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Winning the battle against the 'cop stew'
Do you have a pot of “cop stew” cooking on your personal burner?
That’s what Clarke Paris calls the mass of negative emotions that may be roiling in your gut after years behind the badge, even if you won’t admit it and even if you think police work is the best job in the world.
Recently retired as a sergeant after 27 years with Las Vegas Metro PD, Clarke and his wife Tracie now present a unique seminar for officers and spouses on how that stewpot can boil over and wreak havoc if unattended—and how it can be calmed for a better life.
Winning the Battle
PoliceOne sat in on their daylong presentation during Officer Safety Week at Waukesha County (Wis.) Technical College near Milwaukee, shortly before they departed for Bahrain to address the U.S. Navy SEALS based there.
Their program, “Winning the Battle,” is not a flashy, bells-and-whistles production. Their message is plainspoken. But it comes from the heart, born of painful experience, and it connects, often to the surprise of skeptics, with a wallop.
As one sheriff wrote them after an appearance in Nebraska, “At first I sat there and thought, ‘This is bullshit.’ But by after lunch, I started to realize that what you were saying applied directly to me.”
By the time Clarke Paris’s personal stew boiled over, he’d built a hard-charging record of success on his department: assignments in undercover vice/narcotics, traffic enforcement, training, motors, street patrol, bike supervision on the Strip; Police Officer of the Year in 1998.
“When you’ve seen it all in Vegas,” says Clarke, now 47, “believe me, you’ve seen it all.”
The tipping point came on a 117-degree day about five years ago, he tells his seminar crowds, when he responded to a suicide call. The victim was a 13-year-old boy who put a gun in his mouth and blew the top of his head away because he was failing algebra.
“When the call came out,” Clarke says, “I could feel my emotions starting to boil, but I kept the lid on the pot.”
Inside the stricken home, people were “moaning and crying like wild animals. The boy’s mother clung to me, hyperventilating, bawling, about to collapse. Her snot was running onto my uniform. My pot was really boiling now. It was hard not to fall to my knees and bawl with her.”
He escaped to his patrol car and cranked the A/C to max. “I just broke down. I started bawling, just like her. My mind was in turmoil: Why am I doing this job? I’m not making a ton of money. I may even have to die someday for somebody I don’t even know.”
A guy who was mowing his lawn next door tapped on the car window and asked if Clarke was OK.
“I’ve never been so ashamed of myself in my entire life,” he says. “This was a suicide call. I’d been to at least 60 of them over the years. I didn’t kill the kid. I wasn’t in a fight for my life. It wasn’t even a dangerous situation — and I couldn’t handle it? So ashamed.”
He struggled through the shift, but in the days that followed he found that past events and emotions from the job “flooded back on me with a vengeance.” Some flashbacks were of brushes with death that he’d stoically soldiered through at the time — he’d nearly been killed in a motorcycle crash and he’d been involved in an incident where more than 50 rounds were fired and an officer was shot. “But stuff I didn’t even recognize as especially bad also haunted me. I’d go over it and over it and over it and over it and over it...”
He realized that across his years on the street a symbolic transition had taken place without his consciously acknowledging it. “In the beginning, I got to a hot scene as fast as I could to see dead bodies. Now I was hoping someone else would jump the call.”
He adamantly rejected the notion of counseling, having scorned it throughout his career as a refuge for the weak. But as his torment continued — “I was a train wreck” — and he finally decided to talk to Tracie about what was happening. “I figured we’d have a dialog and fix it together.”
Clarke had never shared much about his job. “I told her everything that I wanted her to know” but Tracie, after all, was a trauma center nurse at that time and had dealt firsthand with human crises.
An Enormous Weight
He chose a quiet Sunday afternoon when their five children were out of the house and Tracie was lazing on a raft in their pool. “It took me 45 minutes to work up the courage to broach the subject,” he says.
Finally he muttered, “I have to tell you something” — and as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he started sobbing just as he had at the suicide scene. “I think it’s the job,” he stammered.
Instead of the compassion and collaboration he expected, he got back a blast of raw fury.
“He never deserved the reaction I gave him that day,” Tracie says at the seminar. “I felt blindsided. He was crying, embarrassed, confused — completely a man I’d never seen before. He was the Rock of Gibraltar in our family, the one who fixes everything, the one I could go to if I was in trouble. I know it sounds stupid, but I truly thought my husband was invincible.
“If it was something medical — cancer, open-heart surgery, a brain tumor — I could understand. But something about emotions from his job?! Even when he was hit by a truck on his motorcycle and so badly injured that doctors thought he’d never be a cop again, he was surprised when I showed up at the hospital. He presented himself to me as perfectly okay.
“Now he was falling apart. We had a mortgage, we had car payments, we had college tuitions. What was going to happen to us?”
