The Traumas of Law Enforcement – There is Hope!

As editor of I just finished attending the 3-day “Traumas of Law Enforcement” seminar put on by the Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) organization, and despite the depressing nature of what is happening to our profession I left with a sense of hope that there are so many dedicated people out there making things better for those who come after them.  If you are interested in this seminar after reading this blog there are still two more sessions of this valuable program still to be presented this month but you must act fast by visiting the C.O.P.S. website to learn about locations and dates.  There is no registration fee for these programs but registration is MANDATORY!  In our session we had over 110 attendees from around the United States with a variety of sworn and non-sworn personnel including supervisors, chaplains dispatchers and peer support team members.

Three days worth of outstanding presentations were lead off by Debbie Geary the National Chapter Coordinator for Concerns of Police Survivors.  Debbie’s first husband, David Strzalkowski was killed in the line of duty while working with the Metro-Dade Police Department in Florida on November 28, 1988.  At the time Dave and Debbie had a 2 1/2 year old son, Eric, and Debbie was pregnant with another son, Sean.  Debbie presented to the seminar group about the effects of Dave’s death on her family, friends, co-workers and others following Dave’s murder, through the trial and beyond.  She openly shared suggestions for improvements in the handling of line of duty deaths and made us all aware of the long lasting effects these deaths have on so many more people that we might consider.  At the end of this days presentation we were also able to hear from a panel of four other survivors of line of duty deaths.  Three were the widows and one was the father of police officers killed in the line of duty.  Just to hear their stories and the pain in their voices was so powerful, but also to be made aware of all of the obstacles and frustrations that they have encountered is enough to make any law enforcement leader make this seminar mandatory for their entire staff.

Also presenting was James M. Horn a retired Special Agent from the FBI who worked in the Behavioral Science Unit and served on the FBI’s first SWAT Team.  Mr. Horn was an adjunct professor in psychology and criminology at the University of Virginia and also initiated and developed the FBI Chaplains Program and the FBI’s Advanced Peer Support Program.  He has worked with the C.O.P.S. organization since it’s inception nearly 25 years ago.  Mr. Horn spent day two of the seminar sharing the many ill effects of stress and trauma on a normal career in law enforcement and also discussed the challenges of cumulative stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He reviewed the nature of trauma, symptoms of depression and PTSD in police officers, and presented techniques for overcoming these challenges.  The printed materials that came with this course (a huge 3″ three-ring binder) also included guidelines and model policies for handling police shootings, and line of duty deaths.

The third and final day of this seminar included Robert Douglas the Executive Director of the National Police Suicide Foundation, and Steve Watt, a former officer of the Wyoming Highway Patrol who was shot and disabled in the line of duty as our speakers.  These two speakers were also very dynamic and powerful as they discussed two subjects that make most law enforcement agencies cringe: police officer suicide and police officer disability.

Robert E. Douglas is the Executive Director and Founder of the National Police Suicide Foundation and also served for over 20 years on the Baltimore Police Department where he served as a officer and later became a Police Chaplain for the FOP.  He is still serves as the ATF Chaplain at their headquarters in Washington D.C. and as a Pastor for a local Church in Maryland.  Describing Pastor Douglas as a powerful speaker would grossly understate his ability to captivate and inspire an audience.  He described the vast problem of law enforcement suicide which currently is 2 1/2 to 3 times the rate of line of duty deaths for police officers and discussed his research into this subject.  The average number of line of duty deaths in the U.S. over the last four years has been 166 while the average number of officer suicides has been 438 suicides per year.  He discussed the symptoms of depression and appearance of suicidal thoughts is law enforcement officers and frankly described intervention techniques.  He promoted the need for police suicide awareness training for law enforcement agencies and gave suggestions for how agencies should react if they have an officer die from suicide.  He also discussed the role alcohol played in over 85% of law enforcement suicides and the fact that a police officer commits suicide every 17 to 21 hours in the U.S.

Stephen Watt was also a powerful and inspiring speaker.  Steve joined the Wyoming Highway Patrol in 1979 at age twenty three and was wounded in the line of duty in March of 1982 when he attempted to apprehend a bank robber and was shot five times, once in the eye and four times in the back as he slumped over in his patrol car.  Despite his injuries he was able to exit his vehicle and fire six shots and wound his attacker.  Steve took a disability retirement from the Highway Patrol in January of 1983 and bravely described for us the living hell he has endured in the years following his shooting.  In painful detail we learned how Steve was conscious after the shooting, during the ambulance ride and even as they treated him in the ER.  Steve described the anguish of his wife, also a police officer at the time, in hearing of her husbands injuries and of the challenges when the suspect, who was wounded by Steve and his capturing officers, lay in the bed behind the next curtain in the hospital.  He told us of the agony and challenges of his surgery and rehabilitation and how difficult it was for him and his fellow officers to adjust to life on the job after the shooting.  He also was brutally honest with our audience about how life has been since his shooting and the sometime myths of the statements “We in law enforcement are family”  and “We take care of each other”.  If you ever need a speaker to talk honestly to your department about the aftermath of a police shooting disability, Steve Watt is an excellent choice.

This seminar is excellent and provides a frank and honest discussion of the horrors of the many traumas that affect law enforcement officers, our widows and children, parents and friends that a line of duty death or officer suicide will always catch you off guard and unprepared.  Now is a good time to start this discussion in your department and this seminar gives anyone the material to begin the construction of a successful peer, and survivor support network.

There are still two other opportunities for you to attend this course this winter if you hurry
Visit the COPS website by CLICKING HERE

Don’t forget to mark you calendars for National Police Week May 12-17, 2009 which will also mark the 25th anniversary for Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.).  Let’s support them as we should and as they are supporting and making us better now!

About Editor

John Marx was a Police Officer for twenty-three years and served as a Hostage Negotiator for nineteen of those years. He worked as a patrol officer, media liaison officer, crime prevention officer and burglary detective. Also during his career he served as administrator of his city's Community Oriented Governance initiative through the police department's Community Policing project. Today John combines his skills to consult with businesses about improving both their security and their customer service programs. John retired from law enforcement in 2002. When one of his friends, also a former police officer, committed suicide at age 38, John was devastated and began researching the problems that stress creates for police officers. He decided he needed to do something to help change those problems and he wanted to give something back to the profession that gave him so much. He started a project that has evolved into Put simply, the mission of CopsAlive is to save the lives of those who save lives! gathers information, strategies and tools to help law enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful careers, relationships and lives.
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  1. Pingback: Creating Peer and Family Support Groups for Police Agencies | Cops Alive | Police stress and health - career survival

  2. I attended the same seminar (this was the second COPS seminar I have been to in the last 4 years). You gave me your business card and that is how I found your site. I have to have been impressed with Robert Douglas and his presentation on police suicide. My Department (Denver) is bringing Robert out to give an 8 hour presentation at the Denver PPA on April 29th. Robert is going to co-teach with myself and Danny Veith. Anyone interested in the topic should try to attend. The cost is ony $5 for outside agencies (to cover coffee etc.). Hope to see you there and I commend you on the web site, it’s very good.

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