OnPolicing Blog

It’s Not Weak to Feel Psychological Trauma – It’s Human

December 2, 2016

Tammy McCoy Arballo

Tammy McCoy-Arballo

Counseling Team International Clinical Psychologist

Tammy McCoy Arballo

Tammy McCoy-Arballo

Counseling Team International Clinical Psychologist

Being courageous does not mean you are not afraid. Courageous people are afraid, but fear does not stop them from confronting danger. I have been thinking about courage and danger a great deal as the first anniversary of the San Bernardino terrorist attack neared. We saw a tremendous amount of courage from the men and women in law enforcement who responded to the Inland Regional Center a year ago today.

As the anniversary of the San Bernardino terrorist attack dawns, it seems only natural to ask: “What would I do in that situation?” and “How would I react to the emotional strain caused by an event like that?”

A husband and wife tandem fired off hundreds of rounds during the Dec. 2, 2015 attack, killing 14 people and seriously injuring 22 others – all civilians. The pair was killed hours later during a firefight with officers, some who were injured during the exchange of gunfire.

Of course all law enforcement officials hope such circumstances never repeat themselves, but it would be normal for all who carry a badge and gun to look inward and ponder how they would respond if they faced the same situation or some sort of active-shooter event. Media reports describe a broad range of emotions from responding officers, from anxiety to excitement.

“My training just kicked in” is a phrase many first responders used when describing how they reacted upon arriving to the Inland Regional Center, according to published reports. As a psychologist who works primarily with law enforcement officials and their families in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, I hear the phrase “my training just kicked in” countless times in my office by law enforcement officials in the wake of an officer-involved shooting or other critical incident.

Veteran officers from the numerous departments who responded to the Inland Regional Center attack repeatedly told the media that nothing could fully prepare them for an event like this. Despite the unique nature of the shooting and the overwhelming visual, auditory and olfactory stimulation, as described in published accounts – water from indoor sprinklers, people screaming for help, the smell of gunpowder, blood – law-enforcement officials did their jobs heroically.

Many law-enforcement officials credited active-shooter training and the lessons learned from events such as the massacre at Columbine in Colorado, according to published reports, which credited training and teamwork as critical to their success.

It is perfectly natural to think about these critical incidents and wonder how you would respond. When I do critical-incident debriefs, law-enforcement officers often tell me they are relieved because their training kicked in and they were able to perform as trained. Some have spent months or even years wondering how they would respond when the moment arrived. Afterward, they have a newfound sense of confidence, because they did not freeze up as they had feared.

Emotional reactions to critical incidents can be just as concerning as performance issues.

Exposure to critical incidents and trauma, while stressful and challenging, does not mean one will automatically develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who develop post-incident reactions are not weak – they are human.

Like any other injury – physical or psychological – trauma can be healed with the appropriate treatment.

One of the leading treatments is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Numerous national and international agencies recognize the effectiveness of EMDR. The U.S. Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs practice guidelines recommend the use of EMDR in treating clients for trauma (EMDR Institute Inc., 2015). In 2013, The World Health Organization said EMDR was one of two recommended treatments for trauma in adults with PTSD (EMDR Institute Inc., 2015).

My own experience with EMDR shows it can be effective in less time than traditional psychotherapy. It does not take years of gradual treatment before the client experiences relief from symptoms. Clients are able to talk about the traumatic event in as much or as little detail as they want. For men and women who want to maintain some degree of control over most aspects of their lives, this characteristic of EMDR is one more reason it is well suited for law-enforcement officials.

How do law-enforcement officials find the help they need when they are struggling with post-incident trauma? Some departments have their own psychologists, while others have employee-assistant programs.

In the wake of last year’s shooting, some departments’ leaders developed stronger ties with the mental-health professionals from the Counseling Team International who responded after the attack.

Mental-health professionals assigned to those departments developed a rapport with those law-enforcement officials, and the presence of mental-health professionals became normal. They became something of a welcome addition to the department. Mental-health professionals did not just disappear after the event; they returned to those departments quarterly to provide psychological education on trauma – offering services and the opportunity to participate in group meetings.

Mental-health professionals need to be familiar with a department’s unique culture, and whenever possible, get the “approval” of respected members of the department. Those who influence others often shepherd those who are suffering to the offices of mental-health professionals.

Perhaps the best example of this comes from the National Policing Institute report on the Dec. 2 attack.

“The recommended leadership response is best illustrated when a department leader preparing for a review team group interview reminded first responders of the importance of employee welfare and the availability of peer support and mental health providers. During the interview, team members observed employees struggling emotionally as they described the events at the IRC. A supervisor in the room also took note and requested the assistance of mental health providers who arrived before the interviews concluded.”

Yes, mental-health professionals who work with law enforcement do make house calls.


Tammy McCoy-Arballo, Psy.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist. She is in private practice and works at the Counseling Team International in San Bernardino, CA.

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Tammy McCoy Arballo

Tammy McCoy-Arballo

Counseling Team International Clinical Psychologist

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