On violence and the mental health of police officers…Who cares?

“Why don’t you go back in service, Don.”

It wasn’t a question so much as it was a request. There were enough police officers on the scene and I wasn’t needed anymore, so the sergeant was cutting me loose to go answer more radio assignments.

The scene was just another ordinary Monday morning homicide in the City of St. Louis, you know, the kind where a dude driving down a residential street in the Walnut Park Neighborhood is suddenly violently gunned down by multiple assailants with assault rifles and pistols.

I lost interest in counting at fifty shell casings on the street.

Somebody wanted to make sure this man died, and they got what they wanted for sure.

It was early on a Monday morning, so the crowd for this homicide scene was pretty sparse.

That’s always a blessing as fighting crowds of gawkers with their phones out ready to accuse police officers of being the shooter and shoot video for their YouTube channels is a headache not too high up on the list of things that need to get done to wrap up the initial stage of a homicide investigation.

It helped that many of the lots on this particular street are vacant, long abandoned by people tired of violence and blight, I’m sure.

I never bothered to walk anywhere near the dead man’s body. I’ve seen plenty of dead shooting victims over the years, probably more in the past three years than most non-urban area officers will in their entire careers. I wasn’t one of the first officers on the scene anyhow, and it was already clear that the victim was dead.

As I was standing with one of the first officers on the scene, he told me that when he got there, people were getting madder and madder every time another police car showed up.

“We don’t need anymore fucking police! Where’s the ambulance?” They were yelling.

He was obviously flustered by it.

“You can’t win with some of these people,” he lamented.

“Nope,” I answered.

“There was a better chance of reviving the dead Buick on cinder blocks without an engine across the street than this poor dude,” the officer said. “He was D-E-A-D, but they weren’t having it. Not from us anyway.”

I nodded. I got what he was saying. We aren’t even believed by certain people when we tell them that somebody is dead, even while pointing at a clearly dead person just two feet away as we say it.

The officer could have poked the body with a stick or lit it up with a Taser to prove the man was dead, but they’d still clamor for an ambulance to unnecessarily drive through a crime scene to have an EMS worker reiterate the exact same thing the police had been saying for five minutes.

It’s pathetic and it’s frustrating, but it’s today’s reality.

It was well before noon when I was done with this shooting, so I went back to answering radio calls for the next few hours without ever giving another thought to the dead man from earlier that morning.

After my shift, as I walked past a couple of younger officers, I eavesdropped as they talked excitedly about the earlier homicide.

It was clearly still on their minds, and while I was driving home, I began to think about one of the great absurdities of police work.

I touched on it a little bit when I wrote about the boy we raced to the hospital only to have him die a few months ago. It wasn’t a component of that story that I thought much about, but after we left the hospital, we had to return to work right away.

Here’s a quote from that post:

It’s queer, but I left the hospital and went back in service to handle more calls. I had to handle some subsequent calls with a little dead boy freshly on my mind.

That’s the thing with policing. It never ends. You have to carry on, so I pretended to care about a car accident and a stolen bike when I just wanted to shout in their faces, “AT LEAST YOU DIDN’T DIE AT FIVE YEARS OLD FROM A BULLET THROUGH YOUR CHEST!!! I HAVE NO INTEREST IN YOUR BULLSHIT PROBLEMS RIGHT NOW!”

In nearly 17 years as a police officer, I can remember only one time when I’ve heard anyone ask an officer, myself included, “Are you okay?” after an incident where emotional or mental trauma might be expected.

Once!

Run after a suspect or wrestle with one and many people will ask if you’re okay.

They’ll ask about cuts on your face or they’ll ask to make sure you didn’t twist or tear something in an arm or a leg.

The assumption with hearing, “Are you okay?” is never that they’re asking about your psyche when you’ve just tangled with somebody who would rather kill you dead than go back to jail.

Physical injury from running and tackling a bad guy is okay to inquire about, but something that might require some sort of emotional understanding or empathy for another human being is not macho to discuss in police circles.

I get that, but it’s important nowadays more than ever, and thankfully, is being discussed by others.

The Post Dispatch ran a story recently about officers who shot a suspect dead and still aren’t quite right because they probably returned to work too soon, or with too little intervention to make sure everything was indeed okay with them.

I’ve yet to have any training that allows me to dispatch with my heart and soul for eight hour shifts so I can deal with other peoples’ problems like a robot for them without letting it affect me at all.

All the negativity eats at us on some level.

It has to.

A career of dealing with violence and arguments and disturbances and accidents and death over and over again pounds on a person’s mental well being over time, even if we don’t think it does, I’m convinced of it.

Throw the whole Ferguson debacle and its aftermath into the mix and it’s no wonder that officer morale is at an all time low.

