Domestic Terrorism and U.S. Law Enforcement: Are We Truly Psychologically Prepared?

As we watched in disbelief as a terrorist suicide bomber destroyed the lives of countless young and innocent concert goers in Manchester, England, I paused to consider the psychological implications for American law enforcement if these types of attacks increase in our nation. Although U.S. law enforcement agencies work diligently and often successfully to combat domestic terrorism, the consensus seems to be not if, but when, it will occur again here. As expected, hundreds of police and other first responders rushed in to manage the aftermath of Manchester without a single regard for themselves or the potential long term emotional trauma they may experience due to their dedication. While we have certainly experienced similarly devastating events in the United States, there is increasing concern in the crisis field as to the true level of emotional preparedness as our global and political climate becomes more unstable.

I had a chance today to correspond with a former law enforcement officer and military service member who is currently stationed in the Middle East. He shared that a friend of his from the UK was attending the Ariana Grande concert with his daughter and described the scene as “horrible.” He furthered shared, as a dose of perspective, that his friend was also a career military soldier and therefore was not immune to the experience of violent death. His story further emphasized the true impact and emotional consequences and sacrifices of those who are the first responders in these types of terroristic events.

Although policing agencies at the local, state, and federal level train extensively in domestic terrorism preparedness, this typically involves crisis management, tactical, logistical, and medical scenario based approaches without necessarily the inclusion of the importance of the short and long term mental health of our responding officers. It is my hope that this article will encourage further discussion in effectively addressing these needs as well. The following are suggestions for consideration and preparation:

  1. Develop a critical incident stress management (CISM) team and provide advanced training in responding to the psychological aftermath of terrorist events. The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation offers this course.
  2. Include the CISM Mental Health Coordinator in the actual development of training scenarios so that the level of potential psychological trauma can be planned and assessed.
  3. Include the CISM team members in practical based hands on emergency management training scenarios. For example, include debrief opportunities to emphasize the importance of the following information and to provide CISM team members an opportunity to practice their skills as a central part of crisis management and psychological first aid.
Normal Reactions to a Critical Incident
  1. No one who responds to a terrorist event is untouched by it
  2. Profound sadness, grief, and anger are normal reactions to an abnormal event
  3. You may not want to leave the scene until the work is finished
  4. You will likely try to override stress and fatigue with dedication and commitment
  5. You may deny the need for rest and recovery time
  6. You may find it difficult to stop thinking about the event
  7. You may have nightmares about it or difficulty sleeping
  8. You may want to be alone or only with others involved in the event
  9. Physical complaints are very common; the body keeps the score
Signs That You May Need Stress Management Assistance
  1. Difficulty communicating thoughts
  2. Difficulty remembering instructions
  3. Difficulty maintaining balance
  4. Uncharacteristically argumentative or angry
  5. Difficulty making decisions
  6. Limited attention span
  7. Unnecessary risk-taking
  8. Tremors/headaches/nausea
  9. Tunnel vision/muffled hearing
  10. Colds or flu-like symptoms
  11. Disorientation or confusion
  12. Difficulty concentrating and loss of objectivity
  13. Easily frustrated and unable to engage in problem-solving
  14. Unable to let down when off duty
  15. Refusal to leave the scene
  16. Increased use of drugs/alcohol and unusual clumsiness
Ways to Help Manage Your Stress
  1. Limit on-duty work hours to no more than 12 hours per day and make work rotations from high stress to lower stress functions
  2. Make work rotations from the scene to routine assignments, as practicable
  3. Use counseling assistance programs available through your agency
  4. Drink plenty of water and eat healthy snacks like fresh fruit and whole grain breads and other energy foods at the scene and after the event
  5. Take frequent, brief breaks from the scene as practicable.
  6. Talk about your emotions to process what you have seen and done
  7. Stay in touch with your family and friends
  8. Participate in memorials, rituals, and use of symbols to express feelings
  9. Use physical exercise to help work through the stress and take care of your body through rest, relaxation, massage etc.
  10. Pair up with a responder so that you may monitor one another’s stress

This above information was produced at the Trauma Center, with the funding of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA), under a federal Anti-Terrorism Supplemental Grant (ATSG), to aid victims of and responders to the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks. It is not intended to replace professional support.

Tina Jaeckle, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., B.C.E.T.S., F.N.C.C.M., Associate Professor and Program Director, Criminology; Internship Coordinator, Sociology and Criminology; Department of Social Sciences; Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida

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