The following article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of
The PFIA Protector
Moral Injury: When the Dark Side of the Job Takes a Toll
By Rev. John Revell, Chaplain
We are all painfully familiar with the reality of various job-related injuries. Every law enforcement officer reading this article has a backlog of images related to physical injury. Some of those injuries may have been minor, but some have been debilitating, leaving permanent damage. My first encounter with a seriously injured officer was a cop who, while chasing a suspect on foot, plummeted 25 feet off of an interstate exit embankment landing on the highway guardrail below. His life-threatening injuries required immediate emergency attention; otherwise he would have perished on the roadside. Quick actions by one of his buddies prevented him from bleeding out on the interstate. Although he survived, it left permanent damage that forced an early retirement. You likely have multiple examples of similar situations.
In recent years, we’ve become more aware of job-related emotional injury, sometimes leading to PTSD. Every veteran officer has images they wish they could erase from their memories, but images that are permanently etched in their minds, images that will follow them to their grave. Often they involve victims of accidents … families and/or children who perish in a home fire or automobile accident. Again, such events, and the haunting memories that accompany them, can be debilitating, requiring professional treatment. Left untreated, such injuries too often lead to suicide.
A third type of injury has come to light in the last few years, that of moral injury … when a person’s spiritual wellbeing is traumatized by actions witnessed—or personally executed—that violate one’s moral code. Often, these situations relate to encountering innocent children who are victims of cruelty and abuse. Law enforcement officers are regularly exposed to such moral injuries, and again if left unaddressed, they can be just as debilitating and deadly as the first two kinds of injuries. Too many officers have taken their own lives because they are haunted by images and memories of such horrors.
But there is hope for those who have suffered from traumatic injury to their souls.
This article is not designed to be an exhaustive or comprehensive treatment of the subject, but rather an introduction and a “heads up” regarding a scenario in which you may be able to help someone through a crisis—one that varies slightly from PTSD but can be just as devastating and deadly.
I am not a mental health specialist; if I’m a specialist in anything, it’s in caring for cops who hurt (one officer’s sister labeled me a “first responder to first responders” … I’m good with that). But, while moral injury is an extensive and developing area of mental health treatment—one that cannot be sufficiently addressed in this article—it would be helpful for me to provide a brief overview to the topic so that you can exercise situational awareness. You may observe someone suffering from moral injury as a result of what he/she has witnessed who might benefit from seeking help.
I draw attention to moral injury because I’ve been to too many LEO suicide-related roll calls, debriefings, wakes, and funerals. I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help keep LEOs out of the morgue as a result of their self-inflicted wounds, and sparing their families the horror of going to the funeral home to make arrangements; and then from that indescribable hell of having to receive well intentioned but clueless loved ones at the wake (who don’t have any idea what to say, but say it anyway, often doing more harm than good); and then from the horror that haunts them over the following days, weeks, and years.
MILITARY ORIGINS AND DESCRIPTION
Virtually everyone has a moral code, regardless of religious heritage (with the possible exception of a psychopath). Everyone knows certain actions are unquestionably wrong and should be prevented if possible … and prosecuted when perpetrated. The core of that code typically runs very deep in LEOs; police officers stand for what is “right,” and attempt to oppose that which is “wrong.” But what happens when that code is violated—or when it is absolutely destroyed—either by one’s own actions, or by the actions of others? The result of such a violation has been labeled “Moral Injury” or “Soul Wounding” by mental health professionals who have worked with military veterans. I call it “Trauma to the Soul.”
Military counselors first coined the term after observing veterans with personal struggles that extended beyond PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often follows an event that leaves a person feeling senses of terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and horror. Moral injury, on the other hand, goes beyond and deals with trauma to the soul. These counselors observed suffering that was unrelated to typical PTSD scenarios, but rather suffering that resulted when military personnel participated in or witnessed events that were in direct violation of deeply held moral standards.
Moral injury has been commonly defined as:
“… the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.” Moral Injury Project, Syracuse University
Counselors observed that such violations of one’s moral code could be related to individual participation in actions, or witnessing such actions.
The types of individual actions that can lead to moral injury include taking a life. Such an action typically goes against each person’s moral code, but the effects are magnified in particular scenarios when one takes the life of an individual who doesn’t fit the description of “enemy combatant,” such as:
- the shooting of a 12-year-old boy carrying an AK47 and about to attack;
- dropping ordinance on a compound, knowing full well there are innocent children within the compound who will perish; and
- actions that result in the loss of fellow troops through “friendly fire.”