In the city, every time there’s a police shooting, no matter how justified it is, we have to defend ourselves both mentally and physically from attacks from the community, mostly the very community that calls 911 to utilize police services more than anybody else.

Facts are irrelevant.

It’s like trying to convince people that the dead person in front of their faces is really dead.

They don’t want to hear it from the police.

Unfortunately, they’ll hear what they want from their pals or community “leaders” on Twitter or Facebook or even some media sources, and the rift between police and the community will widen.

As I finish writing this, it dawns on me that I’ve rambled and never really tied together a point.

I’m listening to the news and hearing a woman blaming the lack of police presence after a Cardinal’s baseball game on her son’s unfortunate robbing and shooting.

Even though I feel for the family, the whole story is making my blood boil, so I’m too distracted to write anymore.

It’s another blow of blame to the police.

The chief of police has called in the FBI to assist in solving this case.

The reality is that there are more officers downtown than anywhere else in the city at any given time, especially when there’s an event such as a Cardinal’s game. This is often the case to the detriment of the other neighborhoods in the City who need us more, neighborhoods like Walnut Park, where dead shooting victims won’t get the courtesy of an FBI intervention to assist in solving their murders.

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44 Responses to On violence and the mental health of police officers…Who cares?

  1. bellaball says:

    My husband is a cop her in Arkansas – I have so many stories just like the one you stated. Years ago he was working Memorial Day weekend – rape the first day of an elderly woman, next day two teenage girls driving fast on a bad curve – one girl he knew (friends sister) the other girl died in his arms, calls me the next day at a suicide (gun to head) I freaked out I didn’t want him near the scene – thankfully the supervisor’s moved him to the entrance of the site. It is a hard job. He wanted years ago to move to KC (BIG Chiefs fan) hate to say it but I’m glad we didn’t!
    Thank you for all your work and love your blog!!

  2. jgroeber says:

    For whatever it’s worth, I’m glad we’re here to witness with you and listen sometimes. What you do each day is important. How you feel about it is important, too.
    I hope Tuesday is better.

    • Tuesday wasn’t too bad, thank you very much! Thanks for the nice words as always, Jen. Thank you especially for not using big words like you sometimes do so I could understand your comment. Lol.

  3. Paul says:

    Don you are a very special person and I trust you to be honest. Even as a middle class white educated male living in the capital of our country, police lie to me continuously. It isn’t possible to believe any words that they speak. My experience is that any officer will tell me whatever gains him the information or action he needs. I live in an apartment building with 9 units and a buzzer system to get through a security door. The other evening two officers buzzed and I went to the door. They could have just asked to get in and I would have let them in – obviously. Instead they chose to lie – by telling me they were just doing a security check. In fact they went directly to one apartment and arrested the occupant. I understand they may have thought the guy could have been a friend (which he wasn’t) and I might have warned him – but they did not have to lie. That’s pretty typical Don – I certainly understand the feelings of those in the rougher parts of town, in fact I share them.. I wouldn’t believe anything an officer told me. I know they are allowed to,lie to get criminals and such off the street and maybe they lie with good intentions – but my experience is they always lie.

    I dislike criticizing officers because I have an enormous respect for the job they do and I try my best to be as helpful as possible. I could not do your job Don – the constant negative reinforcement would wear me down too fast. And I know how important it is that officers be there for society – we depend on you guys. That said, every officer I have had occasion to interact with., has lied to me on some level. I’m sorry to be critical when you guys do such a good job Don, but what can I say?

    Great post as usual. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Paul. I get where you’re coming from so no worries about the venting. We’ve all had bad teachers, doctors, cops, etc. I can recall a couple of bad run ins with cops as a youngster too. It is what it is. We’re all just doing the best we can. The thing is, if a teacher or doctor (not a surgeon maybe) is having an off day, they can maybe cut back on what they do that day. Police officers have no control over who will call 911 or what sort of crap they will get into on a particular day. If an officer isn’t mentally sharp, it could cost somebody dearly.

      • Paul says:

        That is very true Don. Thank you for being understanding. You do one of the most difficult jobs in our society. Thank you and your colleagues for your service.

  4. LindaGHill says:

    I wish there was an answer, Don. Honestly I do. There are philosophies out there to deal with such issues but they’re not for everyone. If they were, the planet would be, I’m sure, a much more peaceful place.

  5. djmatticus says:

    You are an amazing person. Thank you for being you. And… are you okay? I’m here. I’ll listen. I care.

  6. Sigh. Just know that there are a lot of us who support our policemen and care to know if you are okay. Sending this one to my son (as I usually do with your posts). xo

    • Writing here helps me vent and I also get to see some of that support of which you speak so win/win. Hope your boy is doing well. We need more good people to keep this profession going strong. Thank you!

