logo for print

How long can you deal with death and trauma before it starts to affect you?

Editor’s Note: This week’s First Person Essay is unusual for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was authored by the news editor of a local daily newspaper, not a PoliceOne Member, Columnist, or Contributor. It’s unusual also because this journalist — Gina Smith — absolutely “gets it” in her observations here, and we know how rare that trait seems to be in the mainstream media. The below essay was originally posted on Sequoyah County Times in Sallisaw (Okla.) and is reprinted here by permission of the publisher and author. 

By Gina Smith, News Editor, Sequoyah County Times
Special Guest Contributor to PoliceOne

“Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.” – Friedrich Nietzche

How long can you deal with death and trauma before it starts to affect you?

How many deaths can you see before it is all you see when you close your eyes? How long before you start looking for ways to numb the pain?

Those are the things I recently wondered about when writing stories about Trooper Josh Davies being arrested for driving under the influence.

I know this man. I have known him for a long time. I was shocked when I heard of his arrest for being intoxicated on the job. He is smarter than that. He is a good man and I’ve worked closely with him; he is a good officer.

What he is accused of was wrong. If he is convicted of a crime he should be punished for it, but I think there may be a larger picture then the one we are seeing, and if that’s the case the finger of blame has other places to be pointed.

Imagine this for a moment.

You’re driving down the road. You come upon an accident. There are two vehicles involved. You try to stop the bleeding of the 16-year-old driver who was thrown 53 feet from the car she was driving because she didn’t have a seatbelt on. She is scared and so are you. She dies in your arms. Everywhere you turn there is blood.

You can’t look away. You have to stay.

You stay while the fire department cuts through metal to try to save the victims in one car. You stay while two people are taken to the hospital; you will have to check on them later. You stay while three more are picked up by the funeral home. You stay when the mangled cars are hauled away.

You speak to witnesses, you take measurements and you form a picture in your mind of exactly what happened so that you can write it all down. Then you drive to the home of a couple you may or may not know and tell them that their baby isn’t coming home tonight, all the while thinking of your own daughter safe in her bed.

You can’t go home to hug her and try to forget what you have seen because you still have paper work to complete, victims at the hospital to see and another accident to work.
Now imagine doing it over and over and over again.

Trauma leaves a mark.

We ask that law enforcement and medical personnel have a robot mode that they can turn on and off at will. We want them not to feel when they are dealing with trauma but expect them to have hearts of gold when they are dealing with us as individuals. We don’t want them to feel anything when they are at an accident scene but want their empathy when we are pulled over for a speeding ticket.

What we are asking of them isn’t fair.

On the Thursday evening when this trooper was arrested I began making phone calls to verify facts.

The first thing I learned was that not a single law enforcement person had anything bad to say about this trooper, and they were all shocked when I told them why I was calling. I was an officer’s wife and a dispatcher for more than a decade. I can tell you that officers will almost always defend one another outside the circle of blue, but if you are considered part of that law enforcement family, they will tell you honestly how they feel.

During the course of researching the news story a number of things came to light about Trooper Davies that I couldn’t put in the news story without identifying the people who gave me the information. I think it is an important part of the bigger picture that could shed some light on a bigger problem.

Those tidbits of knowledge from people who trusted me not to identify them lead me to believe that this trooper knew he had a problem and he asked for help. He didn’t get it, instead he was transferred to lake patrol.

I think he was an accident waiting to happen, and after talking with other folks I think some of the higher ups at the Oklahoma Highway Patrol knew it too and I don’t think they did anything about it.
Now those same folks are too involved in staying away from the scandal of it all to admit that this could possibly have been prevented.  

I know of at least two other troopers in the last decade who developed mental health issues because of the job. The incidents were swept under the rug to protect their own. The current issue came to a head in a very public way and couldn’t be kept quiet.

It will likely cost this man his career, but it should also shed light on policies for helping law enforcement deal with mental health issues caused from trauma. Not only for employees themselves — let’s face it these are tough men and women who may not always recognize or admit they are having issues; but also for supervisors who can try to identify a problem and help them deal with and face it without fear that they will ultimately lose their job.

How long can you deal with death and trauma before it starts to affect you?

In this case, I’m guessing about eight years.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2018 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.