“The Pain Behind the Badge”: Powerful new documentary explores officers’ trips to the edge—and back.
Part 1 of a 2-part series
From Force Science News
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A few hours earlier, Sgt. Clarke Paris, a veteran of 22 years on the Las Vegas Metro Police, had finished a shift on which he’d responded to 5 suicide calls, the victims ranging from a 70-year-old man to a 13-year-old boy.
Now he was lazily floating with his wife in their backyard pool, but the desert sun could not bake out of his soul an unsettling sense that “my suitcase was finally packed with more than it could hold.”
He started to tell his wife that the job was getting to him, but he couldn’t get a full sentence out before “I broke down bawling like a baby.”
As he alternated between sobs and stuttered words, vivid career moments flashed back to him: the 4-month-old baby starved to death by its parents…the “little girl with the sweetest smile” whose stepfather had smashed her face so hard with his fist that he shattered her eye socket…the 2 Midwestern college girls who’d been tied up and sodomized at knife point, terrified, weeping and helpless…the drunk driver who ran over him when he worked motors….
When his wife was finally able to understand that an accumulation of typical cop stressors was sledge-hammering the man she perceived as “strong and brave and everything you think of in a police officer,” she asked if he wanted to quit the force.
No, he insisted, he loved the job. What he wanted—the idea suddenly hit him “out of nowhere”—was to film a documentary that would illustrate the emotional price cops pay for their ringside seat at the human circus.
His wife was incredulous. Make a documentary? Paris by his own admission can’t work his VCR!
Yet 15 months later, this determined sergeant is today the proud parent of a powerful film that in 104 compelling minutes shows how law enforcement officers can be pushed to the brink of despair by the things they experience and yet, with proper help, can be brought back to emotional wholeness that renews their zest for life and for their profession.
“Every day as a police officer you get slapped in the face with a dose of your own mortality. Over time, you’re exposed to every bad thing that can happen to a human being,” Paris told Force Science News. “You have to dissociate yourself from all that in order to function. You feel you can never let down that wall or people will think you’re weak. But the toll of keeping up that front is so much greater than anyone can ever imagine.”
His film, “The Pain Behind the Badge,” focuses on 3 officers, each with more than a decade of service, who eventually reached a breaking point from cumulative emotional stress. Two actively plotted their suicides; the third, with a marriage crumbling in the wake of a fatal shooting, was potentially headed toward the same dire level of disintegration. All managed to revitalize their lost spirits with the aid of effective police counseling programs.
Paris hopes that from identifying with their experiences, other officers who are hurting (and may not even recognize the symptoms of dangerous distress) will realize they are not alone in their feelings and be motivated to seek help. And he hopes departments will be spurred to begin addressing a pressing problem in policing that too many have swept under the carpet for too long. “I want this film to save lives,” he says.
It wasn’t long after he launched his ambitious project that Paris made 2 “flabbergasting” discoveries that kept driving him forward, despite formidable obstacles:
• First he came across sobering statistics about police suicides. “Every year,” he says, “2 to 3 times more officers commit suicide than die in the line of duty—roughly one officer every day. We’re more danger to ourselves by far than the bad guys are.”
• Second, he learned first hand that many administrators don’t want the problem discussed. “Often when I approached departments looking for officers to interview, chiefs were afraid that talking about the stress of the job would make recruitment even harder or would affect the public’s confidence if the outside world knew about this.”
Despite repeated turndowns, Paris kept pushing until he found 2 long-time Las Vegas officers—Troy D’Ambrosio and Sgt. Ruben Hood— and 1 from New York City—
Jonathan Figueroa of NYPD—who were willing to tell their dramatic stories on camera. He recruited a cameraman, director and technical guru—Jonathan Giddinge, the founder of 100 Watt Productions and the son of a Vegas sergeant—who was willing to work on spec. And when a local businessman who’d promised to fully fund the venture suddenly got cold feet, Paris decided to pick up all expenses himself, drawing on “the Bank of Clarke’s Credit Cards.”
To date, he estimates, the project has cost him some $42,000 from his own pocket—and he considers it worth every penny.
In the film, the officers candidly recount their background on the street, their “breaking point” and their recovery. Three experts on police stress—Dr. David Joseph, a police psychologist from Oakland, CA; Philip Riccobono, a licensed clinical social worker and retired NYPD sergeant; and Sgt. Tom Harmon, director of the Las Vegas Police Employee Assistance Program—offer insights and observations about the universality of the officers’ experiences and the techniques and benefits of practical intervention.
For each of the 3 officers, the tipping point at which the cumulative stress of working the street became overwhelming involved a life-claiming event.
Hood told the camera: “I’ve seen a lot of terrible things in my career. The thing that led me to collapse probably wasn’t the worst thing—just the 1 thing at the right time that led to a perfect storm.”
Specifically, he got into a down-and-dirty alley fight with “an incredibly strong” burglary suspect he was trying to handcuff. As Hood struggled furiously to get the cuffs closed around the man’s wrists, he could “feel tendons in the suspect’s arm tearing, his shoulder popping.” All the while, the suspect was screaming, “Don’t kill me!”
In the end, after being successfully restrained with the help of another officer and sitting quietly for a few moments, the suspect slumped over, dead.
In D’Ambrosio’s case, it looked initially like he would be the fatality. When he pulled up at a house on a “threatening-suicide” call, a deranged teenager suddenly jumped on the hood of his squad, pointed a gun at him and threatened to “blow your fuckin’ head off.” “I never had a feeling of such extreme fear,” D’Ambrosio says.
