A police officer is sometimes required to literally make a potentially life or death decision and act upon it under rapidly evolving and dynamic circumstances involving a variety of mental, physical, and emotional aspects of the deadly force experience. Because the act of using deadly force is so personally impacting, the descriptive phenomenological psychological method was used in this study to provide a qualitative, holistic and personal viewpoint from the officers’ perspective in their lived-experiences. Three city police officers were interviewed and each gave a descriptive account of their deadly force experiences.
Subsequently, it was found that police officers experience complex decision making challenges requiring rapid interpretations and understandings of the situation as a lethal encounter. The phenomenological psychological constituents found in the general structure of their experiences were: (1) Alerted to Threatening Conditions, (2) Role Identification in the Situation, (3) Information Gathering to Anticipate Events, (3) Observations of Hazardous Actions of the Suspect, (4) Interpretations of the Situation, (5) Desire to Take / Maintain Control, (6) Tactical Planning and Deliberations, (7) Communication with other Police About the State-of-Affairs, (8) Horrified Vulnerability from Lethal Attack, (9) Volitional Fiat to Shoot, (10) Perceptions of Bullets Hitting the Suspect, (11) Surreal Experience, (12) Noticing Body Damage to the Suspect, (13) Sense Support and Valuing by Other Police, (14) Sense of Alienation / Stigma Like a Criminal, (15) Post-Shooting Anxiety, (16) Felt Sense of Relief When Life-Threat was Believed to be Gone, (17) Misunderstood by Others, (18) Making Meaning Out of the Experience, (19) Coping Through Action, (20) Post-Shooting Psychological Disruptions, and (21) Officer’s Understanding the Suspect(s) as Adversaries.
Police officers are forced to confront death and later reflect on its personal, psychological and social meanings. The emotional impact of deadly force encounters seems to transform the officer and the deep emotional impacts may not ever become resolved. It is the psychologically rich and deeply personal experience of shooting another human being “in the line of duty” as a police officer that has been explored for a better understanding to provide insight for policy making, training, and counseling.