When I was a kid, I regularly watched “Naked City,” a police melodrama set in New York that was on TV in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. One of the main characters was a young cop just barely promoted from patrolman to detective. In this particular episode, he’s one of several cops chasing a bad guy who shoots at them. He confronts the suspect at close range and the man turns on him, coming up with a Colt Official Police revolver, and young Detective Jimmy Halloran reflexively shoots him just in time, killing him instantly. 

He sees the angry, raging mother of the dead man at the Grand Jury hearing that has ruled the homicide justifiable, and for the rest of the episode is tortured by guilt. His emotional salvation comes when the widow of the dead man comforts him and tells him what a monster her late husband was.

So-called post-shooting trauma was first defined as a separate and distinct subset of PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, back in the 1970s by Dr. Walter Gorski, a police psychologist in California. I had the good fortune to study under him in the early 1980s.  It’s something I’ve always taught my students to be prepared for, psychologically and emotionally.

The years have taught me that these aftermath issues are less a reaction to having had to use deadly force, than a reaction to society’s reaction to the act. You will be treated differently by friends, family and co-workers after the incident, and if it becomes a highly publicized cause célèbre, even by strangers. As that episode correctly depicted, in the course of legal proceedings thereafter you will probably see the family of the man you had to kill in self-defense, and you will have to know in your heart that you had no alternative. 

In the series, available on YouTube, young Detective Halloran goes on to shoot several other bad guys, never showing any emotion thereafter. Back in those days in big cities, police shootings were more common than they are now. In Detroit, enough cops had shot more than a dozen people that brother officers coined a term for them: they were said to be “in their teens.” By the 1970s, when I studied NYPD training and tactics at their Firearms and Tactics Unit on City Island, I learned that they had an unofficial “flag file.” If a member of the service shot someone in the line of duty, a flag went up in their personnel file and by the time a third flag went up, the officer was usually taken off the street and transferred to some desk job.

This being a gun-oriented blog, I should note for fellow firearms nerds that the detectives in this series all carried Colt Detective Specials, including some really old ones identifiable by square butts, round front sights, and stubby ejector rods. All shooting was done one-hand-only. And, for the blooper file, in this particular episode the detective’s commander holsters his .38 strong side after the shooting, but is later seen to be wearing it crossdraw, butt forward on the opposite hip.  This was actually pretty common  among plainclothesmen in those days, because it made it easier to reach through a buttoned suitcoat. 

18 COMMENTS

  1. Back in the days you speak of, I saw a lot of plainclothes types carrying cross draw. Often on the point of the opposite hip. No doubt making it much more comfortable to sit. Depending upon their build, I wondered how they qualified, but it wasn’t my concern. To be fair, most detectives showed up at crime scenes long after the deed was done, so they had plenty of time to access their guns before actually approaching the suspect.

    Then one day I happened to be at a range where a couple of the guys showed up to do a bit of prequalification practice. They were carrying brief cases containing their old duty holster and full size service revolver. Their holster went on their belt (duty belt shrunk). They practiced, returned the gun & holster to the brief cases, strapped the snubby back on and went back to work. Not a practice that’s gonna fly these days.

    My recall on your phrasing on violent event/post shooting trauma v PTSD back in the late 1980s is a bit vague. I recall it being separate and distinct from PTSD. More recently I read-source had no details, questionable veracity-that the head shrinkers guild lumped it back into PTSD. Comments?

  2. The series was filmed in Manhattan’s West 20th Street Precinct, the 10th Precinct, where I served in my rookie year. Great place to work in with some really superior cops.

  3. I remember watching this show and “The Detectives” with Robert Taylor. Both, from what I’d heard from friends from NYC, were fairly accurate. Things were a good deal more cut and dried back then. If you committed 1st degree murder, and were found guilty, the ONLY punishment was the “chair”, which seemed to occur pretty quickly. I don’t guess we’ll ever know how many, if any, we’re actually innocent, but the concept of being on death row for 40 years was a non-starter. The “old days” !