Moral injury may also result when a person is convinced that a commanded action violates deeply held moral standards, yet does not speak up or take steps to oppose the action.
Witnessing an Action
Moral injury can also follow when troops witness acts of unnecessary suffering, or destruction, or “evil” while deployed, such as:
- local customs and practices that allow the abuse of innocent children or animals, and troops are not being permitted to intervene because of “rules of engagement;”
- a trusted team mate or ally betrays his team, opens fire, and injures and/or kills fellow troops;
- inexperienced or arrogant leaders make decisions that result in unnecessary military casualties and deaths;
- officers make inappropriate and unjustified policy decisions that directly victimize or otherwise harm the troops he/she commands.
Such actions can violate deeply held convictions; indeed, they can haunt and torment the soul, leading to deep wounds that can torment, debilitate, and even destroy.
MORAL INJURY SCENARIOS IN LAW ENFORCEMENT
After learning of this observation and application in the military, I began to see the connection with law enforcement through my own experience as a chaplain helping police officers process horrific scenarios, such as:
- the horrors experienced in relation to the Sandy Hook shootings;
- the trauma of viewing the unimaginably horrific images associated with investigating internet child porn;
- the homicide of an infant;
- the sexual abuse of a toddler;
- finding a dead newborn baby in a trash pile;
- and many more.
The parallels between military and law enforcement are obvious, but with LEOs, there is the added factor of long-term exposure over the course of a career. The scenarios that may lead to moral injury in law enforcement mirror those found in the military. Indeed, they follow the same three categories:
LEOs are sometimes found in situations in which they may take actions that violate their moral codes, especially when it involves taking a life, such as:
- Officer-involved shootings: even when it’s absolutely necessary to take a life, the action may violate the officer’s moral code and result in moral injury;
- Suicide by cop: when a person wields a deadly weapon and presents as an active, viable threat to innocent citizens or other officers, the LEO has no choice but to eliminate that threat. That alone can be traumatic to the officer. But when it is discovered that the weapon was not loaded or was a facsimile, and that the victim wanted an officer to take his life, the officer may be subjected to a deeper level of moral injury;
- Collateral damage: when innocent bystanders are tragic victims in an officer-involved shooting, even if the officer had no other options, deep moral injury can follow;
- Friendly fire: perhaps no other action can be so devastating to an officer than to accidently take the life of a fellow/sister officer. Again, the results can be deep moral injury.
Police officers are equipped to take a life when there is absolutely no other recourse, but even deeper than that equipping is the all-pervasive training to save lives. Police officers are hard wired to save lives—it is woven into their DNA, reaching down to the very core of their beings—and when they are forced to take a life, even when there is no other option, it can be utterly devastating, resulting in severe moral injury.
Witnessing an Action
LEOs are exposed to horrific scenes and images that can become permanently burned into the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds, lurking there to haunt and torment them for the rest of their lives, such as:
- Active shooter scenarios: the aftermath of a mass shooting automatically brings with it a measure of emotional trauma, but it is compounded when innocent lives are slaughtered at the hands of individuals who have thoroughly planned and acted from the deepest, darkest levels of evil;
- Child abuse or homicide: children represent innocence and vulnerability; when a child is sexually abused by an adult, particularly a toddler or infant, the violation reaches the deepest levels of an officers heart. When a child’s life is taken intentionally, the soul trauma inflicted upon an officer is unimaginable to civilians;
- LODD: Line of Duty Deaths automatically bring a level of trauma to brother/sister officers, but some scenarios reach the level of moral injury, particularly when a deeply held conviction has been violated, such as:
- When an officer is shot in line of duty: LEOs are “the good guys” who are supposed to take down “the bad guys.” When a criminal succeeds in taking the life of an officer, the result can be a sense of violation of what is supposed to be right and good.
- When a criminal plans and executes an officer assassination, the moral injury can go to deeper levels. In this case, it seems that evil has gotten the upper hand, and such a thought can torment LEOs;
- When an officer has reached the limit and takes his/her own life, it can inflict a measure of moral injury upon fellow/sister officers.
All of these reach to the depths of deeply held convictions that believe such things “just should not happen!” When they do, the results can be trauma that touches and injures an officer’s very soul.
