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Shootings often haunt the police officers involved

"This isn't TV. People just don't go home," said one such cop.

Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune

Updated: January 8, 2013 - 10:59 PM

In a matter of months last year, St. Paul police officers shot and killed three civilians, an unprecedented occurrence for the city, while seven other people were fatally shot by other Minnesota law enforcement officers by year's end.

Officer-involved shootings, called "critical incidents" in law enforcement language, can draw intense media and public scrutiny. But an untold story is that the trauma often unmoors officers in dramatic and life-changing ways, driving some to alcoholism, divorce, early retirement and even suicide. A culture of silence and toughness means many suffer quietly for decades, while some manage through years of therapy.

The number of incidents in St. Paul led to a 35 percent increase in use of the department's Employee Assistance Program because they dredged up "emotional residue" from previous experiences, said St. Paul Sgt. Constance Bennett, EAP director.

"You can feel it," Bennett said of the collective impact. "It's a weight. When you have critical incidents like that, especially back-to-back, a department ... gets taxed emotionally, physically."

Most officers never expect to find themselves in the position of killing someone, said a metro-area officer who was involved in a fatal shooting several years ago. The officer agreed to speak about his experience on the condition of anonymity in hopes it would foster understanding.

"Your mission is usually helping people, and so if you do have to take someone's life or even just shoot them, number one, it's going to be very close quarters usually ... and number two, immediately upon shooting someone you're going to have to render aid to them," he said. "So you have a very quick dichotomy within a few seconds after trying to kill someone and then trying to save them."

The incident haunted him. He erupted in anger over simple things -- his children misbehaving, minor household maintenance problems. Noise suddenly induced anxiety. He physically shook on the way to some calls. Complaints against him for unprofessional behavior and use of force piled up in the years after the shooting.

PTSD diagnosis

"I'm not the same person I was the day of the shooting," said the officer, who was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Minnesota law enforcement officials shot and killed 10 people last year, according to preliminary data from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

The numbers are in line with recent years. In 2011, eight people were killed by law enforcement; 11 were killed in each of the two preceding years, 2010 and 2009, and five in 2008.

On Oct. 23 of last year St. Paul officers fatally shot Victor T. Gaddy, 41, and Chue Xiong, 22, in unrelated incidents. Gaddy was being investigated for narcotics. Xiong stole a shotgun and a compound bow from his family, and exchanged gunfire with two officers across from the department's Eastern District office, badly wounding officer Daniel King.

On Dec. 17, officers fatally shot Melvin D. Fletcher Jr., 20, after he allegedly robbed Kowalski's Market on Grand Avenue. The timing of the incidents is unusual for any department.

The shootings upset residents, who filled an emotional community meeting about the October shootings to capacity, seeking answers that weren't forthcoming because of the legal process and ongoing investigation. Typically, few details about the incidents emerge because of the confidential grand jury proceedings that either clear or indict officers.

Handling the aftermath

In St. Paul, officers are immediately taken away from the scene of the incident. Bennett or another EAP staffer makes contact with the officer.

"We don't talk about what happened," said Bennett, who has a master's degree in mental health counseling. "We're just there to provide emotional support."

Officers aren't interviewed extensively right after an incident because the trauma affects their memory, said Minneapolis police Sgt. Steve Wickelgren, coordinator of the department's Employee Assistance Program.

Officers in both departments are placed on a standard three-day administrative leave, during which they are required to talk to a mental health provider.

The metro officer said he spoke with a psychologist for a few hours after his incident, but found it to be useless. He returned to work after three days. "I didn't think I had any issues," he said.

But a police call his first day back upended that false sense of normalcy. The circumstances closely mirrored the call and weapon in the incident where he and his partner fatally shot a civilian.

"I wasn't managing it very well," he said, "I think to some degree I was thinking that the outcome was again going to be very bad."

He took more time off. His department didn't require more therapy, but he sought it on his own and has been in therapy off and on for several years, including marriage counseling.

"A lot of it is your mind tries to cope with something that is beyond the reach of what it's prepared to deal with," he said. "This isn't TV. People just don't go home."

In the past few years, St. Paul has required officers to undergo 90- and 180-day check-ups with a mental health provider to prevent symptoms from snowballing. The practice has been key in spotting problems that previously went undetected, Bennett said.

Countering a culture

A culture of toughness can also hinder an officer or department's response to trauma, though experts say departmental response has improved in the past decade.

"From what I've seen, there are a lot of people walking around obviously undiagnosed and not getting any treatment because we're supposed to be able to handle it, and if you go seek help, that means you're weak and there's something wrong with you," Wickelgren said. "It's not an accurate mindset. Culture is changing, but I believe, like many things, it's slow to change."

A retired officer recently sought out Wickelgren for help coping with an officer-involved shooting from the 1960s.

The metro officer said it took him more than five years to stop thinking about his incident every day.

"These officers who are involved in these are your neighbors," the officer said. "They're your friends. They're ushers in your church. They're your kid's baseball coaches. They're just ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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