  4. The real world is substantially different from TV world. The character “Danny Reagan” in the monstrously popular TV series “Blue Bloods” has, over the length of the series killed in the line of duty many more than three. Yet, in TV world he remains on duty as a highly decorated and respected Detective First Class.

  5. Everyone who carries a firearm for protection should read this, thanks Mas. The kinds of post incident traumas you’re talking about also can be used against survivors of most anything which would qualify as a near death experience. I know this from both my time as a rape crisis responder (10 years) as well as when I myself barely survived a life threatening event.
    Another good early TV show which illustrated the post shooting aftermath was the episode of Ironside entitled “All in a Day’s Work”, in which a young female officer is forced to shoot a 17 year old thug dead. It was aired in 1968 originally but I remember it very clearly.

  6. Mas,
    I do remember that show very well, from an era of writing done by adults. From just a Radio/TV/Film geek persepective, I have to mention that series was created and largely written by the amazing Stirling Silliphant, one of the greatest writers in television history.

    He created the other series ‘Route 66’ and ‘Perry Mason’ and went on to write the screenplayf or ‘In The Heat of the Night’, for which I believe he won the Academy Award. Silliphant had the skill to take what would be ordinary dramatic television dialogue and turn into soaring, poetic Shakespearean prose. If you’re interested in one of the best examples, check out Route 66 S1E4 “The Man on the Monkey Board”. The man was truly gifted.

  7. During my police career I always carried cross draw until the Department began issuing S&W model 10’s and the holsters we had to use. When off duty I always carried cross draw and after retirement. I am now 87 years old and have been retired for 41years. Cross draw has so many advantages over strong side draw. I currently carry a Glock model 45 cross draw and a Glock 19 in my strong side pocket. I am a firm believer in being well armed 24/7/365.

  8. I was a regular fan of the TV police show Dragnet up to the episode that ended with a confiscated gun being sent to be melted down, the ending scene panning to a manhole cover as the final form of the gun, with the implication that all guns would be best reduced to such form. I was only a sophomore in high school at the time, but it soured me on the series. I was reminded that Jack Webb was only an actor and that the writers were Hollywood and not actually LEOs.

    Unfortunately, Hollywood’s depiction of shooting one-handed from below the line of sight in the FBI crouch position and with fingers constantly on the triggers accurately reflected common practice of the 1950s & 1960s. Movies from that era are best enjoyed with a generous helping of suspended disbelief.

    Ditto for the movie Lethal Weapon where the walls of the police station were peppered with anti-gun posters that were prominently featured as the backdrop for dialogs between the two protagonists, who solved all of their problems via the liberal application of firearms, sometimes on (gasp!) full-auto.

    The hypocrisy of Hollywood actors like Danny Glover, Matt Damon and Liam Neeson is truly impressive.

  9. About that blooper, I’m going to guess that the scene where the commander holsters on the strong side was filmed on a different day than the scene where he holsters crossdraw. It’s called “continuity.” There is supposed to be someone on the set who takes still photos of the actors and their clothes. That way, if the actors take a break, or need to be shown wearing the same outfit while filming on a different day, mistakes like that don’t happen. Apparently, Murphy was on the set that day. (Notice how I typed, “filming” instead of “shooting,” for obvious reasons. Hee! Hee!)

  10. I remember a gun writer many years ago, I want to say Jeff Cooper, stated that there should not be any post traumatic shooting stress if it is a valid self-defense situation. He stated something along the lines of, you should not feel any guilt or remorse for saving yours or someone else’s life.

    Not being an LEO, I always wondered if that was a valid point.

    • Joseph King, I want to take a shot, err, I mean I want to take a stab, oh, I mean I want to try defending Jeff Cooper’s words. I agree with him. No one should feel bad when an evil, dangerous, society-threatening person is justifiably shot and killed.

      Most people either contribute to society, or, if they are bums, at least they don’t harm society. Violent killers harm innocent people, and that weakens society. Society needs to have more good people than bad people in it. Who wants to live in a city where the criminals outnumber the law-abiding citizens?