SYMPTOMS OF MORAL INJURY
Moral injury can lead to one, some, or all of the following experiences:
-Feelings of deep guilt;
-Unresolved and lingering grief;
-A deep sense of shame, sometimes accompanied with the sense that “I’m just a lousy human being”;
-A loss of purpose or pleasure;
-A loss of personal faith, leading to the conclusion that “there is no God; or if there is a God, He certainly is not good”;
-Being haunted by an event;
-A sense of deep despair;
-Prolonged torment and torture of the soul, accompanied by a deep sense of anguish;
-Prolonged sense of anger, rage, and/or sorrow;
-A dramatic shift in overall perspective: At one time, the world was a good place, but now it’s bad. At one time the cop saw himself/herself as basically good, but now the view is that he/she is basically bad;
-In some situations, severe moral injury has been associated with—and believed to have led to—hallucinations; and
-A pattern of self medicating.
If not dealt with, these can lead to extreme distress, depression, and eventually suicide.
HEALING FOR MORAL INJURIES
The good news is that there is hope for those who have experienced trauma to the soul. Here are some steps that can help address and resolve the situations that have led to such injury:
- Acknowledge the reality of the call and vocation: The reality of law enforcement is that officers will deal with evil in its deepest and darkest forms, sometimes on a daily basis. It is the nature of enforcing the law. The hard, cold reality is that there is evil in this world, and some people are committed to doing evil things. Law enforcement is among the most noble of vocations, because an officer stands against those who would do such evil deeds. But doing that which is noble often comes at a cost. LEOs will, without exception, experience extreme violations of their moral standards. Recognizing this in advance may help mitigate the potential harm that can result.
- Adjust your response: You can’t just “suck it up.” In the introduction I mentioned an officer who almost bled out on the highway. If he had just tried to get up and “shake it off,” he most definitely would have perished. The same is true of moral/soul injury. The person who tries to suck it up and/or shake it off may be headed to a dark future of alcohol/substance abuse, shattered relationships, and quite possibly suicide. It’s critical for us to recognize that dealing with evil events, particularly multiple exposure to such events over a span of years, can cause serious injury to the soul; and being willing to take steps toward healing can lead to surviving and even thriving. An officer (who has given me permission to reference his situation) worked a particularly difficult internet-child-porn case. He recognized that it was taking a toll and reached out to me. Just being willing to talk saved him from a future of certain self destruction. Don’t attempt to just suck it up or shake it off; instead, take steps and talk to someone.
- Recognize the place of chaplaincy: Properly trained chaplains operate with the understanding of the nature of evil and its impact on the world. Regardless of a chaplain’s faith orientation, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, the foundations of his/her faith recognize the reality of evil and its destructive impact upon people. A properly trained chaplain can listen and help bear the burden, but also can help an officer process the complicated web that surrounds the perpetration of evil. If your department does not have a properly trained chaplain, ask your superiors about securing one. It could help in ways you might never imagine.
- Recognize the value of mental health professionals: properly trained counselors—who are familiar with the nature and realities of law enforcement—can be incredibly helpful. Sometimes moral injury can be so severe that clinical help is necessary; when that’s the case, it’s no different than going to the doctor for a broken limb or torn ligaments. It’s not a sign of weakness to go to an orthopedist for bone repair, or a surgeon for internal injuries following a work-related accident; neither is it a sign of weakness to get treatment for emotional or moral injury.
I doubt anyone can calculate the level of moral injury that plagues our law enforcement community today; and I strongly suspect the number of LEO suicides each year is heavily influenced by the reality of unresolved soul trauma. But we have the resources to address this crisis.
If you are struggling, seek help.
If you see brothers and/or sisters who have been exposed to unmitigated acts of evil, you have the responsibility to exercise situational awareness and connect with him/her and encourage them to address it accordingly.
If you are in a position of command, and provisions are not in place in your department to address moral injury and soul trauma, it’s up to you to initiate and secure such provisions.
Dealing with evil is a reality for LEOs; suffering the associated severe consequences need not be.
God bless, and be well.
For further study:
Rev. John Revell
Chaplain, Stamford Police Department, Stamford, Connecticut
Chaplain, Westport Police Department, Westport, Connecticut
Chaplain, Connecticut State Police
Lead Chaplain, Life Line Chaplaincy, Inc.
Copyright ©2020 by Life Line Chaplaincy, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission is given to distribute this article in its entirety to law enforcement officers, as long as there is no cost charged to the officers; no portion of this article may be reproduced in publication, electronic or hard copy, without expressed written permission from the author, firstname.lastname@example.org.