Being a law enforcement officer is admirable. Police officers put their own lives in risk to defend the lives of their community members. Unfortunately, part of the job involves seeing distressing incidents. Whether they are involved personally or a witness, these events can take a toll – it’s only human and doesn’t imply weakness.

Because it’s known that a law enforcement career is stressful and every day presents a possibility of a critical incident, discussing how to work through or even prevent line of duty trauma is necessary. Seeking help must be a part of every agency’s culture, reducing the number of officers who feel “weak” for requiring assistance.

What is Trauma and How Does it Affect Us?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is a response to a negative event such as an accident, death, rape, or natural disaster. Even if a person is not directly involved in the incident, they could experience trauma simply from viewing it. It is possible to be traumatized after even hearing a story of what happened to someone. Anyone can be traumatized – even those who are not first responders.

After a traumatic event, officers may experience little to no symptoms at all. Everyone reacts to a traumatic situation differently, and there is no right or wrong response. If you see or are involved in a terrible situation, you may experience no signs of trauma – and that does not mean something is wrong with you.

Officers who have a negative impact may experience flashbacks and emotional changes. The APA also mentions the possibility of physical symptoms as well. How long the effects last can vary based on the individual, but symptoms of trauma can affect a person’s ability to manage relationships. They may have difficulty returning to work, especially if the traumatic experience was witnessed on the job.

Coping with Trauma

It’s not always as easy as jumping back into your usual routine after experiencing a traumatic event. Needing help or even someone to vent to does not make a person weak, but it helps them move forward and cope in a healthy way.

With law enforcement, it can be harder to come forward about needing help. The officer may want to continue fulfilling his or her duty to their community rather than taking time away. In some unfortunate cases, their agency may not foster a great environment for mental health.

Supervisors should make an effort to recognize signs that someone is having difficulty coping with trauma. Listen to their concerns without making them feel weak or that their concerns are invalid or senseless.

Resilience Skills

Like taking your car to the shop for service or going for a health checkup at the doctor’s office, your brain benefits from preventative care. Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia, psychologist and author of “One Badge One Brain One Life” details the type of “maintenance” that can be done to keep your mind healthy.

Physical things such as getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking care of your health are vital. They are simple things that everyone talks about, but they play a big role in your overall wellness – even mental wellness. Other tips include breathing exercises to help you unwind and stay in the moment.

When work is stressful, take time to not only breathe, but wiggle your toes, massage your hands, and stand up to stretch. Be sure to take advantage of breaks! It may seem impressive to be able to work through all of them, but sometimes unwinding even for a few minutes can sharpen your mind and improve performance.

Before you go home, make it a practice to “empty your container.” Anything you do not need to hold onto after your shift should be let go so you don’t go to bed with additional stress. Your family will appreciate it too, as stress at work can sometimes be brought home and affect personal relationships.

VirTra is here to help too! Utilizing V-VICTA® certified curriculum, we hope to make training easier and incorporate wellness techniques in some of our courses. If you’d like more information on our coursework, contact a specialist.



American Psychological Association –

One Badge One Brain One Life –

Traumatic stress impacts memory. We tend to consider this when we investigate violent crimes such as sexual assault. We have evolved in our interviewing process with victims through techniques of trauma-informed interviewing, cognitive interviewing, and forensic interviewing. This growth has allowed us to better understand the considerations involved in memory, recall, and perspective.

We used to ask victims of sexual assaults horrifying questions: What were you wearing? Did you say no? Did you fight back…no? Why not? Tell me what he looked like. You can’t? Why can’t you describe him to me? We caught the guy who raped you…why didn’t you tell me he had tattoos all over his face?


What changed?

We did. We were not serving victims and survivors in the best manner possible. We learned, grew, and evolved in our craft to provide grounded and compassionate care within the investigative process.


What did we learn?

