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Survive and Thrive

It is a basic fact that law enforcement officers are assaulted every day. You must be prepared not only to survive these incidents but to thrive in your work and home life. A recent Badge of Life study estimated that 15 to 18 percent of all active-duty law enforcement officers (about 150,000 nationwide) currently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This Spotlight on Safety provides resources to help you prepare for and recover from critical incidents. Resources include printable posters, an officer’s survival story, and other materials. In addition, VALOR has a variety of subject experts in this field and is available to assist you, your fellow officers, and your agency.

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Officer on ground shot in leg. Other officer using a tourniquet.


Lessons Learned From an Officer-Involved Shooting

John Bouthillette and Olivia Johnson, D.M.

A tremendous amount of time is spent teaching officers how to survive felonious assaults. The goal is always the same—you go home. However, surviving is only half of the battle.

This profession allows us to see things that many outside it will never experience. Unfortunately, we also get to see and experience things that the human brain was never equipped to handle. Sadly, many officers inevitably bury their memories of these painful experiences. Many believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. I was one of those officers. I needed help, but my own pride and misguided beliefs kept me from getting the help that I so desperately needed.

In December 2000, in my fourteenth year of service as a detective lieutenant, I almost lost my life in an officer-involved shooting. Prior to that event, I believed I was prepared to handle everything that this job could possibly throw at me. Unfortunately, I could never have been more wrong. I lacked understanding about how this incident would affect me personally and professionally and, more important, how it would affect my family. I believed that my training had prepared me and that my bravado would fill in the gaps, a theory that lacked practical application.

Lesson Learned 1: Always come to work with the right mind-set.

I came to work with the wrong mind-set. The day started out like any other, nothing unique or out of the ordinary. It was just four days until Christmas, and I could not wait to start my much-needed two-week vacation. The goal for the day: clear my desk, set up my voice mail, and not get involved in anything.

This was the first mistake I made, allowing complacency to override the reality of the dangers that I may face every day. You must be on point and focused each and every day. Being mentally and physically prepared when something really bad actually happens may be the difference between failure and success. And failure in this profession is not a viable option.

Law enforcement agencies must develop an organizational culture that addresses the negative consequences associated with on-the-job complacency. I will refer to this concept as “safety by supervision.” Supervisors must ensure that officers maintain the highest levels of safety while working in the field and address any deficiencies immediately. Preparation through training is the key to survival.

Law enforcement agencies must provide officers with training designed to increase situational awareness and tactical competence. Well-trained, vigilant officers are more likely to find themselves on the positive side of the reactionary curve and less likely to make bad decisions. This is where officers should be each and every day.

Personal responsibility is needed to reach and maintain this level of preparation. Officers must be technically and tactically proficient in all aspects of the job—not only the tools of the trade but also the laws and policies that govern their use. They should train like their lives depend on it, because they may.

“In the Line of Fire” is a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) study of officers assaulted in the line of duty. Researchers found several distinctions between those officers who succumbed to their injuries and those who survived. One major characteristic was the will to survive. It is important to develop a survival mind-set and to constantly remind yourself that getting shot does not necessarily mean that you are going to die. Often, this belief stems from improper teaching techniques in the academy setting. Officers shot during training exercises will often be made to act as though they are going to die. Training should be realistic and repetitive and involve the use of sim-munitions (e.g., airsoft guns) and be designed to teach officers that getting shot does not mean they are going to die. Emphasis should also be placed on “Casualty Care and Rescue Tactics” training. This training provides officers the ability to provide life-sustaining first aid through the use of tourniquets and QuikClot Combat Gauze®.

Lesson Learned 2: Wear your body armor.

Nearly three hours into my shift, I found myself responding to a possible-shots-fired call and ended up in a fight for my life. I wore a business suit and was unvested at the time of the attack. A suspect armed with a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun ambushed me while I was exiting the passenger-side front door of an unmarked patrol car.

I was hit twice, once outside the car and once again after being knocked back into the car, at a distance of less than 10 feet. Two volleys of 12-gauge double-ought buckshot ripped through my body like a hot knife through butter. The first volley hit me in the right torso, fracturing the ribs on my right side, hitting my right lung, my liver, and one kidney. One pellet traveled through my body, exiting out the back, creating a half-dollar–sized hole a centimeter from my spinal cord. The second volley hit my right arm and struck my chief, who was in the driver’s seat. The pain and confusion experienced truly cannot be described in words. In rethinking this event, I think about how I could have responded differently and how wearing my vest may have prevented many of my injuries.

