04/14/2010

Barbara A. SchwartzLiving with the Sacrifice
with Barbara A. Schwartz

Living with the sacrifice: Catastrophically-injured officers

HPD Officer Rick Salter told a local newspaper, “The shooter didn’t kill me, but he still took my life” — sadly, he is one of many cops in a similar circumstance

Editor’s Note: We first encountered author Barbara Schwartz when she wrote a review of Chuck Remsberg’s book, Blood Lessons. In subsequent discussions with her, we discovered that we could work together to help officers across the country who have suffered a career-ending injury. We welcome Barbara to our roster of writers, and encourage you to e-mail her if you know of an officer who would like to tell their story to her, or if your department is doing already doing something to help catastrophically-injured officers and their families.

“The shooter didn’t kill me, but he still took my life.”

When I wrote those words for a novel that I’m working on, I didn’t know they would actually come to life.

A newspaper article quoted Houston Narcotics Officer Rick Salter saying those very same words. The similarity to my fictional officer’s dialogue led me to sit down and talk with Rick and his wife, Sue, about his shooting and how the incident has affected their lives.

I went on that visit looking only to gather research for my novel. I came away inspired to do something to support injured and disabled officers. An Internet search revealed that very few support resources existed. I decided that this gap needed to be filled and PoliceOne has stepped up to the challenge.

Catastrophically-injured officers, like Rick, faced the ultimate sacrifice and lived to tell about it. If not for advanced medical care, these officers would be a name on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

Rick Salter is a private pilot. He owns his own airplane. He loves to fly. A drug dealer took that passion away from him. Rick was shot in the face during a search warrant entry on the dealer’s house. The dealer had high-tech surveillance equipment. The dealer welcomed the cops with gunfire. Rick went down. He admits he first thought that he’d tripped on the porch steps and shot himself. He even cursed himself out for being so stupid.

The only person stupid that day was the drug dealer. We’ll dispense with the suspense: the dirtbag ended up dead.

But not before a bullet the drug dealer fired had severed Rick’s carotid artery, causing him to suffer two strokes. He has endured seven surgeries and can no longer pass an FAA flight physical. A year after the shooting, Rick spends eight hours a day, three days a week at rehab. That’s down from five days a week. He is in pain all the time and rarely sleeps. The bullet deprived Rick not only of his love to fly—it ended his 28-year police career in which he had made close to 3,000 successful high risk entries. Rick took thousands of drug dealers off the streets and put them where they belong — jail.

He may not have died in the line of duty, but Rick made a sacrifice all the same — the drug-dealing gunman didn’t kill Rick, but he still took his life.

When I spoke to Rick about the shooting, he told me with tears in his eyes that it didn’t just affect him — it had impacted his entire family. This is what Rick has found to be the hardest thing to live with.

When an officer is injured in the line of duty, the spouse’s and families’ lives are altered as well. Many spouses are forced to quit jobs to take care of their injured officer.

Having visited with Rick and Sue, and coming to truly understand their sacrifice, I wanted to establish an online forum for officers and their spouses, caregivers, and families. A forum that would not only support and provide a resource for these heroic officers, but would also train departments, administrators, supervisors, unions, and fellow officers on how to best support injured officers.

By happenstace, I had read and written a review of Chuck Rembsberg’s book, Blood Lessons. That soon led me discussions with PoliceOne Senior Editor, Doug Wyllie. We promised each other that by the upcoming Police Week activities this May, we’d launch an appeal to officers and departments across the country to honor disabled injured officers during Police Week. It’s not a terribly audatious goal.

Though their names don’t appear on a plaque for public display, the sacrifices these officers have made should not be forgotten.

Injured and disabled officers want to remain part of the police family. At first, officers receive many visitors in the hospital. Immediately after the incident the outpouring of support is at its highest. The problem begins when the officer leaves the hospital and returns home. Support wanes. Partners and friends come by less and less. The injured/disabled officer becomes a symbol of what might/can happen. Other officers don’t want to think, or be reminded, of the potential for injury. They stop visiting.

I urge officers to find the time, in between extra jobs, working overtime shifts, and taking care of your own families, to visit an injured or disabled officer in your community. The officer doesn’t have to be a member of your own agency. Seek out those officers who struggle with the aftermath of their injuries on a daily basis. Share your war stories. Let them share theirs. Make these officers feel like they are still an officer.

They didn’t stop being a cop by choice. A bad guy decided that for them.

Offer to bring over a takeout meal. The officer’s spouse will appreciate one less task to attend to that day.

If your department allows it, take the officer on a ride in your patrol car. The gesture may seem small and easy to you, but it is huge to the injured officer.

Departments need to follow the lead of the Houston Police Department (HPD). Due to Rick and other officers like him, HPD has set out on a mission to improve their response to officers and their families after a line of duty injury. HPD now debriefs the officer and family after the incident, requesting feedback on how the department can better provide support in the time of need.

This column is intended to be a voice for officers who have sustained a line of duty injury. For those who have returned to work and those who cannot. PoliceOne wants to hear from injured officers, as well as their spouses and children. What can this column do to help meet your needs? What issues need to be publicized and discussed? How can departments and other officers support you?

About the author

Barbara A. Schwartz retired after 30 years with NASA in Houston where she worked in Mission Control and Astronaut Training. She is a former reserve officer serving in patrol and investigations. She has been writing about law enforcement officers since 1972 and has been a contributing feature writer for American Police Beat for the past 10 years. Her articles and book reviews have also appeared in Command, The Tactical Edge, Crisis Negotiator Journal, The Badge & Gun, The Harris County Star, The Blues, and The Police News.

Schwartz earned a degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University with electives in Criminal Justice and Criminology. She helped fund her education by working for the campus police department.

Contact Barbara A. Schwartz

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