Just after 3 a.m. Friday, as the enormity of loss began sinking in, Dallas police officers stood at attention and saluted outside Parkland Hospital as the bodies of three of their five fallen comrades were being taken from the emergency room to the morgue.
They hugged and wiped away tears as a motorcade drove past, an array of police lights brightening the sky.
Then they went back to work.
Despite being the focus of the worst assault on law enforcement since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Dallas Police Department’s 3,500 officers must return to patrolling the city and combating an array of big-city crime even as they grapple with what happened Thursday when gunfire shattered a peaceful protest.
Law enforcement is not a profession that can easily step away from the job to grieve.
“They are going to have a hell of a time,” said Tom Verni, a former New York City police detective, law enforcement consultant and frequent CNN commentator. “But as heavy as the grief is, you cannot allow it to distract you from what you were doing. You have to be vigilant. You have to be alert. There may be other people out there who want to do the same thing.”
The coming months will test a major department that hasn’t seen a fatal shooting of an officer since 2009. Experts say some officers will navigate the emotions of what happened. Others might become depressed, disgruntled or angry. A few might quit.
On the streets of downtown Dallas on Friday, officers performed standard police duty, including protecting the crime scene of the shooting that also injured several of their comrades, some critically. Officers wore black ribbons over their badges — an international symbol for honoring fallen police — and some embraced each other on the street.
At times, pedestrians showed their appreciation by thanking them as they strode past or by handing out bottles of cold water in the sweltering summer heat.
Experts who have helped counsel law enforcement agencies through tragedies, including the 2009 executions of four suburban Seattle police officers at a coffee shop, said such community ties will likely help bolster officers’ spirits in the weeks to come.
Some departments have drawn upon that community support in deeper ways. In some instances, departments have successfully invited mental health experts and therapists in the community to help officers process what happened, law enforcement and police psychology experts said.
But officers also might be inclined to push others away, especially if they consider them a possible threat, according to several experts.
“Cops are going to be on guard throughout the nation,” said Bruce Mills, a former assistant Austin police chief whose partner, Ralph Ablanedo, was killed in 1978. “Unfortunately, I think there may be a tendency for overresponse, overreaction, and nobody wants that in our society.”
Laurence Miller, a police psychology expert in Boca Raton, Fla., said it is not unusual for officers to experience a “bunker mentality” after such incidents in which they might feel more defensive, particularly around populations they might think are more dangerous toward them.
“The best thing the police can do is reach out to the community and let them know they aren’t going to view any part of the community as being necessarily adversaries,” Miller said. “There has to be a message that ‘we aren’t going to stop being good cops because some members of a group did an unspeakable act.’”
Experts said it will be important for the department’s brass to model “mature grieving,” in which they talk about emotions, rather than turn to substances like alcohol or drugs. Properly processing what happened will help officers at work and at home, they said.
Unresolved trauma and grief can affect an officer’s life at home, according to Miller.
He said it isn’t unusual for departments to experience a rise in domestic violence cases, for instance, involving officers who might not have processed their trauma and grief.
Angie McCown, director of the victims services division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, who has worked closely with law enforcement for 30 years, said the shootings could cause some officers to question their choice of profession.
“I can only imagine putting myself in danger every day, making these kinds of sacrifices, and if I were feeling threatened by the public I protect every day, I’m assuming it would make someone question if this is a career they want to pursue,” she said.
Mills said he agreed: “I think some officers will ask, ‘Why am I in this?’”