For 30 years, bullet-resistant body armor has protected law enforcement officers from ballistic and nonballistic incidents. More than 3,000 officers have survived potentially fatal and/or disabling injuries because they wore body armor (International Association of Chiefs of Police [IACP]/DuPont™ Kevlar® Survivors’ Club®, p. 1).2

Based on data collected and recorded by Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) staff members in Fiscal Year (FY)2012, protective vests were directly attributable to saving the lives of at least 33 law enforcement and corrections officers in 20 different states—an increase of 13.7 percent over FY2011 (Ibid, p. 2).3

Safety by supervision can increase an officer’s chances of surviving a critical incident by implementing a mandatory bullet-resistant vest wear policy. The policy is key, but it must be enforced at every level within the agency. Every officer, regardless of rank or work assignment, should be required to wear bullet-resistant body armor while on duty. Leaders can have a great impact on establishing an organizational culture of officer safety by vesting up in uniform as well.

Lesson Learned 3: It can happen to you.

I never expected to be shot in the line of duty. I never prepared for the potential attack and was not prepared to deal with the event or the years of recovery that followed.

The heroic actions of many law enforcement officers and emergency medical workers saved my life that day. The main reasons I survived: great physical condition, strong survival mind-set, and good luck. I have spent the last 16 years taking luck out of the equation and replacing it with preparation.

I entered this profession with my eyes wide open and was aware of the dangers associated with my chosen profession. I never expected this choice to have had such a negative impact on those I cared about the most. It would be an understatement to say that this event was devastating to my wife and then 13-year-old daughter. We never sat down and discussed as a family the what-ifs associated with the job. We never planned for the possibility of me being seriously injured in the line of duty or, even worse, killed. This created a lot of confusion and uncertainty after the event and a significant amount of stress and anxiety. Every law enforcement officer should have a conversation with those he or she cares about the most regarding the possibility of being faced with a potentially life-altering event.

Officer-involved shootings can affect the entire department. Agencies must prepare—have plans and resources in place—to mitigate the effects on the entire department.  My agency did not have a policy regarding line-of-duty injuries or deaths, which created confusion and misinformation in the early stages after the event. This has since changed. Regardless of size, agencies should plan and prepare for the potential of this type of event. Failing to plan is planning to fail, and no agency wants to be in the middle of this type of event without a plan.

My physical injuries healed, but recovering emotionally was much harder. I still fight this battle today with a disorder I call “should have,” “would have,” “could have.” This disorder involves second-guessing everything I did that day and being continually alert and unable to relax, feeling constantly on the lookout for signs of danger and dangerous situations. This disorder is actually called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can develop in a person who witnesses or lives through a traumatic event. Three key characteristics of PTSD include reliving the event, avoiding thoughts of the event, and hypervigilance (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.).4

I had to come to terms with the fact that nothing I do now will change the events or outcome of that day. However, I now know the importance of being prepared both physically and emotionally, and merely surviving an event is the first step on the long road to recovery. It is equally important to provide training and support designed to help officers thrive, not only after events such as mine but for the events seen and experienced over the duration of a career.

As outlined in the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, issued in May 2015: The wellness and safety of law enforcement officers is critical
             not only to themselves, their colleagues, and their agencies but also to public safety.  An officer whose capabilities, judgment, and behavior are adversely affected by poor
             physical or psychological health not only may be of little use to the community he or she serves but also may be a danger to the community and to other officers. However, the
             most important factor to consider when discussing wellness and safety is the culture of law enforcement, which needs to be transformed.  Support for wellness and safety should
             permeate all practices and be expressed through changes in procedures, requirements, attitudes, and behaviors.  This transformation should also overturn the tradition of
              silence on psychological problems, encouraging officers to seek help without concern about negative consequences.

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The posters below are available for you to print and post around the office.

Some Wounds Are Invisible

Some wounds are invisible. Know the symptoms of PTSD.

How Healthy are You?

How healthy are you? Your mental and physical health and safety matters to you, your family, and your community.

VALOR for blue eLearning

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Officer Down: The Road Ahead

This webinar illustrates the importance of the mental health and wellness of law enforcement officers following a critical incident. Speakers include former Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority police sergeant Dic Donohue, who tells his incredible story of recovery after being shot during the pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. He discusses the physical and mental effects the incident had on him, his family, and his agency. Dr. David Englert, clinical psychologist for the Charlotte–Mecklenburg Police Department, provides an intriguing overview of the short- and long-term effects on other officers within the agency. Recorded on , at p.m., ET.
View the takeaway handout from this webinar.

Thriving: One Officer's Story of Resilience Following a Critical Incident

June 30, 2016 - 22 minutes

Retired police chief and VALOR instructor John Bouthillette shares his story of not only surviving but thriving after a critical incident that nearly took his life. Dr. Olivia Johnson joins us, as well, to share steps that officers can take immediately to improve their resilience.

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Resources Mentioned in This Podcast

Behavioral Response to Stress and Fear

June 30, 2016 - 16 minutes

This episode examines how the mind and body respond to stress and explores methods that can be implemented to minimize the negative effects that stress can have on performance, especially in critical situations. Retired Major Mark Sawa, who served with the Travis County, Texas, Sheriff's Office, shares techniques for officers to remain calm and operate under stressful conditions.