They fought for four hours that day, then settled into an uncomfortable stretch of the silent treatment. “I was just hoping the problem would go away and everything would be ok again,” Tracie says. It wasn’t until Clarke, desperate now, finally arranged sessions with a therapist recommended by his department’s EAP that they finally began to understand what they were dealing with and joined in a united effort to confront it.
“It was the greatest feeling in the world when I opened up to the therapist,” Clarke says. “The biggest hurdle was accepting that it was okay to say I was not OK. Then an enormous weight just lifted off of me. I never seriously contemplated suicide, but I know if I hadn’t gotten help that’s where I was headed.”
In their seminar, the Parises candidly blend their personal challenges together with useful revelations about the dark byproducts of “the most difficult job in the world.” Their focus is not on the impact of sudden critical incidents — “If you’re in a shooting these days, most departments will channel you to helpful resources,” Clarke says — but rather on the steady toll of emotional bludgeoning that accumulates day after day in law enforcement.
“The people chosen to be police officers are compassionate, tenacious, caring, and want to make a difference,” Clarke says. “Those are the very people this job can destroy.”
He asks how many veteran officers in the audience “think the job is what you thought it would be before you became a cop?”
No one raises a hand.
Yet, he says, officers tend to heavily invest in what he calls “perception protection” — working hard to unfailingly project the steely professionalism that matches the entrenched public and personal image of the consummate LEO. Whatever horror, indignity, or fear that comes their way gets tamped down into their internal stewpot, rarely honestly discussed at home or among fellow officers, or even surfaced in their private ruminations.
“Cops disassociate from what they experience,” Clarke says. “That makes them feel they are in control. Actually, in time, it can bring a loss of control.
“Some officers can handle all this, but they’re the exception. If you see and deal with really bad stuff on a continuous basis and it bothers you, that’s normal.”
Among other insights into the police psyche, the seminar offers a compendium of behavioral cues that commonly warn of cumulative stress bubbling dangerously in the stewpot:
• Disregard for your own safety
• Self-medication with painkillers
• Increase in the amount or frequency of drinking or other substance abuse
• Abuse of power, including domestic violence in your own relationships
• Excessive indulgence in sick humor
• Increased absenteeism from work
• Serious consideration of changing jobs
• Contemplation of self-destructive actions
Clarke recommends periodically running through a self-evaluation exercise he references by its acronym, SIPDE:
Scan your life, including professional, personal, inter-personal, financial, and health aspects
Identify specific problems and threats to your wellbeing
Predict where these problems/threats may lead (divorce, health complications, job loss, financial ruin, etc.)
Decide what specifically you are going to do about it
Execute your game plan.
“We’re in a profession that requires us to take care of others,” Clarke tells his audiences, “but why not also take care of ourselves? If every cop in America would fight half as hard for themselves as they do for the people in their community, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”
Effectively taking care of the toxic mix in the stewpot, he stresses, is likely to involve getting the help of a counselor who’s knowledgeable about the arcane world of policing. “You can learn to manage cumulative stress and keep doing the job you love, but it doesn’t go away by itself. Professional intervention is usually the key. What kills us is that we keep justifying to ourselves not getting help.”
During his own counseling, Clarke produced an award-winning documentary and wrote a widely acclaimed book on police suicide. He and Tracie have been presenting “Winning the Battle” since 2009, with some of their proceeds going to a scholarship fund for children of LEOs who’ve taken their own lives.
In many cases, officers are mandated to attend their program by a sponsoring agency — and are not always happy to be there. “I look out at the audience and I see some cops with their arms folded across their chests, glaring at me. They don’t think they need what we have,” Clarke says. “Often they’re young guys or gals, going a hundred miles an hour with their hair on fire, kicking ass and catching bad guys. I understand. That was me 20 years ago.”
Usually, like the sheriff in Nebraska, they come around by the end of the program…or maybe down the line when that stewpot starts heating up.
After a presentation in Idaho, Clarke and Tracie received an email from an officer who said he’d had the “bury-it-and-move-on attitude” through 18 years on the job. “It appears to everyone else that I’m doing just fine,” he wrote. “In reality, I’m torn up inside. For years I’ve been keeping it locked up, becoming more irritated, stressed, getting less sleep, with nightmares more frequent than ever. I struggle every day to put on my uniform, get into a patrol car, and complete the shift.”
He left the seminar, he said, “on a mission. I don’t want to be angry and unhappy any longer. I’ve got too much at stake to give up. You might have just saved a cop’s career. My first counseling session is next week….”
Clarke and Tracie Paris can be reached at: ThePainBehindTheBadgeTraining@gmail.com, via phone at (702) 573-4263, or through their website: www.thepainbehindthebadge.com. Our thanks to Jodi Crozier, law enforcement academy director at Waukesha County (Wis.) Technical College, for her help in facilitating this report.