My law enforcement career spanned two cities and several different assignments. These assignments included patrol, DUI Unit, Field Training Officer, Hostage Negotiator, Crisis Intervention Team, Traffic Homicide Investigator, K9, Accreditation and Patrol Sergeant. Each of these assignments had their good sides, but each also had their dark side; like every assignment within the business. My assignments meant that I responded to a lot of the high priority calls for service and throughout my time, saw more than the “normal” number of critical incidents. I cannot give you a quantitative figure on how many more critical incidents I responded to than the typical patrol officer, and I don’t know that it really matters. The main point I want to get across is that we are all exposed to various incidents and over time they can wear on us all.
I have shared my story of my first officer-involved shooting before, so I won’t go into full blown details. To summarize, my first shooting took place one month after I got off probation. I had been on the job exactly one year and one month. It involved a suspect that was trying to stab me and tried his damnedest to. After the shooting I went through all of the emotional steps that typically take place. I had great support from fellow officers and in particular, several veteran officers that I looked up to. The city I worked for didn’t necessarily support me, but they also didn’t do anything to undermine me. It took a while, but I was able to get through the incident, go forward, and continue my career.
My career with my first city concentrated on traffic-related enforcement issues; primarily DUI enforcement and Traffic Homicide Investigations. I was a lead THI Investigator for the city and with the special events that took place in our jurisdiction, there were days I responded to multiple traffic fatalities in a day. I never had an issue with these scenes, as long as they involved adults. However, the ones involving children took large pieces of my soul and my mind and tore them apart. At the time, I thought this was because I had young children at home. But, over the years, I have learned that calls involving children take a little piece of everyone involved. These little pieces start to add up and if they are not dealt with, they can lead to a critical point.
MY CRITITCAL POINT
When I returned to law enforcement, after a 5-year break, I had all intentions of completing a full 20 years or more with my new city. I was happy to be back in law enforcement and I felt a new passion for it. I went right back to my roots, focusing on traffic enforcement related issues. Once again, the city asked me to take an assignment as the lead Traffic Homicide Investigator and I did. The first few years didn’t bother me, but then I handled an incident involving a 10-year-old child being hit and killed. That was the beginning of my protective “shield” starting to fail. These are the calls for service that cities never seem to think will bother officers. These “routine” investigations that we are supposed to handle every single day and just move forward. I had to work this investigation for a while, have several discussions over it, and it weighted heavy on my mind. Like all officers, I pushed on.
Then the call for service that took the biggest piece of my armor took place. A few days before Thanksgiving, I had my trainee and my K9 partner on patrol. We received a call for a missing child and our entire squad responded. While we responded, we received information that a neighbor’s house was calling and there was information the child was possibly there. My gut was telling me to arrive on-scene, deploy my K9 partner, and start searching. My training told me to go to the neighbor’s house, check there and then proceed. Anytime my training and my gut conflicted, I usually went with my gut; this time I didn’t. Instead, my trainee and I responded to the neighbor’s house. I knew something wasn’t right, as there was no sign of anyone being there. Dispatch was insistent the call came from the house. We spent less than 3 minutes checking the residence, determining no one was there. I ran back, grabbed my K9 partner and started to search. He immediately responded to the water near the house and a couple of minutes later, the child was found. He was unresponsive and was taken to the hospital. The little boy, Jake, did not survive. I spent 6 hours sitting next to Jake’s body; I made a promise to his parents that he would not be left alone, until the Medical Examiner responded and took custody of the body. When I went home that next morning, I collapsed into my wife’s arms and shed more tears than I thought possible. Everyone told me I handled the call properly and so I pushed forward.
Fast forward through more calls for service, more critical incidents, and then my next officer involved shooting. This time, I was the supervisor and the senior officer. This incident was almost identical to my first shooting and the results were the same. At first, I thought everything was okay and I continued working. However, I knew something was off and so did my officers. Decisions were harder to make, things were constantly bothering me, and my work product was suffering. Then, my Chief pulled me aside, after the state investigation into the shooting was complete. His words haunted me. Although I had been cleared in the shooting, he explained in simple terms that if I was involved in another shooting, he and the city would not support me; especially if the suspect was any race other than white. I found it odd that this was an issue, since my second shooting involved an apparent white, male suspect.
I went to work, but wound up being involved in another possible shooting. Instead of reacting, I froze. Those words the Chief had spoken ringing in my head, I couldn’t react as I should have. Instead, I risked my life and pig piled the suspect, holding him at bay until other officers arrived and assisted me. An armed felony suspect had failed to obey commands and repeatedly reached for a weapon and grabbed it, when I jumped on and began fighting him. While I was physically able to handle the incident, mentally it fucked me up. I had never frozen.
ASKING FOR HELP
Following this incident, I was called in for an internal investigation; not related to the call, but for another BS call. At this point, I explained what was going on and asked for help. I will say this; things did not go as I thought they would. Almost immediately, I was stripped of my badge and my gun. I had not expressed any ideas of suicide or violence, I just asked to speak to someone over not being able to sleep (for more than year), difficulty in making decisions, and the fact that every decision I made was being questioned; this had never happened before my shooting and now they were analyzing EVERY decision I made. I was working for a smaller city and I was told that the city manager was not happy with my shooting and had expressed this to the Chief, who then spoke his words to me. I can honestly say that it felt like they were pushing me out the door.
I was sent to our Human Resources Department, where I expected little help. However, the HR Manager was the most understanding person I dealt with. She set me with a counselor, completed all of the worker’s comp paperwork, and insured that I was going to be taken care of. For their part, the department placed me on light duty and assigned me to help with accreditation.