Listen Download

Resources Mentioned in This Podcast

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The Benefits of Sleep

June 30, 2016 - 15 minutes

Sleep is beneficial for both our bodies and our minds, and not receiving the proper amount of quality sleep may affect your safety or the public's safety. With the help of Dr. Olivia Johnson, we will discuss the benefits of sleep, the dangers of not getting enough sleep, and tips for achieving better sleep.

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Blue Courage

Blue Courage is a way of being, a philosophy that inspires one to embody the noblest character and unquestioned devotion. It encourages officers to flourish in all aspects of life, to act with practical wisdom, to exude vitality, and to hearten human connections.

Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice

Community policing begins with a commitment to building trust and mutual respect between law enforcement agencies and communities. It is critical to public safety, ensuring that all stakeholders work together to address our nation's crime challenges. When law enforcement agencies and communities collaborate, they more effectively address underlying issues, change negative behavioral patterns, and allocate resources.

Destination Zero

In partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance VALOR Initiative, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Destination Zero Program helps agencies improve the health and safety of law enforcement officers across the country.  The primary goal of the Destination Zero Program is to create a platform that provides all U.S. law enforcement agencies with the ability to research successful and/or promising officer safety and wellness programs and identify the resources necessary to begin their own risk management initiatives.

A Guide to Occupational Health and Safety for Law Enforcement Executives

This report is one in a series of three documents created by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), with support from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), on the law enforcement response to public health emergencies. This Occupational Health and Safety guide focuses on steps a law enforcement agency can take to ensure the best possible health of the agency’s workforce.

Officer Safety and Wellness: An Overview of the Issues 

Now is the time to refocus attention on officer safety, health, and wellness concerns—to discuss and identify best practices in protecting our officers.   More than ever, officers need to be able to think and perform with ease and accuracy. Maintaining and investing in officer safety, health, and wellness are the most critical actions an agency can take.

Officer-Involved Shootings: A Guide for Law Enforcement Leaders

This guide is intended to provide guidance for preparing officers and departments prior to an officer-involved shooting, suggested incident scene actions and procedures, recommended procedures for conducting criminal and administrative investigations, suggestions for working with the media, and mental health and wellness considerations and procedures.

Suicide Prevention and Awareness

The IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness, Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide Project has multiple resources addressing the stigmas often associated with officer mental health and suicide in the policing profession and how agencies can help prioritize the well-being of their officers.

Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicides

Law enforcement agencies are like families. A special camaraderie forms in a department in which men and women work side by side in service to their communities. Not unlike traditional family units, police departments are shaken to the core with the death of one of their own, whether it is an officer or a professional employee. The response, organizationally and individually, is even more complex when that death is by the employee’s own hand.

2015 Police Suicide Statistics

There were 124 law enforcement line-of-duty deaths nationwide in 2015. Fifty-one officers were killed in felonious incidents; 42 of these officers were shot and killed. Seventy-three officers died as a result of nonfelonious incidents. The good news is that the number of felonious deaths this year decreased 16 percent from last year.

Reducing Officer Injuries Project

As part of its continued focus on officer safety, the IACP has partnered with BJA, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice to identify and document the causes and magnitude of officer injuries, develop practical resources to assist law enforcement agencies, recognize and respond to officer injury vulnerabilities, and disseminate resources to the law enforcement community.


1Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services Division.  2014 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted. Accessed: August 23, 2016.

2IACP/DuPont™. (2006, March 7) News:  “‘Survivors’ Club’ Salutes 3,000th Law Enforcement Officer Saved by a Protective Vest.”  Retrieved August 25, 2016, from

3U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance. Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) Program. (2016) Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office,

4American Psychiatric Association. (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (5th ed.). Washington, DC.

John Bouthillette is a retired chief of police, with a distinguished 26-year career in law enforcement.  He holds a master’s degree in human resources training and development, a master’s certificate in public administration, and a bachelor’s degree in police administration.  He is a graduate of the 236th Session of the FBI National Academy.  He is also recognized as a subject expert who has lectured both nationally and internationally on the topics of officer safety and survival.
Currently, Chief Bouthillette is a senior research associate with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research and works on the BJA VALOR Program, a training program designed to prevent violence against law enforcement officers and to ensure officer resilience and survivability following violent encounters.
Olivia Johnson, D.M., is the founder of the Blue Wall Institute, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for first responders through training and education on the dangers of the job.  Because of her dedication in raising awareness of first-responder issues, Dr. Johnson was named the Illinois state representative and an active board member for the National Police Suicide Foundation.  Dr. Johnson is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.  She worked for four years as an officer with the Sandoval, Illinois, Police Department and for a year as a federal police officer with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Police Department.
Dr. Johnson holds a doctorate degree in organizational leadership management from the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies; a master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Missouri–St. Louis; a bachelor’s degree in workforce education and development from Southern Illinois University; and an associate’s degree in administration of justice from Southwestern Illinois College.