By Stephanie Schendel
TENINO, Wash. — It has become an all too common news story — military veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder getting involved in shootouts or other violent confrontations with police or community members.
While it was the news headlines that first drew retired Olympia police sergeant and current Tenino Chief John Hutchings’ attention to the issue, it was when his own son returned from combat with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD that the problem became personal.
When Hutchings’ saw how his son, Sgt. Michael Hutchings of the U.S. Army who returned from Iraq in 2011, sometimes struggle to deal with every-day life situations, including interactions with the police, he realized just how crucial law enforcement training could be in de-escalating a situation that had the potential to turn violent.
“Police officers are alpha dogs trained to take control,” Hutchings said. “As are military.”
If a veteran suffers from some type of mental injury, however, he or she can go from being relaxed to a rage in an instant, escalating a minor conflict — such as a simple traffic stop — to a fight for life, he said.
“We are all alpha dogs and we don’t want to get into a confrontation with a soldier and not realize what we are dealing with,” Hutchings said. “Because it can turn ugly really fast.”
Hutchings, alongside his son, Seattle Police Officer Dan Nelson and Sherwin Cotler, a psychologist in Olympia, recently hosted the first training seminar for “Surviving Peace” in Olympia to a crowd of 28 police, probation and corrections officers. While the attendees were from multiple agencies throughout the region, most were from Thurston County, which is home to a large number of military families. The course, an eight-hour seminar, was funded by Behavior Health Resources in Thurston County.
“I believe there is a tremendous need for this,” Hutchings said, adding that he hopes the training will eventually reach beyond Thurston County as the issue impacts communities across the nation as more and more members of the military return home from serving overseas.
“As soon as a soldier feels threatened, they will kick into fight mode,” Hutchings said. “You don’t want to put two gladiators in the same ring.”
If handled properly, most of the time a situation involving a veteran suffering from PTSD can be de-escalated, but because many suffer from mental injuries, the burden falls on the officer, he said. If the police officer is trained to recognize that the individual they are contacting is suffering from PTSD, that information can be helpful when interacting with him or her.
For people with brain injuries, sensory overload — which could be caused by flashing police car lights and sirens — can trigger a violent flashback and confuse the person.
“The bottom line is when we come into contact with anyone in the public we have to do a quick assessment,” Hutchings said. “If we are blind going in, it is to our disadvantage.”
Hutchings said the key for officers is to try and slow down, assess who they are dealing with and then engage with certain communication tactics.
Another part of the training seminar, Hutchings said, is geared toward helping returning military members realize that police are not an enemy and that no one wants to get hurt.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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