I went to my scheduled appointment with the psychologist they had picked for me. I was hesitant, like most officers would be, knowing that my career was hanging on the decision of this person. Our first session lasted a couple of hours. She wanted to know my entire background and what I thought the issue was. She delved into my entire background, and relieved a lot of the hesitation I had. At the end of the appointment, she agreed with an earlier medical doctor diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As soon as she gave it to me, my heart sank. Then, she surprised me. She explained she was going to work me through the issue and get me back to work, better than I was. She was completely positive in her statements and gave me hope. We set up a schedule of appointments, with the understanding that each session would build on itself, as long as I was honest. She had one simple assignment for me: keep a written journal of sleep, nightmares, or any other significant issues I had between our sessions.
THE SYSTEM HELPED – THE AGENCY DID NOT
My sessions continued with my doctor and I continued to work light duty, helping our agency work toward accreditation. I kept my journal and one thing became very apparent; my sleep was limited to a maximum of 3-4 hours per night and I was routinely interrupted my nightmares. The surprising part: the nightmares were only related to my shooting incident about half of the time. The remainders of the nightmares were related back to the drowning of Jake. While I was surprised, my doctor wasn’t. Although I never knew her full diagnosis until the completion of my treatment, I learned that my PTSD had been developing for years and that the shooting was just the final trigger for setting it off. As I have since learned, this is quite common for all law enforcement officers. It is just the result of dealing with one crisis after another and the way our minds try to protect us.
While my doctor and worker’s comp tried to get me back to help me, it soon became apparent that the city and department were not interested in helping. I will delve into this further, in the next section of this article. However, it was even apparent to worker’s comp that the city had no interest in doing their part to help me return to work. At one point, in a conference call with my doctor, myself and worker’s comp, and an expert psychiatrist they brought in to try and help, worker’s comp admitted that the city was hindering efforts for successful treatment and they only wanted to make sure my doctor did everything to protect me; anyone that has worked with worker’s comp will tell you this is definitely not the norm.
My agency and the city did everything they could to stop the treatment plan from helping. If my doctor or worker’s comp suggested something, the department did just the opposite. The final straw came just before Christmas. My sleep had not improved and the agency had started an IA on a call that was supposedly already done; from more than a year prior. The IA came at the direction of the Chief, despite the Captain saying the incident had already been handled. My doctor asked me to have the IA done, as it had been put on hold while I was being treated. She thought it would help me progress and get me over the hill. As I was driving to my doctor, the Captain called and stated they would not be completing the investigation until I returned; in the background, the Chief stated, “Tell him we aren’t here to help him, we will do it when we want.” When I expressed this to my doctor, she called worker’s comp, who called the Chief. The Chief told worker’s comp he had no plans to help alleviate any stressors, he didn’t care about the doctors’ opinions.
END OF MY CAREER
That very day, my doctor expressed that she would not be releasing me back to police work. I knew it was going to happen, but it still shocked me a bit. I had asked for help with hesitancy, but felt hope after speaking with my doctor; now the city had destroyed that hope and everything I had worked toward. I should put a little note in here, I was not the only one at the city going through this, two of my fellow officers were facing the same from other incidents.
I came home, told my wife what was going to happen, and we prepared for our next chapter. A few weeks later, my sessions ended and I was called into the HR Department. They tried their hardest to get me to resign, saying it would look better in my personnel file, rather than being fired. Most would have fallen for this. But, being the Chairman for our pension board, I knew if I quit, I forfeited my retirement. I expressed this and they acted astonished that I knew something they didn’t. I forced them to terminate me, filed for my disability pension and received it a month later.
CAREER ENDED, NOT MY LIFE
It has been more than 4 years since I officially retired. No, I didn’t retire the way I wanted, but I am officially listed as a retired law enforcement officer in the system and collect my monthly pension. I have received absolutely ZERO support from anyone associated with my agency, except the two other officers who went through the same thing (yes, they are officially retired too). While my career ended, my life has not.
I made a pact to myself, after retiring, that I would always be there for any officer that needs assistance. It doesn’t matter if it is a 3 o’clock talk in the morning, lunch, help in an IA investigation, or anything else. I have continued my support for my Brothers and Sisters in Blue and I ALWAYS WILL. It is part of the reason I am writing this article.
I won’t lie; I did go through a period of depression after leaving law enforcement again. After all, it wasn’t on the terms I wanted to leave. But I learned that leaving law enforcement was not the end of my life. I still get to be involved through teaching, mentoring and helping those holding the line. In addition, I’ve started a couple of new ventures in business, as a fishing guide and in woodworking. The nightmares still come, but they have gone from nightly, to maybe once or twice in a six-month period. I’ve found happiness and peace again, have learned to appreciate the smaller things in life, and have learned to appreciate every day that we are given.
This is what I hope every officer out there, who is struggling, understands: yes, asking for the help may end your career; however, it does NOT mean the end of life. It means that it is time to move on and find your inner peace and happiness. It can be difficult, but there are plenty of options in this world that you can choose and I can honestly say that once you’ve handled a law enforcement career, you can handle any career path you choose.
NEXT: WHAT CITIES and DEPARTMENTS SHOULDN’T DO
In my next portion of this article, I will get into full detail about what cities and departments shouldn’t do, when an officer asks for help; at least not if they want their employees to return and be successful.
“Above all, it’s about going home at the end of the shift … “
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