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No glamour when police are required to use deadly force

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Posted: Monday, March 8, 2010 12:00 am

Most people recall the incident at the county courthouse involving Detective Eric Bradley a year ago. A defendant stabbed Judge Cinda Fox during a break in the court proceedings.

Eric reacted instantly and, in an effort to save Judge Fox's life, mortally wounded the suspect. By all accounts Eric is a hero.

But what happened to Eric after the chaos in the courtroom settled down? What happens to any officer involved in a critical incident in which someone is seriously injured or killed?

It's absolutely nothing like television or the movies. It's not fun; it's not cool. The officer who pulls the trigger doesn't simply give a sarcastic one or two sentence statement to their boss, then ride off with their partner with a subtle grin on their face.

These life-changing events are extremely emotional for the officers, not to mention the dispatchers who were interacting with them on the radio as the dangerous situation unfolded. Everyone in the organization, from the records clerks manning the front counter to the volunteers shredding papers, gets a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs as the news that an officer has been involved in a fatal incident races through the building.

I've been involved in a few of these incidents over the years. What happens in the first few minutes after the shooting is seared in the officers' minds for years. Things like what the first arriving supervisors say to them, the looks on the faces of their fellow officers, or the sights and smells of the scene.

Moments after a shooting the Special Investigations Unit was involved in a few years ago, I felt it was important to gently pat each officer on the shoulder or the back and quietly ask them if they were OK. I was trying to reassure them and, in some way, reassure myself.

Their training had kicked in and they were busy giving first aid to the downed suspect, securing the area and looking for witnesses. They took a second to acknowledge me then went back to what they were doing. Other supervisors, officers, and emergency personnel arrived quickly and we relinquished the investigation to them.

Once the situation is stabilized, the officers involved in the incident are driven from the scene by another officer or supervisor. They are taken to a secluded area at the station out of the view of other employees. Supervisors make it a point not to embarrass an officer by taking the weapon used in the shooting from them in public. They are allowed to keep their weapons until they get to the station. Once there, they give their gun to a Department of Justice official for examination at a later date. Their duty weapon is quickly replaced with one from the department armory.

Police officer association officials are notified. Legal representatives arrive along with peer counselors. Chaplains respond just in case the officers need to talk with someone.

Officers find a quiet place to phone loved ones and tell them they are OK. News travels at lightning speed nowadays on the Internet and Twitter. A family member would rather hear from the officer themselves instead of from a friend who saw something on television about a Lodi officer being involved in a shooting. People assume the worst when they find out that way. All they remember from the news account are the phrases "Lodi officer … shooting … no further details at this time."

The officers are supposed to use the next few hours to gather their thoughts prior to being interviewed. Sometimes it takes a couple of hours, sometimes it takes a lot longer than that. They realize that somehow the shooting changed them forever. People look at them differently now. They make eye contact with the other officers who were at the shooting, knowing most civilians, most officers, will not understand what they just went through. That shared experience will bond them for the rest of their careers.

Fellow employees text or call to make sure they are all right. Others peek in the room and ask, "How you doing?" The officers might have a bite to eat or have a soda. Most are not hungry. Depending on the situation they might have had to give a blood sample for later analysis. They are dealing with the post-shooting adrenaline. They have a tough time sitting still. They walk around thinking, "Did that really happen? Was that really me?"

The word "surreal" is overused nowadays, but in these types of situations it's totally appropriate.

The waiting can last two hours or 12 hours. In something of this nature, the officer-involved critical incident protocol is invoked.

The protocol procedure was instituted in 1994 and involves all county agencies, including LPD. The goal is a fair and impartial investigation. Several investigators from the district attorney's office arrive along with evidence technicians from the Department of Justice. The D.A. investigators pair up with LPD detectives to form teams that will interview everyone who was on scene during the incident.

There were more than 50 people in Judge Fox's courtroom at the time of the shooting, so Detective Bradley was not interviewed until late in the evening. The investigations teams interview officers separately. That in itself is unsettling. The interviews are videotaped and recorded. One of your fellow LPD officers is sitting across the table from you asking questions.

Even more disconcerting is when the Department of Justice representative asks for your gun, then slowly counts all of the bullets left in the magazine. You hear the "click, click, click" as they peel each round off of the magazine. They are checking to make sure all the bullets from the officers on the scene are accounted for.

These teams will speak with witnesses, process the scene for evidence, and attend the autopsy. Their investigation can take months and the final product usually involves a very detailed report that takes up several large binders.

The officers finally get to go home and hug their relatives. Each officer deals with it differently. Most handle it positively. Unfortunately, the stress from these events has ended more than one career at our department. The key is the support the organization and the community gives them, from the first supervisors on scene to the counseling sessions to how a citizen treats them when they recognize them in a restaurant.

The effects of a critical incident last much longer than the time it takes to get to next week's episode.

Any comments, questions or advice for Behind the Badge can be e-mailed to Jeanie Biskup at jbiskup@pd.lodi.gov; mailed to Lodi Police Department, 215 W. Elm St., Lodi, CA 95240; or asked by phone at 333-6864.

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