Source: MJ Sharps/wombatphoto
PTSD is a major problem in law enforcement. PTSD was essentially the same, in terms of its symptoms, for centuries before modern media highlighted it for the general public (e.g., Sharps & Price-Sharps, 2019). PTSD is real, and it has been for a very long time.
Yet you still run into people who question the importance of PTSD. Not necessarily the condition as such; but rather the relevance of PTSD for them, personally. Paradoxically, many of these people are law enforcement officers.
Tom Wolfe (1979) wrote an excellent book, The Right Stuff, about the NASA Mercury program and the astronauts who flew the Mercury rockets into space. The Right Stuff is what those astronauts had, according to Wolfe; a kind of courage, coupled with a self-effacing facade, that dealt with any hazard with competence, absolute courage, and a kind of style seldom seen under life-threatening conditions.
The Right Stuff is what many modern law enforcement officers possess, or at least aspire to. And it leaves no room for PTSD.
But PTSD exists. It’s real, and if you develop it, in the service of your community or country, you damn well better deal with it before it eats you. Untreated PTSD is a significant danger to an officer, and to the community he or she serves. Yet many officers simply can’t believe that PTSD could happen to them. To the tough, to the strong. To those with the Right Stuff.
But is this reasonable?
Well, how many modern law enforcement officers are tougher and stronger than Wild Bill Hickok?
James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok was among the hardest men that the hard American 19th century ever produced. A Civil War scout-sniper, Hickok became a master of the use of force; and then, Wild Bill entered the world of Old West law enforcement.
This was not modern law enforcement, with its regimentation and its crucial, laudable attention to suspects’ rights. This was end-of-the-trail, cow-town law enforcement. A single lawman might have to face down several armed and drunken cowhands at once. Many cowhands were themselves experienced killers, having homicidally defended their herds from rustlers in the seemingly endless horrors of the hot dusty cattle drives north from Texas. The cow-town lawman, frequently alone, would often have to jail or kill these men by sole virtue of his own mastery of the violent arts.
But Hickok was a master of the arcana of violence, operating in an uncontrolled arena outside anything in the modern world of law enforcement. Hickok was the ultimate hard man. Nothing could phase him. PTSD, in its nineteenth century form, should have been irrelevant to the iron-hard Right Stuff that was Hickok. He was immune.
Until one bad night in Abilene, Kansas, in 1871.
Hickok, an inveterate gambler, shot an opposing gambler, Phil Coe, in a gunfight. In the course of the fight, Hickok was slightly wounded. The pain of this wound, and the fear and anger of the fight, must have produced the same attentional narrowing and impulsive behavior in Hickok that it would in anyone else with a human nervous system; and so, when Hickok’s deputy Williams approached Wild Bill unexpectedly from behind, Hickok spun and inadvertently gunned him down (e.g., Turner, 2001).
Williams was apparently a friend, as well as a subordinate, of Wild Bill. Wild Bill had killed him.
And Wild Bill changed.
Williams was apparently the last man Hickok ever killed. Hickok simply stopped killing. Normal for most people, true- but this was Hickok. And then he fell madly in love-
(wait a minute- Hickok?)
Yes, Hickok in love, and he headed farther West, to Deadwood, South Dakota, to make a nonviolent fortune mining in the gold fields. He apparently decided to create a fantasy future for himself and his beloved bride, in a peaceful world of gold-fueled marital joy.
Unfortunately, Hickok hated getting dirty, an obvious occupational hazard for gold miners. His mining period lasted literally two days.
So, Hickok fell back on his other skill: gambling.
Now, people suffering from PTSD often have specific characteristics. First of all, they may dissociate, creating fantasies, like Hickok’s imaginary future as a gold millionaire, when reality would serve them far better.
Also, they may focus on the wrong things, or fail to focus at all. And at very high levels of arousal, they may display atypical behaviors, including submissive tendencies, completely at odds with their normal personalities.
In 1876, Hickok entered the Number 10 saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. He submissively deferred to a young gambler who was sitting in Hickok’s preferred chair (Hickok? Submissive? Well, it happened). Hickok took a chair in the middle of the room, back to one of the doors, an unfocused mistake one would never expect of any veteran gunfighter, let alone Hickok; and, absorbed in his cards, Hickok completely failed to focus on the entry, in plain view, of a hostile gambler he’d defeated the previous evening. Hickok, hyperfocused on his cards, then completely failed to notice this gambler’s circling behind him. The gambler shot Hickok dead, from behind, and escaped through the saloon door behind Wild Bill’s back.
We are of course limited in what we can know here. Case histories are always a problem for psychologists, as there’s only one person in the case; and we can only view Hickok historically, from more than a century’s remove.
But in the case of James Butler Hickok, the symptom picture is exactly consistent with what we would expect of a veteran law enforcement officer in the grip of untreated PTSD (Sharps, 2017). And, after a lifetime of rock‐hard Right Stuff, he died.
And if this sort of thing could happen to Wild Bill Hickok: it could happen to you.
If Hickok’s story resonates with you, with the officer or veteran reading this post: Please. Find a competent psychologist, somebody who actually gets it, and give yourself the training to adapt, and to overcome PTSD.
You, and everybody you care for, will be much better off.