Law enforcement officers are often exposed to events and situations that the human mind is not made to process. Most officers can name at least one call that changed them, a call that they still can see clearly in their mind, a call that will forever impact them. Unfortunately, some officers have several of these calls still playing inside their head. My call occurred around midnight in the early morning hours of a Sunday in the fall of 2001. While the details of that night are not critical to my message here, I can tell you that the images and feelings I had that morning are forever burned into my mind. I was just over two years out of the police academy, and while I had been to several murder scenes prior to that, this one impacted me in a way I was not prepared for. Despite having discovered this grisly crime scene at the end of my shift, I remained on scene until the sun came up in the morning. I returned to the station to complete my reports and then went home in the mid-morning hours.
While at work, I was able to hold in my emotions through my discovery of the scene, the response of my fellow officers, the processing of the scene and my report writing. I was not, however, able to hold in my emotions when I returned home. As I walked into my bedroom that Sunday morning and saw my wife and my young children, I burst into tears. I cried for what seemed like an eternity. My wife, not knowing what I had experienced that night, did her best to comfort me. I hugged her and tried to tell her what I had experienced. I could not speak. No words would come. Eventually, my exhaustion got the best of me and I fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours later and headed back to work. While my department has a robust peer support system today, those protections were not in place back then. When I arrived at work, I was given an assignment and headed out to handle my beat. I was not in an emotional condition where I should be back at work, and I was unable to focus on my responsibilities. No one checked on me, and I was afraid to ask for assistance. I remember thinking that I should not be at work, but I also felt a duty to be there.
I received an assignment to look for a car that the suspect from that morning’s event had used. I remember arriving in the area to search for the car. The next thing I remember was being in a different part of the city several miles away. I had obviously driven there, but I had no memory of doing so. That was enough for me to summon my strength and get help. I drove back to the station and told my sergeant I was struggling to cope with the call from my previous shift. I was scared that he would call me a wimp or a baby and tell me to get back out and do my job. What actually happened surprised me. He wasn’t angry. Instead, he was very supportive. He hadn’t worked the night before and didn’t know my involvement in the call. He apologized for assigning me to look for the car. He made sure I was OK and let me go home. I was very thankful for his caring response.
I didn’t get over that call that night. I spent years thinking about that call. I questioned my actions that night. Could I have saved them? Could I have died? Could I have saved his later victims? For years working the same beat, I found myself driving past the location and had the memories come back. I found myself taking the long way to calls just to avoid driving past it. Eventually, my mind got better, but even now, over 18 years later, the images and experiences of that night are burned into my mind. What once haunted me daily is now just a clear memory that surfaces on occasion.
Many if not most of you have your own call that haunts you. Some of you may be in the early stages in which you cannot get the images out of your mind. Some of you are like me and they are a distant but clear memory. The point I want to make is that there is a recovery and there is help. I was lucky to have my wife, who has always been my support. We all need to have people to talk to. If you are struggling, there are people who stand to support you. It is important that we recognize we need help and that we reach out for it. Talk to your co-workers, your peer support, a professional counselor and especially your family. Reach out and get the help you need to recover from your experience. It is normal and expected that officers will struggle after experiencing a traumatic call, and it is normal to need help.
There are many who struggle through their experiences and need our help to get them through it. We need to keep an eye out for our partners who are struggling. Whether they’re struggling with coping or with substance abuse that can follow a traumatic call, we need to be strong enough and love them enough to ensure we help them get the assistance they need. Far too often, we hear tragic stories of officers not recovering from their traumatic experiences and careers ending with substance abuse or, even worse, officers taking their own life. We cannot let that happen. If you are the one struggling, your brothers and sisters are here to help you if you reach out. If you see your partner struggling, be brave and have the tough conversation with them that can save their life and get them back on track.