Updated: Apr 10
June 14, 2021
Clearwater, FL- What do you think of when you picture a victim of a crime? I would venture to say that most of us think of someone who has had their house burglarized and is in angst over the irreplaceable items they've lost, or maybe the victim of a stranger rape huddled and shaking in fear while medical personnel get ready to violate her again with an extremely invasive and uncomfortable set of tests to collect evidence. Maybe you just think of the kid who has been abused by a relative, or is crying because he simply had his bike stolen. There are a host of things that might come to mind, but I'd be willing to bet that you don't typically think of first responders as crime victims.
The real question should be, why not? Police officers are assaulted approximately 50,000 times per year, with over 14,000 resulting in injuries. On average, 163 are killed every year while doing their job. Over 2,000 EMS personnel are violently assaulted with injuries each year, as well, and many are now required to wear body armor due to being shot at while doing their job of saving lives. The same is often true for firefighters. This seems like a pretty big issue, but it is usually brushed under the rug with comments like, "Well, this is what they signed up for." While it is a potential risk of the job, no one signs up to do a job in order to be abused or possibly killed. They sign up to help others. While the reverse saying is also flippant, it does ring with a bit of truth. The saying goes something like, "Well, if cops signed up for being shot, beat-up, or injured in the line of duty, wouldn't that be also true for criminals?" Didn't they also know the risk that they could be injured or killed while committing crimes, particularly violent ones? In this upside down world, first responders who use legal violence to subdue a suspect are now the bad guys, and the bad guys who are injured are suddenly victims. Our first responders typically use force to defend themselves or others or to subdue someone who is resisting arrest. That is legal under our justice system, while criminals perpetrate violence on others to achieve their goal of doing something illegal or to escape capture. This is against our laws. It seems pretty cut and dry, but lately, nothing is as it seems. Of course, this does not mean that there aren't bad actors amongst our first responders, but they truly do represent a tiny fraction of the whole. I've written other blogs on this before and won't beat a dead horse here.
The truth is that anyone who is on the receiving end of violence will experience negative psychological consequences. When one no longer feels in control and is being injured in the process, even if it's minor, it creates a psychological wound, not unlike a physical wound. One incident may cause it, or it could be a culmination of multiple such wounds that lead to behavioral health issues like PTSD. No one can say how deep the wound is or how many wounds exist in someone's psyche, nor can they tell who will manifest mental disorders from these wounds that will interfere with one's ability to function normally. Oftentimes, the victim, and I use that term in a general sense of someone who has had violence used upon them, righteously or not, doesn't even realize that they have been seriously psychologically wounded until it is pointed out. Some common manifestations could include becoming withdrawn, where one was outgoing before. There could be some nightmares or even flashbacks caused by triggers when the person is awake. Anxiety might appear, and it can become overwhelming. It will be worse than the normal anxiety people experience. They might suddenly start to startle at loud noises or have any number of triggers that create an emotional and physical response, like the fight or flight response. Increases in substance use to mask pain and anxiety are common, as is depression or loss of interest in things that used to bring joy. Some folks even start to dislike people in a generalized way or to develop anger and distrust for those that resemble their attacker. They can develop anger or rage. Domestic violence is not uncommon.
First responders are no exception to this rule. Unfortunately, it's not talked about often enough. It's one of the reasons that suicide is consistently the leading cause of death for first responders. Most aren't willing to admit they are having these sorts of problems until it pops out in some unhealthy way. It could be something as simple as someone who was once polite in their interactions suddenly becoming gruff or rude with the public. It could show up as excessive drinking and risky behavior. It could come out as disciplinary problems, where the person had a great record previously. Victims who have a trigger tripped may even lash out verbally or physically. They may overreact to perceived dangers that might not necessarily be warranted in the eyes of others. If other officers and supervisors don't connect the dots, the first responder might end up getting fired, getting sued, or even committing suicide. Early intervention is key.
First responders who are victims of violence need to be treated like any other victim. Of course, they deserve medical care, but they should also receive a thorough mental health evaluation and supervisors should be put on alert to look out for signs of trauma turning into behavioral health issues. It shouldn't be used as punishment or to make the first responder even more stressed, but rather to just be more aware and to make sure the issue is properly addressed. Sometimes, changes in assignment are warranted, if the behavioral health change is very severe, but this is one of the reasons this issue goes underreported. First Responders don't want to be viewed as weak, and they don't want repercussions for being open and trusting with the department. There are many great models out there on how to deal with victims of violent crime. There is no reason and no stigma that should stand in the way of departments using those resources to take care of their own, opposition be damned. Our public safety managers need to be properly trained and need to protect their own, not necessarily in the thin blue line kind of way, but with awareness of what trauma does to people, treating them with compassion, and preparing them better from the academy on to mentally deal with trauma kind of way.
So yes, First Responders can absolutely be victims of crime. I've been one, and I've seen others as well, just from my career. I know the courts recognize it. I was awarded financial restitution for pain and suffering and equipment damaged for one assault on me. There are enhanced penalties for assaulting public safety personnel. So, why don't departments recognize this? If you want to break it down to dollars and cents, the cost of preventative mental health care is far less than a lawsuit from an officer who overreacts and injures or kills someone, or gets a DUI and gets fired or worse, or commits domestic violence and hurts someone else. Most of all, it should be done just because it's the right thing to do.