In 2007, a Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputy was driving home from a night shift when two impaired, teenaged girls who had wrecked on the highway ran out from behind an 18-wheeler on Interstate 45. The officer hit the young women, and they were killed.
“I didn’t remember the incident, and I was real hard on myself because I thought I would feel worse than I did,” said Alan H. “I didn’t have as much guilt as I thought I should have. There was no way to avoid it (the accident). I was going 62 mph, below the speed limit. There was nothing I could have done.”
While Alan H. could not recall details after the accident, several months ago he began to remember everything about that night, as well another accident in which a young boy the same age as his son has been killed. He was haunted by vivid images from the two wrecks. He couldn’t talk to his wife about it and, as a result, he suffered from irritability, a short temper, high blood pressure and acid reflux.
Like many law enforcement officers involved in critical incidents, such as colleagues who are injured or killed, officer-involved shootings, suicides, accident scenes, or personal tragedies, Alan H. had nowhere to turn – until now. The Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas recently held an inaugural program called the Post Critical Incident Seminar to help officers deal with the aftermath of the tragedies of the job.
“This course, this curriculum is so needed,” Alan H. said. “Everyone was so thirsty for it. As police officers, we go through hundreds and thousands of hours of training. I was prepared for the guy with the gun. I was prepared for the bad calls… But I wasn’t prepared for the collateral damage. They don’t prepare you for what you see in a wreck on the highway. There is no mainstream training for things that are not routine.”
Patterned after a program used by the FBI since 1985, the three-day workshop provides education on trauma, patterns of resolution, and field-tested coping strategies to promote recovery and resilience. Peer support, through discussions with fellow officers who have themselves been involved in critical incidents, is an important element of the program and helps promote normalization and recovery.
“This is an experiential workshop for officers who have "been there,” said Dr. Rita Watkins, Executive Director of LEMIT. “Despite the best support immediately following a critical incident, there can be long lasting effects. A critical incident can rupture an officer's basic world view. This process is designed to help an officer understand and achieve normalcy in their lives again.”
Even though Mike L.’s incident occurred more than 15 years ago, he still carries the night with him when he shot a drug-crazed teenage suspect during a home invasion. It would come to the forefront of his thoughts when there were other incidents, especially the recent shooting of another teen in his department. He wanted to make sure that the officer involved got the support he never did.
“I tried to help him not take the same footsteps as I did,” said Mike L. “It’s going to suck and things are going to happen, but it’s not a permanent thing.”
Mike L. was vilified by the press, and he believes the stress and strain from the incident and its aftermath led to his esophageal cancer at the age of 32. Looking back, he also believes it put a strain on personal relationships at home.
Just getting to tell his story among fellow officers helped him in the recovery process.
“It was telling my story in front of police officers and not being judged,” said Mike L. “The only other time I did that was before the grand jury. It was like getting a weight lifted off you.”
For Rick H., an officer with a Houston area department, it was coming to grips with the death of his infant daughter and a serious accident involving his wife that overshadowed the fatal shooting of an armed suspect. Because he had to be strong for his family, he didn’t truly acknowledge the depth of his grief over the loss of his daughter.
Fellow officers who have been through similar situations and professional that deal with police officer helped him through the process.
“The one thing that really helped was knowing that a lot of my peers have been in the same shoes I’ve been in and knowing the (clinical) support staff also came from the same (law enforcement) community,” said Rick H. “My agency offered an Employee Assistance Program, but I didn’t want to go to see a psychiatrist who deals with people’s marriage problem and go in there and say “I just shot and killed a guy.”
The inaugural program, which was held in Kingwood, hosted 16 officers and six spouses. It included sharing experiences with peers, giving and receiving support, participating in sessions with law enforcement-related mental health professionals utilizing proven trauma recovery methods, and learning coping strategies that will enable recovery from past critical incidents and strengthen the ability to deal with future incidents. Many of the participants want to volunteer to help other officers in the future.
“It is funny how statements make a big difference,” said Mike H., who works for a mid-sized police department in the Houston area. “Most people would tell you ‘suck it up, get over it.’ Here (at the seminar) they tell you this incident doesn’t define you. Your 30+-year career defines who you are, not one incident.”
Mike H. was involved in a fatal shooting in 1983 in which he was also wounded, as well as an internal affairs investigation in 2011. He was cleared in both incidents.
“For some reason, I wasn’t able to get over it,” said Mike H. of the internal investigation. “By talking in small groups, I found that perhaps my issue wasn’t the investigation and being accused of wrongdoing, but the separation, during the investigation, from the department and especially those that I believed knew better."
Alan T. praised an integrative psychotherapy approach used at the session called Eye Movement Desen- sitization and Reprocessing, which helps to resolve the trauma caused by the event. He said it helped him stop the images of the accident.
“When I left there, it was like a big weight lifted off my chest and a big weight lifted off my head,” Alan T. said. “I came to terms with what happened.”
Rick H. said the EMDR session helped him reach the darkest corners of his grief over the loss of his daughter.
“It allowed me to truly acknowledge those feelings so I had the opportunity to feel the true gut of the emotions,” Rick H said.
For more information about future sessions, contact Dr. Rita Watkins at (936) 294-1679 or at firstname.lastname@example.org