But fueled by anger at the prospect of his 6-month-old daughter being left fatherless, he ducked, whipped out his pistol and sent multiple rounds blasting through the glass and into the assailant. D’Ambrosio remembers “a wave of blood flying” from the suspect’s body. When he realized he was alive and the offender was down, “I felt very good, but I also felt guilt about what I did to him. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Figueroa had been a responder to the collapsed Twin Towers on 9/11, where the death toll among officers for a single day was record-breaking. For 3 months he joined in the grisly task of picking body parts (“a skull…a hand….”) from the debris and experienced a corrosive sense of survivor’s guilt.
Then on a shift when he was assigned elsewhere “to recoup,” a plane crashed near New York City and he was sent to work that scene. Among the horrors he encountered there was the corpse of a woman still belted in her seat, holding her dead baby on her lap. “It seemed like an out-of-body experience,” Figueroa recalls. “Nobody should have to see that.”
At the time, he displayed no outward emotion. But several years later, after hearing that a 9/11 responder had died apparently from related health problems, Figueroa broke down crying uncontrollably at work. From there, things got “worse and worse,” he said. “I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t function, I couldn’t even watch TV. All that seemed to happen on it was people getting killed.”
He began suffering headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, palpitations, panic attacks. He lost 17 pounds, unable to eat without vomiting or being struck with severe diarrhea. He went 3 to 5 days at a time without sleep; “whenever I closed my eyes, I’d jump up in a panic. I started to see myself in the deaths I had seen.” He went so far as getting a cat scan, thinking he might have a brain tumor.
Unable to see a way out, “I made up my mind,” Figueroa says. “I was going to drag myself in to work, take my gun, and put it to my head and I was going to finally get some sleep. I couldn’t take it any more.”
After the death of the suspect he’d struggled to handcuff, Hood experienced a steep emotional descent as well. “Every bad call, every bad thing I’d ever seen, every smell, every feeling, every injury that I’d had or inflicted, it all came back. I just couldn’t face it.” When he insinuated at work that he was hurting emotionally, “I always got the same response: ‘Aw, he was just a piece of crap. Why are you worrying about him?’ People were trying to tell me how I should feel, and they didn’t have a clue.”
Hood started drinking “very heavily,” crying a lot, not eating, not working out, not being able to sleep. “I felt this agony, misery, pain,” he says. “I hated me.” And in his mind’s eye, he began to imagine “a faceless cop taking his life.”
Hood decided that when his family was out on errands, he’d go out to their dog run and shoot himself—the dog run so as not to “get anything dirty in the house.”
D’Ambrosio experienced many of the same symptoms of stress overload that the other 2 describe, but his despair never sank to the suicidal level. He did seem destined, however, to losing an important part of his life: his marriage.
Neither he nor his wife seemed able to initiate a discussion of his shooting, even though the repercussions of it were secretly eating at both of them. Rather than open up, they “just walked past each other in the house, day after day after day,” while their relationship foundered.
After 3 years, when the strain finally reached a crisis point, the D’Ambrosios turned to the Las Vegas Police Employee Assistance Program for marriage counseling and, in the process, D’Ambrosio found that the therapy offered there helped him lay the lingering demons of his shooting to rest as well.
Figueroa and Hood, despite considerable initial skepticism, also got into counseling programs. In both cases, last-minute reflections on their families and a realization of how devastated their suicide would be to their loved ones kept them from pulling the trigger and launched them on a slow but successful climb back to emotional stability.
“I’m back to loving life and living in the moment,” Figueroa says. “What’s old is new for me again. I enjoy my job. I’m having fun. It’s great for me to be back out there.”
He says that the officer aid program that helped him, the volunteer Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance, gave him “the tools to deal with life, and that’s so great because now I can deal with it.”
In hopes of reaching the broadest possible audience with the message of hope his film conveys, Clarke Paris has applied to enter the documentary in 10 major film festivals throughout the U.S. and has sent copies to major television outlets to stir interest in prime-time broadcasting.
Meanwhile, Paris, a POST-certified instructor, is optimistic that as word of the film spreads individual agencies will engage him to screen it for their personnel and conduct an 8-hour training block he has built around it.
Enthusiastic about the documentary, Sheriff Douglas Gillespie, head of the Las Vegas Metro Police, has urged him to do whatever he can to get the message out. “He told me that too often administrators overlook this problem until it’s too late,” Paris says. “He has even agreed to take DVD copies of the film with him to law enforcement conferences to help heighten the awareness.”
The mission is an urgent one, Paris says. Near the end of “The Pain Behind the Badge,” the screen fills with these haunting statements:
• From 1997-2007, 1,800 officers were killed in the line of duty, while 4,900 officers committed suicide, according to the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation.
• Fewer than 2% of all police agencies have police suicide prevention programs.
• There are no federally funded programs in place for the prevention of police suicide.
• During the time it took to produce the film, an estimated 329 officers took their own lives.
[NOTE: Paris points out that no matter how dark a personal situation may seem, help for officers is available. For referrals and other assistance, LEOs or those concerned about them can call the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance at 212-298-9111 (www.poppanewyork.org ) or the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation at 866-276-4615 (www.psf.org).
[For more information on Paris’ documentary or to reach him, check his website: www.thepainbehindthebadge.com or call 702-573-4263.
[Thanks to Las Vegas officer Bob Hindi and PoliceOne trainer Gary Klugiewicz for tipping us to this story.]
NEXT: how to help yourself or another officer when the stress of the job seems overwhelming. Read Part 2