Police Perspective: Overcoming PTSD
In 1989, I had been on the job for four years. One night, I was working the third shift when I came across an individual at a truck stop off the interstate. A car was in a back area where I would normally run into sex workers, and I saw two people in the backseat.
When I saw the car, I felt something was wrong. Police officers are trained to trust our instincts. I started to walk around the car, and I saw an Indiana plate. I knew immediately who it was. The FBI was looking for an escaped prisoner who had tried to shoot a sheriff’s deputy in Indiana and taken a hostage before fleeing north with a prison employee who helped him escape.
As I was walking around the car, the driver got out of the backseat and came around the other side with two guns. He shouted, “Put your hands up! Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” When interviewed later, he admitted that his plan was to get me on the ground, handcuff me and execute me.
I decided not to lie down on the ground. I had my hands raised, and I knew the gun would not penetrate my vest. I was young and agile, so I turned, put my head down and ran. I knew I would get shot in the back. A bullet went through my jacket and my badge. Another hit me in the hand, which threw me off balance. I got behind a car, and I took my gun out to engage him. But he was already in the car, leaning out the open window and pointing his guns back in my direction. I was going to shoot him, but I saw two people behind him at the gas station in the line of fire, so I ran to my car and chased him on the expressway, into the next county south.
He and his accomplice stopped at a farm and hid in a barn. His accomplice was a psychiatrist, and she had medication on her. They both took medication and overdosed. When they were found, they were unconscious but alive.
When he went to trial, the jury found him guilty of reckless use of a weapon but not guilty of attempted murder. They said if he’d been trying to kill me, he would have hit me more than twice.
When these things happen, you either get angry, or you go into a shell. A doctor asked me later what I would have done if I had been able to stop them. I would have shot them both. That’s not what you are supposed to do, but I was so angry that they had tried to kill me.
Immediately afterward, I was at the hospital. My injuries weren’t life-threatening, but it hit me that I had almost died. I went back to the police department, and they interviewed me right away. Later, we found out that my interview was completely wrong. I swore that the woman’s hair was blonde, and it was actually black. I got tunnel vision and focused on the gun. I could probably still tell you the serial number on that gun, but I got all the other details wrong. Now I know that there’s an adrenaline dump during these incidents, and a rest period is needed to remember correctly.
Afterward, I was treated like a hero. I got a letter of commendation and an award ceremony. That was really hard because I knew I had screwed up. I had approached the car wrong. I hadn’t seen his hands. The whole time I was thinking, “This is wrong. This is wrong.” But I still did it. The hero label is a heavy burden to put on somebody who knows he made a mistake.
When I got back to work after two months of medical leave, the chief called me into his office. The chief was a World War II veteran, and his office was a memorial to the war. He said, “I always like to talk to someone who has tasted a bit of the lead. You hear about these doctors, but you don’t need doctors. You just need to suck it up.”
So I did. I sucked it up for about two years. I was paranoid on calls. I was hypersensitive. It got so bad that once an elderly man asked me to unlock his car for him, and I made him stand 50 feet away.
I couldn’t sleep. Once, my wife moved in her sleep, and I jumped up on top of her and grabbed her by the throat.
When a new chief came in, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I told him I needed help, that I had to go see someone. He took my gun and badge away for seven months. He said he wasn’t letting anyone get a disability on his watch. I had just gotten married, and my wife was pregnant.
I went to several doctors, who all said, “This guy isn’t lying. He does have PTSD,” but that wasn’t enough for the chief. PTSD wasn’t as well known back then. The mayor heard of what the chief had done and intervened. I was finally able to get my job back and get reimbursed for all that time.
More than 20 years later, the Sikh Temple shooting brought back my PTSD. Two or three days after the shooting, I went to the hospital to see Lieutenant Brian Murphy, the officer who was shot during the incident. His wife was sitting next to him in the hospital room. He couldn’t communicate, so I took her out into the hallway and tried to explain the disability benefits to her. A few nights later, I woke up at 3:00 a.m., and my bed was soaked. I was sweating profusely, crying uncontrollably, shaking and trembling, just like after my shooting. The scene of Brian in the hospital bed is what brought it all back. It was a snapshot of 25 years before, when I was in the hospital after my shooting, my wife was in the chair next to me and my sergeant came in to talk to me and my wife.
When I came into work, I called my captains into my office, and I broke down. I told them, “You cannot tell the officers; the supervisors can’t know.” But I wanted the captains to know so they could watch out for me.
The Milwaukee area has police officer support teams to assist after a critical incident. I called in a lieutenant from Milwaukee to come to a staff meeting and talk with the supervisors about what they were feeling. The room was very quiet. At that point, I felt that I had to tell them what had happened to me. I told them that I didn’t want them to have to deal with that. It was important for them to know it’s OK if it happens, and don’t suck it up.
I went to see a psychologist who works with the police department. I spent about three hours talking, getting a tune-up. It reassured me and got me back on track.
One thing I’m doing now is trying to create a branch of the city employee assistance provider (EAP) to provide six visits to a psychologist or psychiatrist for police- and fire-related PTSD. The city pays for it, but they don’t look at the medical records. This is not part of the disability determination process, and we control the network of doctors, so we know that officers can’t use it to cheat the system. The goal is that early intervention can make conditions not as severe as they were for me and can prevent workers’ compensation claims.
John Edwards is the chief of police in Oak Creek, Wis. He oversaw the police response to the 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where a white supremacist killed six worshippers and injured four others, including a police officer.