Deadly Force Aftermath: A Conversation With Dr. Alexis Artwohl

20130130-074252.jpgAlexis Artwohl, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized behavioral science consultant to law enforcement as a trainer, researcher, and author. During her 16 years as a private practice clinical and police psychologist, she provided consultation and training to multiple agencies throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as traumatic incident debriefings and psychotherapy to numerous public safety personnel and their family members. Dr. Artwohl is co-author of the book DEADLY FORCE ENCOUNTERS and other publications.

It was my great pleasure to talk with Dr. Artwohl recently about the lessons armed citizens can learn from her research and how they can better prepare themselves for the emotional and legal aftermath of a lethal force encounter.

Dr. Artwohl, you talk a lot in your book about the emotional aftermath of a deadly force encounter. What do you think armed citizens should be doing to prepare ourselves for that reality?

Before being armed, citizens should take a comprehensive defensive handgun course that not only teaches safe and effective shooting skills, but also their legal rights and responsibilities, what to do when the police respond, etc. There are a number of excellent books written on the topic as well.

Most officers will tell you that the hardest part of being involved in a shooting is the aftermath. The stressors include being the subject of a criminal investigation, media attention (often negative), possible civil litigation, and the emotional reactions of friends, co-workers, family, neighbors, etc. These are risks that a citizen will face as well and they can drag on for extended periods of time. They need to know what they will be facing so they can an make an informed decision about if, when, and where they choose to have the option of using deadly force in self defense.

I recommend that they have contact information for 1) attorneys who represent armed citizens and 2) licensed mental health professionals who are trauma experts and can assist with the emotional aftermath. Research shows that 90% of people are resilient in the face of trauma so presumptions of serious emotional problems should not be made. However, it’s hard to predict which 10% of people will be the ones to have long term problems so having resources is a good idea. The aftermath will be stressful for everyone, even if they do not develop posttraumatic stress disorder.

I got the sense from the anecdotes you shared that being involved in a deadly force encounter often places a severe strain on our web of social supports. Is there anything we can do to mitigate that strain, or to prepare our loved ones for the aftermath of a deadly force encounter?

What armed citizens learn in their classes and from reading books can be shared with willing friends and/or family members so they also have an idea of what to expect. Family discussions about how to minimize the possibility of becoming a victim of violent crime, including the benefits and risks of deadly force as an option can help everyone have a better idea of what to expect.

If a citizen chooses to have weapons in the house as a self-defense option, the entire family should have an action plan to help ensure that the weapons will be used in a manner that is safe for the entire family. Obviously any discussions involving children should be carefully done and age appropriate. If the family is unsure what to do, consulting a security expert can give them ideas.

Sometimes an armed citizen has one or more family members who are uncomfortable with the citizen’s choice to be armed and may prefer to not talk about it. If this topic is a source of unresolved conflict in the relationship it’s advisable to get some professional mediation so a compromise can be reached. Any unresolved issues are highly likely to be aggravated in the unlikely event the armed citizen is forced to use their weapon in self-defense.

Do you think the experience of being involved in a deadly force encounter is different for private citizens than it is for law enforcement officers? Are the outcomes in terms of psychological and social well-being different?

There are multiple differences between officers and citizens, including the fact that officers will be more knowledgeable and better prepared than the average citizen. However, both are human beings involved in a very high stress situation and it’s guaranteed to be emotionally draining. I’m not aware of any research that carefully follows and compares the outcomes of officers vs. law abiding citizens.

I imagine private citizens who may not have been trained in these issues might not know about EMDR as an effective treatment for traumatic stress, and might not know to consider seeking out EMDR treatment. Can you explain what EMDR is and how it helps survivors of trauma?

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is one of several effective treatment methods available to trauma therapists to help reduce the symptoms of posttraumatic stress reactions. In it’s simplest terms the patient is asked to hold an image of the trauma in their mind as they move their eyes back and forth. The entire treatment modality is more complex, of course, and should only be done with a properly trained therapist. There is controversy about the mechanism of why it works and it’s not fully understood, as is true for much of what the brain does. When it does work, it usually works quickly and well.

You have a chapter in your book about traumatic incident debriefing. Is this something an armed citizen could do to help process the aftermath of a deadly force incident?

I highly recommend that anyone involved in a life and death incident seek at least one individual educational debriefing with a licensed mental health professional who is a trauma specialist. Most people will recover on their own without any professional help but since we can’t predict which people will be the 10% who will go on to develop problems it’s a good idea to get this basic education and have the name of someone to go back to in case further help is needed for them or one of their family members.

What would you say to those who think that surviving the gun fight is the only thing that matters and that “everything will be okay” afterward?

Obviously surviving the gunfight is paramount. Chances are good that everything will eventually turn OK in the end but there is no guarantee, even if the citizen (or officer for that matter), has done nothing wrong. The aftermath will not be easy and both citizens and officers will face a harrowing array of legal, emotional, and relationship risks. This is not meant to discourage citizens from being armed if they so choose, but to encourage them to be fully prepared.

Anything else you’d like to add, or that you’d like readers to take away?
Everyone thinking about being armed should make that decision with eyes wide open and fully informed about the multiple risks they are facing. From a psychological perspective, I think it’s important to have the name of an attorney they can call to get immediate advice in the aftermath of any shooting they might be involved in. It will be comforting to know that they have a knowledgeable advocate on their side as they negotiate their way through the complex legal aftermath.

There are organizations citizens can purchase membership in that will assist with finding a competent attorney.

Thank you so much for talking with me, Dr. Artwohl! It’s been a real pleasure.


  1. […] With a Gun did an excellent interview with Dr. Alexis Artwohl, author of Lethal Force Encounters. Although focused on law enforcement […]

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