after killing an assailant.

In Part 1 of this series [Transmission #123, sent 5/22/09 — Click here to read it in the FS News Archive], we explored 7 action points that those who’ve “been there” said departments should consider in making the post-shooting process easier to endure. Today, we look at what you can do to help yourself.

PERSONAL RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Be honest with yourself about deadly force.

Surviving the aftermath starts with mental preparation and commitment before the shooting. “Can you kill someone?” Instructor Bill Skurzewski, a retired lieutenant with Milwaukee’s tac unit, asked officers in the audience. “Can you kill a kid, a 10-year-old active shooter, maybe a neighbor? Can you shoot someone in the face to stop a threat?”

Because of where they work (“nothing ever happens here”), some officers are convinced they’ll never face that decision, so they have not dealt with the issue beforehand. “If you haven’t thought about it and haven’t accepted that you can do it and can live with it, then you may hesitate when you can’t afford to or you may struggle for peace of mind afterward,” Skurzewski said.

“Killing may be necessary, appropriate, and honorable, an integral part of the job. If someone points a gun at you, your response should be swift and deadly. There’s no grey area. If you have any doubt about that at all, find another profession.”

2. Educate your family in advance.

Muskego Ofcr. Jim Murphy described a positive change in family relationships after he fired fatal rounds into a threatening knife wielder. “My wife won’t let me go out the door now without hugging and kissing me, my kids too, because they never know what might happen,” he said.

But other survivors reported marriages that were strained or shattered in the wake of gunplay, often, it seemed, because spouses had been naïve about the dangers of the job.

“Because I work in a suburb, my wife thought I was just chasing dogs and writing speeders. She never worried about me getting killed,” explained Wauwatosa Sgt. David Moldenhauer, who fatally shot an elderly man who pointed a shotgun at him on a SWAT call. “The biggest thing I had to overcome was the look in her eyes. She has never looked at me the same after that, although this is getting better with time.”

Kezeske said his wife, a county prosecutor, “bought into the Hollywood fantasy” that he’d always come home unscathed, too. After his second shooting, she didn’t answer his phone calls for 6 hours. “She didn’t want to deal any more with being scared. Our marriage spiraled out of control.” They’re now in the process of getting divorced.

“I didn’t educate her,” he laments.

In addition to the harsh possibilities of the street, he recommended that family members also be advised in advance about the post-shooting process, including psychological and physical stress symptoms the involved officer may experience. Observing you every day, your family can sound early warnings if negative reactions start becoming worrisome.

3. Watch your mouth at the scene.

“The media will probably be around, and they have very good cameras, very strong microphones, and very powerful telescopic lenses,” reminded Ofcr. Brent Smith of Mequon PD, who killed a suspect pointing a rifle at a fellow officer on a domestic. “You don’t want them picking up on any conversations about the shooting.”

Also remember that your remarks that are overheard by other officers won’t be protected by confidentiality in legal proceedings that may evolve.

Instructor Mike Kuspa, a sergeant and firearms trainer retired from Milwaukee PD, recalled an officer commenting after a shooting: “I don’t feel nothin’. It was like going deer hunting”—a reckless admission that could have boomeranged disastrously on him and his agency.

In line with Force Science Research Center advisors, Kuspa advised that you limit the information you convey prior to meeting with an attorney. Any account you give at the shooting location, he said, should be focused primarily on identifying the crime scene (“how much of the area needs to be secured”) and protecting public safety (“ensure that the scene is secure and suspect/s are in custody”).

After his shooting, Smith said, he gave his sergeant only a “very, very basic” preliminary synopsis of what happened. They talked for no more than 60-90 seconds.

4. Consider consulting outside professionals.

Seeking the help of a lawyer in preparing your statement and of a mental health professional in debriefing emotionally after a shooting are givens. But be selective.

If you automatically accept the services of an attorney your union provides, you may end up with someone who is top-notch in labor law but not necessarily well-versed in the nuances of OIS investigations, Kuspa cautioned. “You want the best-equipped lawyer in your corner.”

