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The Stress of an On-The-Job Killing

Date Published
August 21, 2019

This article was published as part of NIJ Journal Issue 281, August 2019, as a side bar to the article Fighting Stress in the Law Enforcement Community by James Dawson. 

When David Klinger shot and killed the man who was trying to stab his partner to death in 1981, it was up close, but it wasn’t personal. Klinger, then a patrol officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, was only 23 years old when the assailant suddenly pulled a large knife and attacked like a “madman,” Klinger wrote in his 2004 book Into the Kill Zone.

Klinger’s partner went down under the frenzied knife attack and was on his back trying to fend off the assailant’s efforts to push the knife into his neck when Klinger joined the fray. As Klinger’s attempts to wrestle the knife from the man failed, his partner yelled, “Shoot him!” So Klinger did. “I picked a spot on the left side of the madman’s chest, brought my gun up, and pulled the trigger,” Klinger wrote. The man died within minutes.

“I had gone into law enforcement to help people, not kill them,” he wrote, “and the shock of having taken a life stayed with me for a long time. It was a major reason why I left police work.” Klinger is now the chair of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Missouri and studies various aspects of policing, including the use of deadly force. In a 2002 NIJ-supported study entitled “Police Responses to Officer-Involved Shootings,” he looked at the stress a police officer experiences after killing someone in the line of duty.[1]

Police nationally shoot and kill about 1,000 people every year, he said in a recent interview, and he believes that number has been fairly constant for some time. What has changed is the unrelenting presence of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, he said. The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was “a watershed event in terms of focusing public and media attention on policing and police violence as a social problem, a social issue,” he said.

Has the increased public attention increased the stress on officers working the streets? “The pressure officers feel because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle is that they never get a break,” Klinger said. They don’t get a break from the coverage, and they don’t get a break when it comes to how an incident is handled.

Klinger isn’t sure how much police behavior in the field has changed, if at all. “What we do know is we have more prosecutions. What we do know is more cops have gone to jail or prison in the last few years than in previous years. And is that because prosecutors are being more aggressive, or is it because something in the last few years is sick in American policing and we have crappy shootings that we didn’t have a generation ago?” It is, he concluded, an empirical question without a definitive answer.

About This Article

This article was published as part of NIJ Journal Issue 281, August 2019, as a side bar to the article Fighting Stress in the Law Enforcement Community

Date Published: August 21, 2019