Beware the Headline “Non-Life Threatening Injuries”

Beware the Headline “Non-Life Threatening Injuries”

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

The updates show up daily in my newsfeed. Officer-involved shooting. Police officer killed responding to domestic violence call. Officers ambushed. The reports will relate that an officer was killed, or was hospitalized in serious condition, or suffered “non-life-threatening injuries”. Of those, we may say a quick prayer for the friends and loved ones of an officer killed in the line of duty, or for quick healing for the seriously injured officer. We may offer a prayer of thanks for the officers described as having minor or non-life-threatening injuries.

But non-life-threatening doesn’t mean non-life changing or non-career ending. In my work with wounded officers, I’ve seen those who are able to continue working with their scars, and those who simply cannot.

Every year the FBI reports on the number of officers who die in the line of duty, but injuries are very poorly reported. Some studies say 50,000 officers are injured annually, but that number is a vast underreporting of events in which police are assaulted or otherwise hurt while on the job. Other surveys indicate that officers are injured at a far greater rate and often go unreported because officers themselves do not expect prosecution of offenders or other consideration of their injuries.

Worker’s compensation plans are notoriously complex and purposed to avoid payment for injuries. Officers can be fired if they are unable to return to work after an injury and are left without an income or health insurance.

Cumulative injuries from dozens of fights, crashes, foot pursuits, heavy lifting, hazardous material exposure, and other police activity are hard to prove as job-related unless each strain, bruise, ache, and harm are reported, something cops are notoriously hesitant to do. Officers’ statistically proven early mortality is evidence of the wear and tear on the mind and body of these public servants.

Once the injurious event passes out of the headlines, if it was ever a headline story in the first place, officers, their families, and their agencies are left to deal with the physical and emotional scars. This list of officers this writer knows who still suffer from “non-life-threatening” injuries is long. One with traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a bar fight where he was mercilessly attacked. One with sudden onset PTSD, having performed flawlessly in many dangerous incidents suddenly became incapacitated at a barricaded, armed suspect incident where she had taken up a perimeter position. One who suffered TBI during a training accident with explosives when a student of his in SWAT training mishandled a breaching exercise. One who contacted a suspicious person and was suddenly attacked causing a pernicious, disabling back injury. One whose patrol car was struck by a drunk driver and incurred a serious brain injury. His spouse had to fight many years to get compensation from his employer because he was physically in good enough condition to compete in some athletic events, although his cognitive ability, emotional control, and speech were permanently impaired.

Another was in a literal life and death struggle with an attacker in a remote location and had to kill his attacker in hand-to-hand combat. The emotional scars from that event likely caused him to react less aggressively than he should have in a subsequent attack where his assailant caused a disabling knee injury with chronic pain and PTSD. Using deadly force leaves scars that are invisible. Another colleague was slashed with a knife but was able to return to duty bearing the horrible hash marks beneath his uniform which he and his family see every day as a reminder of the daily risk.

A recent incident in a nearby city involved a shooting suspect firing into a patrol car, shattering the window, and spraying the officers inside with glass. The officers were described as having minor injuries and were able to return fire killing the suspect and rendering aid to a civilian shooting victim at the scene. Sure, a few bandages, a new shirt to replace the bloodied one, and prayers of thanks that they weren’t shot. But still…..