"Post traumatic stress" has become one of those trendy terms, trivialized to the level of pop psychology and psychobabble by people who have no idea what they are talking about. Once upon a time, the condition was called "shell shock" if it happened to a soldier as a result of war or a plain old "nervous breakdown" if it happened to a civilian. Simply stated, what is today called post traumatic stress means that an individual has reached a crisis point brought on by an event or events with which he or she never fully dealt or confronted on an emotional level. Think of post traumatic stress as a piece of shrapnel or splinter left untreated until an abscess forms.
Until fairly recent history, nobody really associated police officers with post traumatic stress. Hardly anyone likened police work to war, except cops, of course, who always knew they were in a war. Higher than normal divorce rates and self-medication, usually with alcohol, were just cop things, like going deaf. Police movies almost always featured a divorced cop who drank too much.
As late as the decade of the 1980s when I got into the business, most cops didn't talk about their emotional problems because it was considered unmanly -- even for the increasing number of female officers. Cops were tough and rugged. The novels and movies all said so.
In my early career, I saw an officer put back on the street the night after his body armor stopped six rounds during a traffic stop on a dark road. I saw another officer put back to work without a moment's counseling the day after returning to duty from what had almost been a fatal gunshot wound. Few people made the connection between the ulcers he developed and the six rounds the first officer caught in the vest, or the shoplifting incident that ended the second cop's career. Nor was any counseling offered to the rest of the department when one of our detectives was shot to death.
True, by the early 1980s, Joseph Wambaugh had already written "The Onion Field," which described how and why a good officer was arrested for shoplifting after his partner was murdered on the streets. Unfortunately, the idea of cops as victims was slow to catch on in some places and, in fact, has never caught on in other jurisdictions.
After the relatively small department (fewer than a hundred patrol officers and detectives at the time) where I began my career had three officers wounded by gunfire, and a third shot to death in less than a year, those who were in charge scoffed at the idea that police officers should be counseled after traumatic experiences. When some of us asked for a mental health program, we were told that we should stay out of the kitchen if we couldn't stand the heat. My own bout with post traumatic stress came about ten years into my career and when I least expected it. As an advocate of counseling for cops, I had helped several get into programs outside the department (even though we nominally had a program by that time that none of us trusted). I thought I
had seen enough horrible things in my 12 years on the street to make me immune. But I was wrong.
Early in 1992, I drove into the middle of a gunfight on a crowded street one Friday evening. It had been touched off by a drug deal gone bad in an area that never should have been used as a transfer point. When I rolled in to assist, with rounds flying in every direction, I couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys because I was the only one in uniform. To make a long story short, I almost shot a narcotics officer, who was also a personal friend. Without going into detail, let me say that to this day, I believe a less experienced cop than I would have pulled the trigger instead of waiting.
In the aftermath, securing the scene, searching for spent shell casings, collecting drugs strewn for a mile along the highway and ascertaining that nobody in the vicinity had been shot, the officer who had been in my sights joked with me about the near disaster. After all, we had been lucky. No harm done.
A week later when I began to wake up drenched in sweat, I made no connection with the near fatal encounter. Even when I reached a point at which I was sleeping only three or four hours a night, I tried to slough it off. Finally, after I found myself sitting in my cruiser one evening, unable
to remember the location of a small market on a beat I had run for years, as an officer was calling for assistance, I realized I was in trouble.
Nobody was hurt as a result of my having frozen momentarily. In fact, nobody knew what had happened except me, but I called my supervisor and told him I would be on medical leave until further notice. I got counseling immediately and was back on the streets not long afterwards, a better and more humble police officer.
The moral of my story? It's simple; nobody is strong enough to carry the things heaped upon cops, day after day and year after year, not alone. If you need help, get it. It may save your career, and maybe even somebody's life.
David Hunter is a retired detective and the author of several books. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org