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Tex. agencies help returning officers go from combat zone to patrol beat

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS, Tex. — One morning, a 911 call came in to Austin police. Two men were fighting, and the caller said one flashed a knife.

Among the officers dispatched was Wayne Williamson, who had returned the year before from military duty in Iraq. He and other officers soon found themselves chasing one of the men toward a crowded shopping center.

"Austin police. Stop or I'll shoot!" Officer Williamson yelled several times, even though he never saw a knife nor had reason to believe the man was about to hurt anyone.

Before the man was caught, Officer Williamson fired three shots at him. One bullet pierced a van carrying a 14-year-old and a baby. No one was hurt, but the March 14 incident cost Officer Williamson his job.

Afterward, he and his attorney said his time in the war zone may have clouded his judgment.

Most reservists and guardsmen who return from the Middle East readjust from the Humvee to the Crown Victoria with little problem. But a few have come back to police work in Texas and other states only to use tactics more suited to a combat zone than a city patrol beat.

In one case, during a narcotics operation in Los Angeles County, a deputy explained his decision to shoot in military terms – as "laying down cover fire."

Some law enforcement agencies have begun to look harder at how they help returning troops make the transition back to police work. The International Association of Chiefs of Police is developing a national strategy to address the concern.

"We want to expedite this, because we think it's very important," said Jim McMahon, chief of staff for the IACP. "These are key people who come back with a great amount of experience from their prior service to their municipality, and now their service to their country."

No changes for Dallas

Dallas police officials say they have not experienced similar problems with returning troops. During the last two years, 21 officers have returned to the agency from military service. Only some of them saw combat.

When officers come back from any type of extended leave, the agency screens them for mental health issues.

Returning officers are put through the same battery of psychological tests they took when first hired. And the psychologists have particular questions for those returning from war. Where did you serve? How long? What did you see? Did you lose any friends?

"I've seen one or two that just wanted to talk a little bit more after coming back," said Al Somodevilla, a longtime Dallas police psychologist. "But we haven't seen, fortunately, anyone that we had to say, 'No, you're not fit for duty; you cannot go out there.' "

He said he feels the agency's screening is adequate.

"You don't want to make them feel that because they have been there, they're scarred," he said. "They may be, but what we do is try to find out how they're doing, find out how they're coping, and we give assistance to those who need it."

The case in Los Angeles County was one of two in recent years that have spurred the sheriff's department there to add a fourth day to its repatriation program for returning troops.

The deputy "was putting down cover fire as he moved from one point to the other," said sheriff's Cmdr. Gil Jurado. "We insist on having a specific target. You just can't shoot in the general area that they're at."

It seemed to be part of a trend with returning troops, Cmdr. Jurado said. "Some of them [are] still having somewhat of a mindset relative to tactics of what they learned in the military. We saw a few of those techniques being used in the streets, and we thought, 'Uh-oh, we need to retrain them.' "

The agency's repatriation program is designed for more than just retraining. It focuses on ensuring the welfare of the officers and nurturing both them and their families during their readjustment to civilian life.

"The whole system starts off from showing appreciation for their efforts to go over there, and to help them do the tough job that they have to do," Cmdr. Jurado said.

The program's fourth day, which was added this summer, includes policing scenarios simulated with paint-ball guns.

"The rules of engagement for the military are different than the rules of engagement for law enforcement," said Audrey Honig, the department's chief psychologist. "The military, they work more under the basic assumption of 'when in doubt, shoot.' And we work under the basic assumption of 'when in doubt, don't shoot.' "

Partner policy

Complicating things, she said, is that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are often operating in a city environment. "So there's just a little greater risk of people responding to this urban environment as they would to the other urban environment, when they were in a different role," Dr. Honig said.

Patrol deputies spend their first days back on the job with partners. Each deputy is also assigned a mentor. These precautions, Dr. Honig said, "give them an opportunity to get back into the groove of responding the way they used to respond when they were working for us."

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