Here I will provide the backstory to “Hero?” It is written in free-write form, so please excuse the errors in grammar and syntax.
The Backstory & the Backlash
What this incident taught me about how one police department deals with how traumatic occurrences can affect their officers.
The days following this incident exposed a reality about police work that has saddened me. What it has also done is open my eyes to the realities of how low on the priority list an officer’s mental health actually is. While there are individuals on all levels of our rank structure who sincerely care for the mental well being of the officers, the broader stroke of the brush paints a less rosy picture.
What happened immediately after the huddle on the rooftop?
One of the officers on that rooftop immediately recognized the heaviness of our collective reaction. He told the sergeant at scene to call the department psychologist. It was a mature decision. It was the right decision.
At first, it was supposed to be for the officers on the rooftop. If anything, perhaps the officers that witnessed him land on the ground. That turned into the psychologist meeting every officer at scene. Even those who had zero contact with the man who jumped that day.
So be it. Practically the whole Watch was there in a group setting therapy session. I didn’t know how important that was at the time. But it was good to hear other officers talk about their prior traumas in the military and what not. The psychologist told us we had the option to go home for the day no questions asked. I did not know how I felt about that. I felt ok. I didn’t think I needed to go home.
Just then our captain walked in and assured us about how much he supported our decision to go home for the day. He sounded sincere at the time. He said he already made calls and that our shifts would be covered.
So with a nice group therapy session behind us, supportive words from our captain and a little nudge from my partner. I decided that I’d go home. Little did I know that everyone in the room decided to go home that day.
Everyone but one officer.
What I felt that day when I got home and to my bed.
My head was in a cloud. I was physically there, but I wasn’t. I was detached. I was staring for hours. Staring out at nothing. My mind was blank. My feet felt heavy. My whole body felt like it was taped to my bed as I laid on my back staring at nothing.
A text message was the only thing that interrupted my empty gaze. It read, “Whats wrong with you guys? Can’t you take police work? Now the whole city has to pick up your slack. Unsat.”
I made a few phone calls and tried as much damage control as I could. But my day was done. I rolled on my side and slept hard until the next day.
There was a sergeant in the station. He was the watch commander. He spoke loudly about how the officers who decided to go home were not real coppers. As each officer checked out with him, he gave them attitude. He openly ridiculed me. I snapped. I told him he had no idea what the officers on that rooftop went through. Perhaps I used an expletive or two. He looked away and stayed quiet. Like a coward. I felt my face turn hot. I was angry. He didn’t respond to me. My eyes destroyed his soul and he didn’t dare make eye contact with me again.
Weeks later I heard that the captain, the very person who walked into our group therapy and clamored about supporting us, was heard saying how embarrassed he was that the whole group of officers went home on that day. This bothered me beyond belief.
I wrote “Hero?” shortly after. I sent it to the captain and I told him it was very important he read it. He said he would. Soon after he transferred to a different precinct. I ran into him two more times and asked him if he read the story. He said he did not and that he would eventually get to it.
As of the date of this posting I have not heard one word from that captain.
I spoke to many close friends who are also cops. I told them how serious it became on that rooftop. I told them about my depressive state when I got home that day. But as much as I pleaded for acceptance, all of my friends simply did not agree with my decision to go home that day.
I even spoke to the one sole officer who stayed on shift. He also did not agree with it. Nor could he understand how serious the collective emotion on that rooftop is part of something bigger within our profession. Something that builds within us and leads to high cases of heart attacks, strokes, alcoholism, suicide and many more ailments.
The Sum Up
Police work has come a long way in providing resources for PTSD in officers. There are countless hotlines and nonprofits dedicated to helping officers who are going through hard times mentally.
But I learned 3 important things after all of this. I learned some things that disturbed me to my core:
- Mental health is grotesquely misunderstood
2. While individuals do care, the system as a whole puts officers mental health close to last on their priority list.
3. It is still a strong cultural taboo in police work to ask for help.
I’d love to blame the system all day. I could take on the perspective that the politicians are the enemy. But honestly, I don’t think it’s personal. Nor do I think it will help the situation to place blame on others.
The most important thing I learned from this incident is that our own brothers and sister are our worst enemies. Although I believe we ourselves are to blame, I think it is simply because we are embedded in this culture that was here before us. We are so used to not showing weakness, its how we survive on the streets.
Let’s use another word instead of weakness. Let’s use…emotion.
We are so well trained to not show any emotion during radio calls, like the one described in “Hero?”. Day after day. Months, years and decades go by. The street cop remains stoic at work and at home. But the emotions remain underneath the flesh. The emotions remain behind the eyes. Most of the time the cops themselves don’t even realize it’s there.
Next thing you know those cop-dreams creep up. By that time the body is already finding it’s own way to deal with the sadness, anger and fear that has accumulated in a coppers career and bled into their personal lives. All of a sudden all these programs designed to help officers and hotlines and free therapies are thrown at us.
But the damage is done. We need to catch ourselves before we get to the tipping point. The strongest and most able to do the catching before any mental health build is…
The coppers in the trenches with you… The ones sitting next to you in roll call… The ones you share a patrol car with… The ones you bullshit with in the locker rooms.
Let’s be there for each other openly, loudly, bravely and unapologetically.
(Click on page 3 of 4 below for my Personal Avenues of Escape & Coping: Backpacking )