We learned that information gathered during an interview can be compromised by flawed interviewing, questioning, or interrogation practices.(1) Interviews that are structured chronologically, in a directive manner, comprised primarily of close ended questions, and conducted by multiple individuals do not fall within best practices. We learned that leading questions raise concerns in almost any interview as they tend to suggest their own answer. Interviewers and investigators may experience “leading question bias” where the interviewer directs the question toward the answer they want or what they subjectively think to be true.

We learned that when an individual experiences an overwhelming or traumatic event, there should be protocols in place to protect the individual from additional trauma during the interview process. Trauma-informed interviewing allows for a non-threatening, conversational approach that avoids interrogation methods.(2) Cognitive interviewing is structured to enhance memory recall and minimize memory confabulation. There is a misperception in law enforcement investigations that an individual with a lack of linear memory is deliberately lying. We have now learned that a lack of linear memory can be a sign of trauma.

We learned a person’s frame of mind and amount of sleep impact memory consolidation and recall. Sleep is essential for memory formation and consolidation.(3) Unconsolidated memory is fragile and can be disrupted by various types of interference. Two sleep cycles may be necessary for memory consolidation to occur.(4) During an overwhelming event that activates an acute stress response, there is a loss or reduction in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This impacts our executive function, or what would be basic reasoning, weighing of options for decision-making, emotional regulation, impulse control, access to working memory, and memory consolidation.

After a traumatic experience, intentional and unintentional remembering can introduce new details that, over time, assimilate into a person’s memory for the event.(5)  Studies show that individuals can experience events that they have not in reality experienced.(6) This is known as confabulation.

Confabulation is a type of memory error in which gaps in a person’s memory are unconsciously filled with fabricated, misinterpreted, or distorted information.(7) The most common type of confabulation is provoked confabulation which occurs when someone creates an untrue story in response to a specific question. It is critical to recognize that there is no deliberate attempt to lie or provide false information.

Memory conformity may present when two people see the same event and discuss it and one person’s memory influences what the other person claims to remember.(8) Memory conformity can occur from a discussion or conversation, reading a review of another person’s incident perspective, or from watching a video of the event.

These are just a few of the things we have discovered over the years to better serve victims of violent crime. But my question to you is this: Why are we not bringing these practices to investigations when officers experience critical incidents?

We should all agree from a macro view that critical incidents are traumatic stress events. The difference in how a traumatic event is processed is the micro level of an individual’s coping skills, ability to tolerate stressors, and support system (to name just a few).

We have evolved in our support of victims who experience violence, let’s continue that evolution to include our officers.



  1. Gehl, R. & Plecas, D. (2016). Introduction to Criminal Investigation: Processes, Practices and Thinking. New Westminster, BC: Justice Institute of British Columbia.
  2. Flores, L. & Phelps, K. (2017). Trauma Informed Interviewing Techniques Best Practices for Working with Trauma Survivors. Biannual Asylum Law Seminar.
  3. Klinzing J., Niethard, N., Born, J. (2019). Mechanisms of systems memory consolidation during sleep. Nat Neurosci 2019 Oct;22(10):1598-1610
  4. McGaugh J. (2000). Memory–a century of consolidation. Science. 2000 Jan 14;287(5451):248-51. doi: 10.1126/science.287.5451.248. PMID: 10634773
  5. Strange, D., & Takarangi, M. K. (2015). Memory distortion for traumatic events: the role of mental imagery. Frontiers in psychiatry6, 27.
  6. British Psychology Society Research Board Working Group (2008). Guidelines on memory and the law: recommendations from the scientific study of human memory. British Psychological Society
  7. Triviño M, Ródenas E, Lupiáñez J, Arnedo M (2017). Effectiveness of a neuropsychological treatment for confabulations after brain injury: A clinical trial with theoretical implications. PLoS ONE 12(3): e0173166.
  8. Gabbert F, Memon A, Wright DB. Memory conformity: disentangling the steps toward influence during a discussion. Psychon Bull Rev. 2006 Jun;13(3):480-5. doi: 10.3758/bf03193873. PMID: 17048734.