      I think people feel guilty taking any lives, because, in an effort to promote civility, the Church has taught that all life is precious. Life is not precious. There are 8 billion people on Earth, and we will all be dead 120 years from now. People of all ages die, both good and bad. God could prevent any or all deaths, but He does not.

      Does a mother feel PTSD when she aborts her own “fetus”? Unlike a murderer, that “fetus” wasn’t harming anyone.

      I think those who kill criminals should be celebrated as heroes. I would even support hunting violent criminals, like we hunt deer. Just identify the criminal, and anyone who kills him gets a reward.

      Just my two cents coming from the dreamworld in my mind.

  11. The NRA Instructor-led security guard courses that I took recommended strong-side draw in order to have the (weaker) free hand better available for warding off an assailant at close quarters. My father, a WW II combat veteran with 650 days combat time in an Army medical company that incurred 85% casualties over the period of November 1942 until May 1945, certainly had extreme PTSD, and never sought treatment for it, should have sought it, and did not. He had worked off and on as a commando (was one of the first 47 trainees in Ireland and Scotland, before the Army Rangers were even formally organized), then often as a scout sniper. He found that commando status would unfortunately get you missions that you had never dreamed of. He once told me shortly before he died that he had had nightmares every single night after the war. He not only had carried, treated, and saw dead from combat literally many thousands of friends he had from being one of their medics, he had obviously killed some enemy soldiers, which he had rarely mentioned, but which definitely served to keep him experientially preloaded and proven capable to kill at a moment’s notice if necessary as a peace officer. I don’t know exactly how military and peace officer stress effects might compound, or not. Dad reflexively almost went to kill me once bare-handed when I walked up behind him when I was wearing a rain hat that looked too much like a Nazi coal-scuttle helmet. Ingrained deadly reflexes like that can obviously stay with you indefinitely. He was also severely wounded twice by the wartime enemy, but carried on serving aft, as was commonly demanded. Offspring of parents like him that are steeped in an inherent secondary PTSD environment seriously need counseling themselves in order to have a healthy life. It is hard to imagine the accumulated stress that my father operated under. He eventually came to carry his M & P .38 completely concealed, after shifting to cross-draw after an Iowa Highway patrolman was shot with his own revolver by a front-seat passenger. Dad also was never without his trusty lead-weighted sap, which has unfortunately gone out of vogue as of late. Dang, that thing would be an effective pacifier! May have gotten used only once or twice, but oh, how handy when needed. Call it “assertive de-escalation.”

    • Condolences, Steve. You might be interested in more details on the incident that made your dad (and the Iowa State Patrol) go to cross draw, which lasted into early 4th quarter 20th Century. It was the death of Trooper Oran Pape. Google should get you more info, including one of the two articles I researched on the matter back in the ’70s.

  12. Perhaps slightly off subject but there is some breaking news from Pittsburgh that might lead to a boom in cops vs criminals interactions. They just announced police patrols will be coming back with “a patrol vehicle with lights on” to be patrolling all night. I guess the ink dried on all the real estate that Blackrock bought up for pennies on the dollar, likely all the liens that drove out the independent owners will be forgiven too. “Area Pacification” is not a fun thing.

    Anyway this post reminds me of a movie directed by Michael Winner and Starring Charles Bronson called The Stone Killers, where Bronson’s police detective character suffers emotional fallout from gunfights and even a vehicle pursuit death. His character manages to still execute solid tactics and decision making in gunfights while suffering the psychological stresses, because the movie made the world keep turning despite the man’s personal sufferings. Bronson and Winner portrayed a more extreme and unhealthy version of this as a white collar architect in Death Wish, though the storytelling was overshadowed by the masses that couldn’t understand the movie, it is a far cry from the more exploitative Bruce Willis remake, which tended to glorify the violence. Also was reminded of the controversy that Law & Order SVU kicked off earlier this year with that ridiculous episode about how the rapist shouldnt go to jail because of “inequity” and the victim would be just fine with a bit of “therapy”. The willing suspension of disbelief…

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