Shots Fired – the Effects of Critical Incidents on Mental Health

critical incident

Warning: this post contains details some may find distressing.

There I was, sitting in the front passenger seat of the div van, senses tingling and yet so numb. I had been separated from the investigation going on around me, awaiting the instructions of the patrol senior sergeant who was attending. Critically, I replayed the incident in my head constantly, picking apart what had happened and my actions. All I wanted to do was close my eyes and go to sleep, but that would not happen for another full day.

Looking back on it now, this was the beginning of the end of my police career, although I didn’t know it at the time.

About an hour earlier, I was working night shift, patrolling in a local shop area when my partner and I were tasked to attend a hot aggravated burglary, with multiple offenders armed with firearms. Children were present in the house and the details of the situation were vague.

These types of incidents were exhilarating early on in my career, however, I quickly realised that calls like these were usually messy or a bunch of lies.  Vague or little information, firearms involved, children caught in the middle of a dispute between two unknown parties. It could be all or nothing. Nine times out of ten these incidents are blown out of proportion by an over-excited complainant who has watched too many episodes of COPS.

However, this one felt different, more information was coming through as we made our way quickly towards the address. The offenders were looking for a male who lived there, but he was not present. I had requested a backup unit, however our usual support van and patrol sergeant were unavailable, processing an intoxicated driver.

Detectives from an afternoon crime unit, who were still working, monitored the call and volunteered to assist. I nominated a rendez-vous point away from the address in an intersecting street.

At the RV point, we needed to don our vests, awaiting the backup unit. This was in the days before loading-bearing vests were available as compulsory operational equipment.

As I got out of the van, I heard the sound of car engines revving and a very distinct pop-pop in the darkness, followed by a zip in the air very close by, causing me to flinch.

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I ran to the rear of the van, whilst calling into my radio, “Shots fired at our location” and rushed to secure my vest, realising that the two vehicles were approaching us at high speed.

The vehicles appeared out of the darkness of the side street in a blur. To this day, I forget the make or model of the first car, I just remember the driver’s eyes wide as dinner plates as he pulled up in front of our van. His relief, at seeing us, was evident. My focus went to the second vehicle, a white Nissan Skyline, which had been chasing him. As the Skyline passed my position, I was looking for the driver face for possible identification, however, my eyes fixated on the gun barrel, pointed out of the window in my direction.

Time stopped. This was the moment that is burned into my memory and haunts me when I recall the incident. A moment when I wished I had told everyone I loved how much they meant to me recently. No amount of operational training can prepare you for the realisation that fast-moving lead could be heading your way. It is the most uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability that I have ever had, more than being hit, more than being choked, more than being capsicum sprayed and fighting to arrest an offender whilst struggling to breathe. My fear was at its limit, and I instinctively raised my hand to somehow shield myself from what was coming, but there was no way I was going without a fight.

I drew my firearm and fired a single shot at the gun in the Skyline as I moved to cover behind the side of the van. The Skyline accelerated away erratically, the driver clearly rattled by what had happened. I called his direction of travel for other approaching units.

The moments immediately after this seemed to last forever, as I watched the vehicle accelerate away and I realised I could hear my pulse in my ears, my spine and neck felt electrified and I was gasping for air as I spoke into my radio. The stress response was almost overwhelming, but I couldn’t stop.

The threat wasn’t over.

My attention immediately returned to the driver of the first vehicle, he was out on the nature strip and mobile phone to his ear, talking to someone at the original address. He informed us that two offenders were still at the house.

On my radio, I heard another local van initiate a pursuit with the Skyline. I informed the operator about the offenders still present at the address and asked for an ETA on backup.

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Within minutes the detectives were at the RV, and in a co-ordinated manner, we approached the address and secured the scene. The remaining offenders had fled on foot upon hearing the shots in the nearby street, and escaped arrest on the night.

Recalling this now in such detail, I still get hot, sweaty and shaky. The overwhelming tears no more come as this scene has played out in my head so many times now, that I am accustomed to the uncomfortable symptoms that this recollection presents to me. My concentration doesn’t leave as much as it used to and I have learned to live outside of my comfort zone, both awake and in my nightmares.

The rest of the night was a write-off, a blur, tied up with reports, statements, ethical standards review, briefings, briefings, briefings… Did I mention briefings? Everyone up the chain wanted to hear the situation first-hand. I felt like a suspect, but without the handcuffs and caution and rights. No matter how competent or justified your actions were in such extreme circumstances, no one will say you were right in what you did. By the time I left the station after 8 am, I was already wishing that I had not been on that night shift.

Never again did I sleep soundly without the aid of a prescription.

© Triggered, 2017

 

6 thoughts on “Shots Fired – the Effects of Critical Incidents on Mental Health

  1. Reading that makes me excited, sad and downright angry all at once. No one appreciates the work, responsibility and thankless efforts that go into day to day policing. This could and can happen to anyone at anytime. Thank god you’re here to talk about it and share a beer with at The Deck.

  2. Well done matey. I know this must have been hard for you to write about. I could always rely on you, and still can. Really was a shame what happened in the aftermath.. we lost a good man. Catch up again soon man ok?

  3. Good therapy to be able to share. Well done! As a 15 year frontline veteran of the job I know only too well the ravages of ptsd and alcohol abuse. There are ways to near in complete healing and a good nights sleep. The road is tough but well worth it. Giving up alcohol was the best thing I have ever done and there is good help and support around to achieve sobriety. Without true sobriety the ptsd will keep you locked up. Sobriety coupled with some great therapies to deal with the root causes of you ptsd will release you into a quality of life that you have not known for sometime. Keep the sharing going and never give up!

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