Monday, November 30, 2009

What if You Survived the Lakewood Police Shootings?

By now you've probably heard about the murder of four uniformed Lakewood, Washington police officers in a coffee shop yesterday morning.  There seems to be no doubt that the victims were targeted because they were police officers.  Police have a suspect and have been trying to find him in a series of very visible but unsuccessful attempts today.

A lot has been, will be, and should be written about these courageous men and women and their surviving families, including nine children.  The spontaneous outpouring of grief and support is amazing.  The owner of the coffee shop chain where the shootings occurred is an ex-cop himself, and he said yesterday that since his employees were unhurt he was mostly concerned for the families.  Who can blame him?

But the fact of the matter is that there were a handful of other people in the coffee shop when the shootings occurred yesterday -- both staff and patrons.  Police have said that it took some time to get full statements from them because it was so hard for them to describe what they saw right away.  Who can blame them, either?

It is not uncommon for survivors of shootings, particularly shootings in which multiple people are killed, to feel survivor's guilt.  They wonder why they lived when others died.  They feel that if only they had done more, they might have saved others.  Most often, they find some solace in the knowledge that everyone there was a target, and had they done anything different they might well be among the dead.

This situation is a little different.  The other patrons were not, in fact, targets themselves.  It seems pretty clear that the gunman was looking to shoot cops.  It is not as simple as realizing that they had to save themselves.  But in fact, they did have to save themselves.  While they may not have been targets to begin with, had they confronted the gunman they undoubtedly would have become targets.

When all is said and done, however, four police officers are dead in a highly publicized and sensational shooting that is making the national news, and the only people in any kind of position to stop it, one might argue, were the staff and other patrons.  While we all know that we don't blame them and we don't think they could have stopped this, that probably isn't how they are feeling.  That kind of guilt can lead to isolating oneself, and that's a very bad thing to do after a traumatic incident.

Add to this the wrinkle that the gunman is still out there.  The survivors have to be concerned, at least on a gut level, for their own safety.  They are witnesses, and he clearly doesn't care much about human life.  It has to be hard to get up and go out in public under these circumstances.

Most police departments have supports in place for families of officers killed in the line of duty and also for other officers and their families who understandably have renewed fears for other officers' safety.  Fewer communities are really set up to support the civilian survivors of an incident like this.  This is a time when a community-based CISM team is critical.  I hope there is one out there, or that someone asks for one on those people's behalf.  They need our support, too.

Update:  The suspect in these murders was shot and killed by police on December 1.  Hopefully, that will alleviate some small amount of the stress the survivors are experiencing.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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