It was December 20th, 2006. The San Diego county Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) had just finished their training and holiday potluck. PERT pairs SDPD, SDSO, and local police departments with specially trained patrol officers and mental health professionals to respond to mental health emergencies in the field. My partner could not attend the training, so I hitched a ride with the Oceanside Police PERT team; Officer Mack and clinician Linda, RN. We left to return to the station about 1810 hours. We reached the I-5 headed north ten minutes later.
The highway was a zoo; normal rush hour plus last minute holiday shoppers. I was in the backseat, in the cage. That is when we heard the call. We rode code three to OPD's command post and learned that 25 year old officer Dan Bessant had been shot and had been life-flighted to a trauma hospital. Dan had responded to a request for cover call and been hit under is arm in an area that was not protected by his vest. The suspect(s) were still at large. His partner, Karina Pina had not been injured, but she also went to the hospital.
Mack left the command post and headed to the hospital, Linda and I followed. Linda spoke to Karina; I went into Dan's emergency room, arriving just in time to hear the physician's pronouncement of death. Mack was also in the room and totally devastated. Mack had been Dan's training officer and they were close personal friends. We stayed at the hospital until Dan's parents arrived. Mack knew the parents and had to give them the tragic news. An OPD supervisor notified Dan's wife. Dan also left behind a toddler. Mack was then ordered back to the command post; he was a Hostage Negotiations officer. I thought that was a bad idea after seeing the pain and grief in his face. His loss was tremendous. Mack went anyway.
Three juvenile Samoan gang members were eventually apprehended. Their motive was to enhance their status within the gang. Penifoti Taeotui, age 16, was sentenced to life in prison in November 2008. Meki Gaono, age 17 at the time of the homicide (he was just weeks shy of his 18th birthday), was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in June 2009.
On June 13th (a Friday) 2003 PERT was called to respond to assist with a brutal in-the-line-of-duty-homicide of an Oceanside Police Department officer. I was off duty that day celebrating my son's high school graduation; there were no PERT clinicians working in North County San Diego that day. My partner, Bob, called me and provided the scenario: 30 year old male, illegal immigrant, and documented gang member under the influence of drugs had shot Tony Zeppetella, a rookie, thirteen times, pistol whipped him, and left the crime scene in the officer's patrol car with his duty weapon. The armed suspect had taken refuge at a relative's house. Officers from multiple agencies responded to the site. My task was to learn the suspect's mental health history and ascertain talking points to assist the crisis negotiator. The suspect did eventually surrender without further violence towards others; he had made a suicidal gesture. Tony left behind a wife and a two month old son. In February 2006, Adrian Camacho, the 28 year old suspect, a Mexican gang member, was found guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances and given the death penalty. Justice had taken 32 long months.
These incidents have profoundly affected me both professionally and personally. I spoke to the officers who had made the death notification to the slain officers' families. I partook in a circle prayer at the command site. I witnessed the emotions on every officer's face. No one would ever be quite the same.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, there have been 101 law enforcement in the line of duty deaths this year (through 8/6/10). 89 of these deaths occurred during the first six months. That represents a 43% increase compared to the first six months of 2009. In 2009 there were 127 in the line of duty deaths; 146 in 2008; 196 in 2007; 159 in 2006; and 165 in 2005. The number of survivors of these losses is staggering. Officers are family members, friends, co-workers, supervisors, mentors, first responders and role-models for a community. Their deaths impact others in countless ways. The average tour of duty for the officers killed in the line of duty this year was 12 years. The average age was 40.
COPS (Concerns of Police Survivors), an agency that helps agencies and survivors cope with the line-of-duty deaths did a study. This study revealed the shortcomings of agency preparedness to handle such crises.
- 32% of surviving spouses of police officers killed in the line of duty met the criteria for having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- 39% of police agencies reported having any type of general orders in place for handling line-of-duty deaths.
- Approximately 20% of agencies said that their formal policy came about as a result of a line-of-duty death.
- Department size plays a role in whether a formal policy exists
- Approximately 3/4 of large departments (1001-6274 officers) have policies
- Approximately 1/2 of medium departments (51-1000 officers) have policies
- Approximately 1/4 of small departments (2-50 officers) have policies
- 80% of the departments handled death notification
- 51% sent more than one officer to the survivor's residence, and
- 77% send the chief or a high-ranking official. Only ten percent send one officer.
- 13% of the police agencies actually train people for death notification.
- 39% of agencies report policies to maintain contact with survivors after the funeral
The psychological impact on surviving officers is frequently severe related to the closeness he/she had with the fallen officer, the brutality of the crime, the frequent re-exposure to the incident by the media, and delays in the justice system. Reactions may include anger, grief, feelings of guilt related to the incident, "survivor guilt" - (it should have been me), a desire for revenge, anxiety with/without panic attacks, depression with feelings of helplessness/hopelessness, an increased sense of vulnerability, insomnia, nightmares, and aversions to places/people related to the incident/victim. Survivors need to know that these are frequent and common responses to a traumatic loss. If these symptoms do not subside within a reasonable length of time; intensify or effect the officer's personal or professional life; he/she should be referred to a mental health professional for assistance.
The COPS study also reported:
- 90% of departments reported that the death of an officer had an emotional impact on other officers and resulted in trauma among those close to the scene.
- Yet only 25% percent of the departments reported initiating psychological services for these officers.
If your department does not have a plan to help the families, friends, and peers of a fallen officer, there is an agency that can help. Concerns of Police Survivors (linked below) addresses the issues of in the line-of-duty deaths by helping both survivors and agencies. COPS provides the following recommendations to law enforcement agencies to develop policies to help in these tragedies:
- Develop a formal policy relating to on-duty deaths if none presently exists. Existing policies should be continually updated, to reflect current benefits, procedures and legal factors.
- Formal training for officers on death notification. This is essential for compassionate notification of law enforcement families and the public as well.
- Hold regular informational seminars for officers and spouses on what support services are available to law enforcement personnel following such a death.
- Make available psychological services, grief counseling and trauma counseling (short and long-term) for survivors of line-of-duty deaths. The term "survivors" includes affected co-workers as well as family of the fallen officers.
- Adopt plans to offer psychological and/or other services (i.e. day care) for children of deceased officers.
- When an officer death occurs, appoint a trained officer to act as liaison with survivors to ensure the family's needs are met.
- Develop a standard for follow-up with survivors. One suggestion is that both high ranking and patrol officers schedule visits for survivors for at least two years after the officer's death.
- Provide media support for survivors who choose to deal with the media. Perhaps assign a public relations officer to be present during media contact.
- Because physical health among co-worker survivors tends to worsen following the death of an officer, departments should make physicians available for immediate physical examination and follow-up aftercare of other officers after the death of a colleague.
The death of an officer in the line of duty affects everyone: the officer's family, the agency in which he worked, the community, and every brother in blue. It is essential that departments are able to properly handle the survivors' needs in these devastating realties. If you are involved in the aftermath of such a tragedy and don't know what you can or should do, simply ask yourself, "What would my family want done at a time like this?" "What would help my partners?" Departments must provide emotional/psychological support as well as ongoing debriefing sessions for the co-workers of fallen officer. Do not forget to include dispatch and administrative staff; they were affected as well. Follow-up with the officer's family is also essential. Unfortunately, officers will continue to die in the line of duty; it is paramount that agencies prepare to handle this ongoing possibility. If you don't have a plan COPS can and wants to help.