With psychological counselors, empathy with the law enforcement perspective is important, and so is confidentiality. A counselor who works for your agency may be obligated to report back to it, too. “When I debriefed with a department-hired counselor, I was not honest at all,” Kezeske admitted. Consequently, the time spent was of little value.

“A privately consulted psychologist or other trained counselor tends to have somewhat stronger confidentiality,” Kuspa said. Whomever you see, clarify the confidentiality issue at the outset. “This is going to be an officer’s No. 1 concern.”

A private counselor may also provide a more comfortable setting for your session(s). Some officers in consulting department-employed therapists have had to report to the same mental health facility where they’ve delivered EDPs for evaluation and commitment, Kuspa said.

Regarding legal and psychological aid, “know exactly where you stand and what your rights are before you get into a shooting,” Skurzewski urged. “You need to be smart when this happens. There’s no place for a dumb cop any more.”

5. Tend to your loved ones.

You may be absorbed in your personal concerns after a shooting, but remember that others who are close to you may need your attention as they deal with their own consequences of the incident.

Smith made a point of telling his children’s teachers what had happened and asked that she “keep an eye on them to be sure other kids didn’t hammer on them.” He wanted what they heard about his shooting to come from him and he conferred with his pastor on how best to describe to them what he’d experienced.

Moldenhauer made certain that he told his wife about his shooting—and confirmed that he was ok—before she heard it on the news, where initial reports are likely to be sensationalized, inaccurate, and incomplete. “I didn’t want my family to get the news from anyone but me,” he said.

Milwaukee Det. Jasemin Pasho, who’d shot an assailant who threatened her after disarming her partner, had an entire extended family to tend to. Her mother took to praying with unrelenting fervor, her father was convinced that she would be sent to prison as part of a departmental conspiracy, and “half my cousins” were in denial that she was even a cop, much less that she had come close to being killed.

Her family’s anxiety added to her stress and feelings of guilt (her father had a heart attack just before the inquest), but she considered it essential to do what she could to ease their pain since she was the only person who could speak with full knowledge of the incident and intimate familiarity with their sensitivities.

6. Reaffirm your actions.

Kuspa noted that he had been involved in 26 OIS investigations in his career. “In every one, the officer thought he or she did something wrong.” It’s inevitable, Skurzewski added, that you will “question whether there was another way” to resolve the situation you were caught in.

The lawsuit(s) that most likely will be filed, replete with accusations great and small, may only increase your self-doubt. But, said Kuspa, “Even the most righteous shooting will probably generate a lawsuit. Some family member will want money for the person you killed, whether they liked him, loved him, or hated him.”

In a bit of reverse psychology, Clinton Ofcr. Kim Rau, who killed a homicidal suspect during a domestic, started playing “what if” games in which she imagined what could have gone worse in her situation. That helped affirm that she’d taken the right actions.

Re-examining what happened with an eye toward improving future performance is healthy and positive. But allowing yourself to become mired in endless remorse and recrimination is self-destructive and can lead to such sabotaging behavior as alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide.

Perhaps you could have done better. Probably you will do better the next time around. But for now, remember this: In the big picture, free of nit-picking details, the chances are overwhelming that you did the right thing

Pasho finally reached that conclusion via a torturous route. Her assailant was so close when she shot him that his blood sprayed her face. “I’m a poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “I have experienced every symptom in the books. I can still smell and taste the blood of the guy I killed as I talk to you today. It will never go away. I don’t know why, but I’m ok with it.

“Would I shoot someone again? No problem. He deserved to be 6 feet under.”

7. Bring meaning to your ordeal.

One way the survivors on the panel do that is by repeating their stories to other officers. Pasho explains: “I want someone to learn something positive from what I went through. I hope that every time I do this, someone grabs something that helps them through difficult times. That gives meaning to what happened to me.”

Kuspa commended the survivors for their resilience and ended the day with these remarks to LEOs in the audience:

“You will wake up tomorrow at 0-dark-30. You will strap on that gun and that vest and you’ll go out there, able to do whatever needs to be done.

“Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth…and you have front row seats!”

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