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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Recognizing PTSD Reactions


Police Officer Toolkit


Recognizing PTSD Reactions

In the What Is PTSD? section, we described the types of symptoms people with PTSD experience. Here we provide some examples of ways PTSD reactions might show up in Veterans' encounters with police.

Intrusion Symptoms

Intrusion symptoms often involve internal thoughts or feelings that will not be obvious to police officers. Instead, you might notice:

  • A person may seem distracted, defensive, and inattentive to what you are asking. He or she is not necessarily being disrespectful or lying, but may be re-experiencing memories of a past traumatic event.
  • A person is overly reactive, such as jerking away or cowering when touched, not because he or she is being resistant or aggressive, but because he or she is having a flashback. The person is experiencing all the sensory events of a prior traumatic event, as if it is happening again at that moment.

Avoidance Symptoms

Avoidance symptoms may directly interfere with a police officer's duties. A person with PTSD may try to avoid people, situations, places, or internal states that remind him or her of a past trauma, because remembering such events is distressing. For example:

  • A Veteran who was involved in a violent attack on his or her division's motorcade may resist getting into a patrol car.
  • A person who has experienced an attack in a heavily-populated urban area may become agitated when unexpectedly caught in a protesting crowd.
  • A person who was assaulted by someone in uniform avoids or refuses to talk or make eye contact with you because you are in uniform.

Negative Alterations in Cognitions and Mood

These symptoms take the form of emotional numbing or having difficulty feeling emotions, problems with memory, estrangement from others, or negative views of oneself or the world. Like intrusion symptoms, negative changes in thoughts or feelings may not be observable but can still interfere in police duties. For example:

  • A person with PTSD who is feeling alienated from others does not trust you enough to cooperate by answering your questions or responding to commands.
  • A person with PTSD who feels numb and detached (or even hopeless) may fail to provide you with information about the event to which you are responding.

Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity

These types of PTSD symptoms are probably the most likely symptoms police will encounter. A person with PTSD may be overly alert, hyper-reactive, and on edge. For example:

  • A person with PTSD constantly scans the environment for potential danger and may feel extremely threatened by anyone approaching him or her. This is especially threatening if being approached from behind, as is sometimes the case with a second officer.
  • A person with PTSD may feel easily threatened and become aggressive or violent when you try to direct or restrain him or her.
  • A person with PTSD (especially a Veteran) may carry a weapon because he or she feels unsafe. Someone with PTSD may be more likely to use that weapon because he or she may misinterpret neutral cues as signs of danger.

Symptoms Without a Full Diagnosis

While all these examples are indicative of the potentially negative symptoms related to PTSD, keep in mind that PTSD may not always be the reason for these reactions. Veterans may have many of the symptoms of PTSD without a full diagnosis of PTSD, or may have similar reactions for different reasons, such as having difficulty sleeping because of chronic pain, or being angry because they feel civilians do not have the same service orientation as Service members and Veterans. Any assumption on your part that they are only acting in a certain way because of PTSD may result in their feeling misunderstood or angry.

PTSD Information Voice Mail: (802) 296-6300
Also see: VA Mental Health