Cops, Brain Injuries and Bullets

tulsa_cnnA different look at the role of traumatic brain injury in police shootings.

One (possibly more) of the victims of recent police shootings had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI).  Several bloggers who are victims of TBI are now expressing fear of interacting with police — fear that they too might be killed.

Traumatic brain injury can affect sufferers in a variety of ways.  Some common effects include:

  • Speed in processing instructions
  • Reaction time to stimuli
  • Emotions

What appears to have happened is that a police officer in a confrontation gives an order to someone who does not respond to the order promptly.  The officer interprets the non-reaction as hostility and it escalates from there into a shooting.

TBI patients may not react promptly, and the non-reaction indicates nothing more than that they are having trouble processing the instructions.  They don’t deserve to die for that.  They are already suffering enough.

However, as is often the case, there’s another dimension to this picture that no one has discussed.  Think about the problems of undiagnosed or under-diagnosed concussions.  Police themselves often have military or athletic backgrounds, and we are only now coming to terms with concussions in sports.  The VA has a history of overlooking concussion injuries in vets (1), and finally released the Concussion Coach mobile app to help vets with deal with concussions in 2014 (2, 3).

Further, police can and do sustain head injuries and concussions on the job.  In a recent case in Norfolk, Virginia, a police recruit died after suffering head blows during training (4).

In the case of a Seattle officer who stomped on the head of a person in handcuffs, the officer was exonerated of wrong doing after a determination that he had sustained a low level concussion that affected is actions (5).

The problem with concussions is that they often present little or no external appearance of damage.  Why is that a problem?

  • A lot of people still believe that, in the absence of external injury, a claim of concussion is just a convenient excuse.
  • Fellow officers may see the cop claiming a concussion as a malingerer, and reporting a concussion might affect future promotion opportunities.
  • Fear of stigma can cause both civilians and officers to shun seeking treatment.

Here’s the point:  we probably have a lot of officers walking around with undiagnosed or untreated concussions that are affecting their thinking, emotions, reaction time and behavior.  Administrative reforms as in Norfolk are designed to protect prisoners, but there is no effort to screen officers for brain damage.

So we can have situations in which an impaired officer is confronting an impaired civilian.  Just how much good is going to come from that?

To fix a problem, you have to get to root causes.  And its not all about racism, as we have had black officers shooting black suspects.  Its time to look deeper at causes, and TBI should be considered as one of them.



  1. Alvarex, Lizette, “War Veterans’ Concussions Are Often Overlooked,” The New York Times.  August, 25, 2008.
  2.  Peterson, Hans, “Help with Concussions in Veterans Hands Today,”  Veterans Administration,  17 April 2014.
  3. Veterans Administration.
  4. Kulbarsh, Pamela, “Concussions: More Than a Smack Upside the Head,”  21 June 2012.
  5. Thalen, Mikael, “Seattle Police Chief Says Concussion Made Officer Stomp Handcuffed Man’s Head,”, 4 June 2014.


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