  7. OneBusyMama says:

    Your posts are so honest and full of emotion and inspiring. I love being able to see an officers side of things. To say I respect officers…is an understatement. You guys are so amazing and strong and do so much for so many people!

    I can’t speak for others, but I think that sometimes I look at a police officer and I think of someone brave and so strong. I think that myself and maybe other people don’t think to ask officers if they are ok because we assume that they are stronger than us and more equipped to handle these scenarios.

    For example, the other day, I was thinking that I don’t know how doctors and nurses can watch people sick and dying day in and day out. And now that I think back on that….I can think the same thing about police. My guess is that’s how other people are as well! Im sure that many people unintentionally think the same way and don’t mean anything by it.

    I also think that people forget that everyone works for someone. And that they are given “orders”. If they are told to go somewhere and do something and be covert and not let anyone know why they are there or what they are doing…they need a cover story. Sure, people might be willing to help them without the cover story, but they can’t just assume that. They have a job to do. Their job isn’t to make everyone happy…its to keep everyone safe. They put themselves in harms way to do that job.

    My husband went to school to be an officer, but when he graduated there were so many people wanting to be police and not enough jobs. So, he redirected and went back to school. He would have made an amazing police officer, but especially with people’s lack of respect for cops…I am happy each and every day that things happened the way they did.

    For what it’s worth, I respect you and what you do. I have met some wonderful and amazing officers and I have seen so much good come from them. You all go through so much for people who are so full of disrespect and anger and hate and don’t appreciate what you go through and do. Every time I hear the “evil cops” stories I try to put myself in your place…or more so your wife’s place and I can’t believe that people are acting the way they are.

    After all, if people can jump to these horrible ideas that all cops are bad and evil and are racist and think that gives them the right to treat cops the way they do…why should cops look at people doing wrong any differently? People aren’t willing to treat cops they way they expect cops to treat them…

    Hang in there and stay strong!

    • I totally get what you’re saying, and it makes a lot of sense. We don’t want to think that our doctor may have a drinking problem, and we hate when we hear one of our beloved professional athletes breaks the law or uses a banned substance. I’d hope for most police officers around the country that things aren’t as chaotic as they are in big urban areas, but for those of us in these areas, some support would be nice. Thank you!

      • OneBusyMama says:

        I hope you didn’t misread my comment or maybe I am assuming incorrectly that you took it as a more negative comment. Just so you know…it wasn’t! Every part of it was meant to defend our boys in blue! You guys go through so much already….without the lack
        Of respect and support! You all have my support!

      • No I took it as a positive comment for sure. Thanks again!

  8. Kristi Campbell - findingninee says:

    Hey sweets. How can any of you possibly be okay? But I know that you will be mostly okay. I believe that. Love you.

  9. Sandy Ramsey says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t know how you do the job but I’m sure glad you do. I can’t begin to imagine the toll it takes, living it day to day. It twists my insides just hearing the stories on the late night news. You’re a good man, Don.

    • Awe shucks…thanks, Sandy. You’re a doll. The news is brutal to watch. Just brutal. The wife and I watched 49 seconds of the start the other night and were both like, “what the ever living fuck??” Lol. Also, I have my moments when it comes to being a good man for sure.

  10. My thoughts echo Sandy. I don’t know how you do your job day in and day out. One of the things that bugs me about our society in general, is that we are taught from a very young age to not honor our emotions. We shove them down, stuff them away, ignore them, and deny them. And that alone makes for unhealthy and unbalanced people. God bless you and all the officers out there who are just doing the best they can.

    • Yeah, I try to be careful to not get on my kids when they cry over something I think is petty. It’s easy to forget that they’re kids and that whatever it is isn’t necessarily petty to them. Let em cry it out for god’s sake! Thanks for the nice words! I appreciate it.

  11. Elyse says:

    Just by checking in to your blog, I think a lot of us are looking to see if you’re OK.

    As others have said, I don’t know how you do your job — because with rare exceptions, you don’t see the finest our species has to offer. It must affect you and the other officers; it must affect the folks who live in areas where violent crime is a daily occurrence. How can it not? And how can people actually be OK with that reality?

    I wish I had an answer, or even a clue about what to do. And while I would love to see guns slowly but surely vanish from the planet, well, that is a symptom and a tool; guns aren’t the cause of the misery that erupts in violence.

    Stay safe out there, Don.

    • Thanks, Elyse! I’m not sure what the answer is to what ails society, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the police officers out there causing them. We’re easy whipping boys for society since we’re out there more than legislators or whoever it is that could really fix things, if they wanted to. It can certainly be frustrating seeing people at their worst all of the time, but every now and then something happens to make it all worthwhile.

