“How do you tell your children you were involved in a shooting,” a friend asked knowing I had a horrifying experience with the issue.
His challenging question made me reach deep so I would have something worthwhile to offer. Since about 27 percent of all officers will fire their weapon during their career, with many officer involved shootings (OIS) resulting in great bodily injury, the industry is rather mute regarding the manner in which such details are shared with loved ones; particularly children.
A Lesson in Pain
First, let me tell you how NOT TO DO IT based upon my personal experience. Do not let children—regardless of age—overhear conversations not meant for their ears.
My adult son Jordan outlines our “lessons learned” in his first-person account through the eyes of a nine-year-old child; “MY DAD WAS NEARLY KILLED WHEN I WAS 9-YEARS-OLD … THIS IS MY STORY.“ If you read it, you’ll perhaps have a laugh and a cry at my/our expense.
Now that I’ve cautioned how not to do it—as if it were rocket science—let me offer some things for consideration, because, just like the OIS is multi-faceted, so is the aftermath when maintaining emotional stability in the family.
Consider Family Dynamics
When discussing an OIS with children you need to have a realistic grasp on family dynamics. For instance, what is the relational health of your family? Do you—the police officer—share portions of the profession with your spouse and children? If so, to what degree do you relay vocational details? Moreover, is job content dispensed based upon that which is age appropriate? Do you keep your experiences in context or provide a vanilla flavored overview?
I often discussed work at home … not the specifics of the R-rated blood and guts stories, or the sultry details of the X-rated chronicles, but the day-to-day encounters with a glimpse of the newsworthy events in a PG/PG-13 narrative.
Prior to the fatal OIS I was involved in, I considered my home to be relationally healthy. Our nuclear family—Dad, Mom, three children ages 13, 11, and 9 at the time of the 2002 shooting—had an abundance of warm, family interaction. My wife and I went to great lengths to ensure our home was a safe place, full of emotional security for our children. Part of this recipe included putting to practice our faith in God as well as great friends who poured love into our household.
Moreover, I often discussed work at home … not the specifics of the R-rated blood and guts stories, or the sultry details of the X-rated chronicles, but the day-to-day encounters with a glimpse of the newsworthy events in a PG/PG-13 narrative. On occasion when I was involved in a life taking/saving event, I expressed a limited view of what occurred.
It gave them a realistic, albeit sterile, perspective; something I thought was important to possess.
While I’ve heard many cops say, “I don’t share anything at home,” my methods worked in our family. It gave them a realistic, albeit sterile, perspective; something I thought was important to possess. Furthermore, openly discussing law enforcement activity in the home provided ample opportunity to teach life-lessons. Consequently, “Exhibit A” was represented by something I had just experienced at work. Hence, it always drove home the point.
Managing the News
Regardless of prior decisions to be an open book or clamshell regarding work, being involved in an OIS will come out. It’s inevitable. There will be outside investigators swarming the department, shooting review boards, inquisitions, internal affairs, etc.
It is better to “drive the news” than have it steer you into the side of a mountain.
Ultimately, someone with a law degree—reviewing mounds of reports and evidence—will determine if the use of force was justified. The burden of this process is not something to stuff in a bag or hide in the closet. While the officer cannot control “the process,” he or she is responsible for disseminating details to a few chosen loved ones because it will alter their norm … BIG TIME. Therefore, it is better to “drive the news” than have it steer you into the side of a mountain.
The Shoe Is on the Other Foot
When a police officer is involved in a shooting, the “shoe is on the other foot.” Rather than investigating the actions of another, the officer is now being investigated. And it is perhaps the most uncomfortable feeling he or she will experience in the business. As a result, it will impact the interpersonal dynamics both on and off duty. That is why cops need to formulate a strategy to cope with the new experience.
An Island Is a Lonely Place
An island will be a lonely place for the police officer who chooses to “stuff it.” I recommend that officers weigh the pros and cons of these decisions with mentors, peer support, and professional counselors. While I’m not advocating that cops share their experiences with the world, there is wise counsel in a close circle of trusted advisers. With the exception of the rare officer who engages in multiple shootings during a career, the experiences following an OIS are new and unique. Therefore, any person who finds himself or herself in this category would do well to reach out to qualified listening ears.
How to Tell Your Children About the Shooting
So returning to the basic question; “How do you tell your children you were involved in a shooting?” … Or do you defer the news?
As you can imagine, these are not easy questions to answer. Clearly, the variables—age, level of maturity, emotional disposition, coping mechanisms—play a major role in answering these questions. The best method in one set of circumstances might be combustible in another. That is why wise counsel and advice regarding the specific circumstances is essential. Notice I said, “wise counsel,” not simply the opinion of a charlatan whose self-advice has proven constantly destructive in his or her life.
There is no greater attribute to help protect our children from ghoulish attacks than a security blanket of love.
Finally, whatever method you choose, marinate it in love. Children receive cues from their parents—positive and negative. When one parent has experienced a life-altering event, there will be a domino effect. For this reason the responsible adult needs to help the child maintain a sense of security.
Of my three children, two were not phased following the OIS. They felt almost no impact. However, instability came crashing down on my youngest son as he latently thought my life remained in grave danger. It took weeks to diagnose and months to restore the sense of security he required. That is why I believe there is no greater attribute to help protect our children from ghoulish attacks than a stabilizing security blanket of love.
– Jim McNeff
(Feature image: My granddaughter Dakota posed with me just prior to my 2012 retirement.)
Jim worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-eight years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations.