'It's OK to not be OK' after fatal shootings, police counselors say
Over time, the stress of the job can wear on an officer
BEL AIR, Md. — It's the nature of the job that police officers are willing to run toward danger, rather than away from it. They face difficult situations, some more difficult than others, every day. But they handle them and move on to the next call, the next situation.
"Think about our mission as police officers, think about how we're wired," Lt. Marc Junkerman, a 23-year veteran of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, said. "A certain person accepts the challenges of this job. It's a certain personality type."
The perception of police officers, he said, is that they're tough, they can handle whatever comes their way. They're always expected to perform their duties. But that's not always the case, Junkerman said. Over time, the stress of the job can wear on an officer.
Add to the daily stress of the job an "extraordinary situation" like the Sheriff's Office faced with the fatal shooting deaths of two of its deputies, Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey and Deputy First Class Mark Logsdon. They were gunned down Feb. 10 by a man Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said he believes was intent on most likely harming his ex-wife and his estranged family.
David Brian Evans was subsequently shot and killed by two deputies, DFC M. Anthony DeMarino and DFC Thomas Wehrle, both eight-year veterans of the Sheriff's Office, who were placed on administrative leave. The three SWAT team members who shot and killed an Army veteran on Althea Court March 2 were also put on administrative leave. All five have returned to duty.
"A critical incident in and of itself brings its own stress and its own set of circumstances, but what it also does is it starts to make cracks that were already forming in our health and wellness, it makes them more prominent and they become bigger," Junkerman said.
The shootings were a horrible tragedy, Junkerman said, and all deputies have to go through the grieving process, whether they were directly involved in the incidents or not. Senior Deputy Dailey and DFC Logsdon weren't only colleagues, to many of the deputies they were close friends, like family members. Losing them is difficult.
"We lost two guys, two friends. You think, 'that could be me.' That's a really big hurdle to overcome," he said.
Time To Grieve
For those who have a difficult time dealing with the deaths of their fallen brothers, the sheriff's office has help available. Junkerman leads the agency's Critical Incident Stress Management team, a group of five peer supporters who are available for counseling. And it's all done anonymously, unless, as Junkerman said, there's an immediate threat of danger.
It's in times of these extraordinary situations when the CISM team is called on more often, as they have over the six weeks since Senior Deputy Daily and DFC Logsdon were killed.
Police are perceived as being "tough cops," wearing an "S" on their chest under their uniforms, but "how bad does that burst when you lose not just one, but two of your own?" he asked.
"There's a self belief that we are invincible, impregnable and that we don't need a lot of services," Junkerman said. "But it's OK not to be OK."
"Asking for help, letting somebody know you are combat ineffective, or totally non-mission capable, that's not weakness, that's wisdom," he said.
It can be difficult for police officers to grieve, Junkerman said, because of the nature of their jobs.
Immediately after Senior Deputy Dailey and DFC Logsdon were killed, deputies began their investigation. Hours later, others who had responded to the scene at Panera Bread and Park View Senior Apartments in Abingdon, where the fatal shootings took place, had to return to their regular patrols.
"People were still calling for police services," Junkerman said.
They also had to take care oftheir fallen brothers, as well as their families. Then there was nearly a week of viewings, funerals and burials.
All of that is part of the grieving process, he said.
"The ceremony honors the fallen and honors the families of the fallen," he said. "It also gives us a formal grief process."
That's when it's OK for the "S" to come off their chests.
"One of the most cathartic things is even the toughest, crustiest, most cynical veteran street cop is given permission to cry in public, in uniform at a funeral, a viewing, a ceremony," Junkerman said. "And that goes a long way in helping the grief process."
There's an exception: Members of the honor guard and the deputies assigned to escort the families have to remain detached.
"While everybody else gets time to grieve, they're not allowed to grieve," Junkerman said. So for them, the grieving process could take longer. It could for anyone else, as well, since everyone experiences grief differently. It could build up over time, then ultimately come to a head at an inappropriate time.
"It may or may not happen. But when it comes on, it hits you like a freight train, and you may not have the physical or emotional ability to handle that freight train coming through," he said. "So if you see the storm clouds coming, take shelter."
Self-help The Focus
It's a lot to process. Besides the EAP help available, or external counseling, there is the CISM team available within the agency 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Junkerman's phone is always on.
"As peer support, we are one more tool in the box for all members to be able to help yourself," he said, because that's what peer supports are about. "It's you sitting down and figuring out what's important. I can't tell you what to do. A lot of times they already have the answers, they just need to process it."
Junkerman was happy to explain the counseling process but, citing confidentiality requirements, he declined to say how many deputies may have requested services since the fatal shootings.
When working with deputies or civilians, the peers try first to assess and recognize the feelings, then work on mitigating them. They want to find out what's important to the deputies.
"Do they want to be a person who wears a badge, or do they want to be a badge who wears a person?" Junkerman asked.
Most often, the answer is the former, and that's when the real work begins, getting the deputy to help him or herself.
First, the peers need to figure out where they are. Have they identified the problems, the feelings – that's what Junkerman calls effective de-escalation.
"If you need to vent, vent, get it out of your system," Junkerman said. "Then we decide a course of action. You've taken a step back, taken a breath, taken stock and now you start to take some action. We start deciding, what do you want to do? Then we dedicate ourselves to that."
It's not just talk, it's taking action and getting the deputy the tools he or she needs to get where they want to be, he said.
Self-help is the first approach, and that starts with a core value assessment – what are the deputy's priorities, what do they like to do, what's important and what's not. What stresses them out at work, at home or somewhere in between?
They write it all down on paper.
"Now, all the things you can't control, cross out, because if you can't control them, what are you worried about, and you start to whittle down your priorities," Junkerman said.
Once a deputy understands that, he or she can start to formulate his or her own action plan.
They also talk about basic de-escalation – good mental hygiene, good ways to diffuse stress.
He asks a series of questions: when is the last time they had a physical. Are they healthy? Do they have a hobby, When was the last time they've engaged in it? When was the last time they were physically active, and not just because they had to be for the job? When have you gone and done something that made you feel good? When was your last vacation with your family?
That gives the peers a baseline and then they can figure out ways to change their situations.
When peer support isn't enough, the peers can refer a deputy out to one of three clinicians who are familiar with the police profession.
After Senior Deputy Dailey and DFC Logsdon were shot and killed, and the deputies were dealing with the deaths of the colleagues while taking care of their comrades' families and trying to grieve, the Sheriff's Office leaned on other agencies for help.
Twenty-five clinical organizations sent 50 people to help, if needed, according to Junkerman.
"We were able to cover thousands of officers. Every police person who showed up could have needed peer support," he said.
The Harford County Sheriff's Office has more than 500 employees.
The Sheriff's Office will never be the same, nor will the deputies and civilians who work there – Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler has said as much on several occasions since the shootings. What the agency has to do as a whole, and individually, is figure out what the "new normal" will be, Junkerman said.
For the deputies who can't figure it out on their own, their peer supporters are there to help.
"We know how quickly things can go bad, how they can go sideways," he said. "It will always leave a scar."
"It doesn't mean you're helpless, it doesn't make you a victim," he said, likening it to a physical scar. "A physical scar is no different than the scars you get on your heart and soul, if you do this job long enough."
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