Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cops Under Fire—Again

by Sue Russell 

January was deadly for law enforcement with 16 officers killed and 10 of them feloniously shot to death. On Monday, January 24, The New York Times reported that while thousands of officers attended a funeral for two Miami-Dade officers slain whilst serving arrest warrants, they learned that another two Florida officers had been killed.

This chilling news reminded me of 2007 when 68 officers died by firearms in the line of duty, making it law enforcement’s deadliest year since 1989 (excluding 9/11). Many were wearing their body armor but were shot in the head. In 2010, 61 federal, state and local officers were killed by gunfire. While police work may not be the most dangerous job in the United States statistically, these are murders, and murders are, well, murders are different. My 2008 American Legion magazine article peeking into the secret world of cops seems just as prescient now, so I thought I’d share some excerpts:

Homicide Investigator David Taylor eased his Ford LTD down a dirt road deep in Florida’s Ocala National Forest on July 7, 1990. His third day with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office’s Major Crimes Unit, a call triggered a familiar, sinking feeling. A teenager had spotted smoke rising from a burn pile in the road.

Taylor had experience with gut-wrenching crimes involving children. Two days earlier, he’d worked the accidental drowning of a 7 year old. And his first day out of West Virginia’s State Police Academy in 1984, a young babysitter, unaware that the toddler in her care had followed her outside, ran over the baby’s head and shoulders. Taylor still shuddered, recalling the blood in the snow.

Now, another dead baby. “It was so appalling to find a little baby just wrapped up in a sheet, soaked in blood, then stuffed in this bag and set on fire,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be that dramatic.” Not that anyone could have read his discomfort. Like all cops, he wore the unemotional mask of professionalism, and knew how to distance himself and stay objective.

When evidence technicians unwrapped the bundle, “All you could see was the head of like a brand new baby, face up. You could still see soot around the mouth and nose, consistent with the baby being alive and inhaling smoke. Your heart just sinks to your gut. Then reality sets in: Hey, you’ve got to work this case.”

When he retired, Taylor armed himself with a law degree and began teaching continuing education courses for thousands of law enforcement professionals. He now owns the online National Center for Public Safety Training.

“There’s such a lack of respect among some youths,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to say it is open season, but I don’t think we’re too far from it. You always anticipate danger; you just don’t anticipate every car you stop, someone’s going to emerge with a gun, just like you don’t assume every parent’s a child abuser.” Operating constantly at that level of hyper-vigilance, “You’d go nuts. You’d have a heart attack the first week of your career.”

Taylor never had to shoot anyone but was threatened, hit, sucker-punched in the head, and shot at twice–once alone at night in a high crime area. Ocala, Florida, K-9 officer Brian Litz had attended Taylor’s classes. He was killed in 2004 during a routine well-being check on a mentally unstable man. “When Brian Litz went up to the door to check on him,” Taylor recalled, “the guy was in the middle of one of his delusions and cranked off a round through the window. Shot the deputy in the neck right above the vest. One of my best friends, Deputy Bob Campbell, risked his life to try to save him, but Litz was dead in seconds.”

A cop’s is often a thankless task. Cases of officer misconduct, corruption or brutality represent a tiny percentage of the roughly 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States. Yet, negative headlines can drown out public gratitude for the vast majority’s everyday heroics.

Taylor has taught countless detectives and uniformed officers about unpleasant things like time of death estimates and skin slippage and body leakage, and recognizing the imprint of a set of brass knuckles on a child’s head.

Unique problems confront stressed and demoralized officers who have above average rates of alcoholism, drug use, domestic abuse, depression and suicide. Robert E. Douglas Jr., the National Police Suicide Foundation’s executive director, is a former Baltimore City cop and longtime pastor to law enforcement.

“We’re not taking care of our soldiers coming back from Iraq, and we’re not taking care of our police officers,” said Douglas, noting that more officers take their own lives than die on the job. NPSF has claimed that a cop commits suicide in the U.S. every 17 to 21 hours. Some put the tally lower, yet Douglas and others believe there is under-reporting. And historically, many suicides were ruled accidental deaths because of the shame factor, and to spare officers’ families.

“I’ve been doing this 18 years now and every time I give a lecture,” said Rev. Douglas, “at least one or two in the room are fantasizing about suicide. They will leave me notes, call me in my room.” They’re officers with a nightmare to share, images that they cannot shake, traumatized without treatment.

“We’re the forgotten soldiers,” he said. “I get emotional just thinking about it. “These officers are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful men and women, but they are in some deep stuff, more than any average citizen can possibly comprehend.”

Douglas recalled an Oklahoma state trooper confiding his difficulty with his first accident investigation six years earlier.

“He said, ‘I rolled up on this Interstate and a mother was running around the median strip with her headless child. I had to run after her, and I had to bring her down with the body of her child, and then I had to go get the head.’ He said, ‘You know something? I’ve never been able to get over that.’ Now, see, that’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And he’s still suffering from that PTSD.”

Cops also are expected—and expect themselves—to be invincible. Said Douglas, “They sometimes have that mindset of no one else is going to understand what they’re going through; you’ve got to be police to understand.” Officers see asking for help as weakness. A 1999 study put alcohol abuse among U.S. police officers at roughly twice the general population’s rate, the divorce rate is high, and, said Douglas, “Our domestic violence ratio is double the general population’s.” And incidents are downplayed. In the United States, a domestic violence conviction ends an officer’s career because they’re banned from carrying a gun.

“These young men and women did not come into this profession with this kind of attitude or disposition or anxiety,” said Douglas. “It is something that we do as we train them. We turn them into warriors.”

Over 94 percent of the 1,300 officer suicides the NPSF reported in a recent three-year period were attributed to relationship issues, but Douglas believes it all still comes back to the job. He said that about 20 percent of law enforcement officers likely suffer from acute PTSD while “the remaining 80 percent have CCTS, Cumulative Career Trauma Stress. That’s the everyday stresses—alarms going off, shoplifting, fighting, being jumped, whatever the case may be.”

“We’re seeing more and more rifles and long guns, more and more disrespect for the police,” acknowledged Sgt. Jeffrey Church (Ret.). “They know they’re not going to be punished, and jail seems to be a revolving door, so we are seeing more violent people and people that just aren’t afraid of the police anymore.” 

Today's guest contributor, Sue Russell, is a journalist and the author of Lethal Intent, a true crime book about Aileen Wuornos. Follow Sue on Twitter and Facebook.


Andrea Campbell said...

Sue, Thanks for this moving article. People forget the dangers and inherent horrors that law enforcement see and face on the streets, especially in dense, heavily-populated cities.

Sophie said...

It's amazing to me that anyone can do the job police officers (and firemen, and EMTs) do. I am a little traumatized just reading about it.

Pat McNees ( said...

I'm so used to the media version of police that I don't regularly appreciate the regular work -- just plowing ahead, despite all the risks. Even the cops who just work on the desk, like a neighbor, work terribly long and inconvenient hours, since someone has to be on the desk at all hours. Good piece, Sue.

Dr. Gina Simmons said...

Thank you for writing about the emotional injuries officers sustain in the line of duty. It's important to talk about prevention, containment, and reduction of symptoms for those who risk their lives to protect civilization. Great post!