  12. Carrie Rubin says:

    Another great–and eye-opening–post. That 17 years thing really got to me. What a shame to hear that.

    I don’t see that your share buttons are on. This would be a good post for people to get out there. Maybe it’s just on my end?

  13. I am blown away that there isn’t some policy about intervention for PTSD after such intensely emotional crimes and all that police have to endure. That absolutely baffles me. So wrong. So terribly wrong.

    I’m so glad you have the strength and insight and ability to cope with that kind of stress and exhaustion, with the capability you have in managing the trauma. I worry about those cops that are breaking a little bit more every single day they are on the job. Why on earth don’t they have mental health services for the people that surely need it most?

    Can you tell I’m upset about this? lol

    You are amazing, Don…. It takes an incredibly special person to have the perseverance and the heart that you have.

    • If somebody said, “I can’t finish my shift” or something, they wouldn’t have to, but nobody is going to say that because it’s not macho to do so. You’d get labelled. We actually do have a program for officers to see somebody, if they’re feeling down or whatever. A lot of places don’t though, and that’s rough. Thank you for your kindness, Chris. You’re a sweet woman.

  14. 1jaded1 says:

    It sucks that this is the reality of today. I want to know if you are okay. It sucks that you have to bring it up! My fucking fuck…you are trying to keep people safe. I’m stopping now because fangry.

    • Lol, fangry!! Thank you, ma’am! I’m actually doing good, but I needs to vent from time to time. Writing helps me do so. What are the Red Wings looking like this season? I’ve given up hope on the Blues. It’ll be another year of the same old shit, I’m sure.

  15. People generalize cops as either heroes or villains. It’s hard to see either heroes or villains as real people with normal emotions. Your posts are a lesson in this for everyone. There are lots of people here who want to know you’re OK, Don.

  16. firebailey says:

    My husband (an EMT/Firefighter) always says until you’ve walked in these boots you have no freaking idea the images we police/fire/EMS have to live with, every night of every day. He is right, and so are you. We can say we understand, but we are not left with the fresh image before walking into another gruesome discovery. We can listen (and read) but then we move on. Yet my husband, you and others that serve don’t have that option.

    All I can do is ask, are you okay Don?

  17. You are such a top notch person AND police officer. I honestly don’t know what the City of St. Louis would do without you. I have mad respect for what you do. Hopefully one day I can buy you a BLL (or shot of moonshine)!

  18. Sera says:

    Your posts, as always, give me pause, make me think, and I feel the greatest admiration for you, and your wife–I hope she is a rock for you the way I try to be for my husband. I could never do your job, and have encountered my fair share of mean, petty police, but I have also met some good ones, and reading your blog has been a real eye opener. I’ve cried over some of your posts. You’re making a difference, even though it may not seem that way, even if just by bringing awareness to the people who read your blog. I am no good at commentary on these kinds of posts so I hope this expresses everything I meant to say–and if you ever need support, feel free to reach out.

  19. flyingplatypi says:

    That’s one hell of a job you have there. Mad hugs!!!

    Hugs!

    Valerie
    http://www.flyingplatypi.com

  20. pegoleg says:

    I’m heartsick at how police officers have been attacked in the press and the public forum. Thank you to you, Don, and all your brethren in service to the rest of us. Most of us are too quiet, but we are eternally grateful.

  21. markbialczak says:

    I care, Don. Thinking about you and all police officers who do things the best they can only to be hassled to and frazzled by a lack of respect and easy finger-pointing, I care. Reading your stories about senseless shootings and traumatic reactions, I care. Hang in there, good sir. I hope you are well.

  22. JunkChuck says:

    I get angry and depressed and sad when folks hurt folks, regardless of uniforms or skin color or whatever–it’s all screwed up, all the fear and anger and violence and blame, but it reflects our culture, you know–micro/macro stuff. There are no sides to take: I’m glad I’m not a black guy, and you couldn’t pay me enough to be a cop–though if I was, I’d hope that I would be the kind of officer you seem to be. I was raised around police officers, have relatives and friends who wear badges proudly and are damn fine men–but I’ve seen some grotesque behavior, even in our small, quiet college town, from public servants who seemed eager to escalate. I’ve said previously that the cycle of violence and disrespect must be addressed on the government side of the equation, for no other reason than the hierarchy and infrastructure creates a vehicle for institutional action whereas the herd is just the herd, mindless and reactionary, unreasonable in its raw collective fear and anger to process that in the end we’re just people doing the best we can do. Your blog seems to remind us of that–glad that I found it. Make sure to post photos of the cow costume!

  23. alana says:

    Don, you tell it like it is… thank you for doing what you do. I am a retired paramedic. Been on some of those scenes… I understand where you are with some of the stories you have told. Bless you for doing a job that most people could not do.

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