I’m going to preface this note with an acknowledgement that some people will probably be upset with me for even discussing this topic, let alone trying to give some guidance on it. I’ve already been told this is a “third-rail” subject and there’s just no way to talk about it without making some people mad. So be it.
Our country is winding down involvement in a war that has gone on for more than a decade, cost thousands of lives and exposed hundreds of thousands to the horrors of combat. The returning veterans are heroes. They stepped up when they didn’t have to and took the fight to the enemy, regardless of the personal cost. We owe our military personnel a great deal: They stood in the gap for us, just as police officers regularly stand in the gap for their communities.
Unfortunately, prolonged combat service has left many of our nation’s finest young adults with mental and physical scars that will last a lifetime. For a limited group, they’ll have great difficulty coping. For a very small number of them, their experience and stress will cause significant conflicts with law enforcement.
Just a few hours into 2012, U.S. Park Ranger Margaret Anderson was killed by a troubled Iraq War veteran who opened up with a rifle before Anderson had a chance to get out of her car. She had tried to stop him after he drove through a tire-chain checkpoint. This incident is shared only as an example of how a relatively low-level encounter with a mentally ill, combat-experienced person with a rifle can be instantly deadly.
Whether a domestic violence incident or a homeless person acting in a threatening manner, officers need to be aware of the fact that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—particularly with a combat veteran—may present an extreme danger to police officers.
Important: I’m not saying every veteran is a risk. To the contrary, they’re an asset to our country and many will transition from military service to public safety because they’re wired to serve and embrace both discipline and challenge. However, if a person skilled in the art of combat is having mental health issues that are manifesting themselves in violent or bizarre behavior, law enforcement is likely to be called. If that same person perceives responding officers as a threat, the resulting encounter could be deadly.
I was moved to write this after having an in-depth discussion with a military chaplain who works with vets experiencing mental health issues. As a result of that conversation, following are some suggestions that may help in these difficult situations:
As much as possible, know what you’re dealing with. Premise history is invaluable. Dispatchers should be alert for any indication the person is a combat veteran and/or has been dealing with post-traumatic stress and make responding officers aware. There should be inquiry as to the presence of weapons and if the answer is “yes,” ask what type of weapons. Rifles are particularly deadly to cops and assault-type rifles combined with combat-induced mental health issues should be a cautionary red flag in any response.
When talking to a person suffering from PTSD, it often helps to emphasize the love and caring of family. Struggling vets often live with close family members and acknowledging this support in the vet’s life can be reassuring. It also helps if a vet can identify with a responding officer, so give thought to those who may be able to connect because of previous military service. This may establish a bond that minimizes the perception of threat. As is practical, think in terms of reducing overt indication of an armed offensive.
Finally, as much as profiling is often taboo, here are my subjective observations: a) female veterans have never been a problem; b) although African Americans have disproportionately high representation in the military, they’re seldom involved in the type of incident discussed here; c) the at-risk age group seems to be under 30.
I think the readers of this publication are smart enough to put these comments into proper context without overreliance on them as absolutes. Regardless, I stand ready to be corrected and will share any documented data to the contrary.
Threats to law enforcement can come from anyone, anywhere at any time. That’s the nature of the business. However, we have an obligation to proactively consider threat indicators as they emerge and that’s how this month’s note is intended—nothing more, nothing less. Stay safe out there.