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PTSD and Cops

Boulder County sheriff's Deputy John Seifert earned a medal of valor for his actions in a 2008 gun battle that saw dozens of rounds fired, but he struggled for years afterward with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He began drinking heavily and left the department two years later. Last year, at his home outside Nederland, he killed himself with a single shotgun blast to the neck.  - Tom McGhee in The Denver Post, 6/19/2014

Early on December 30, 2008 Derik Bonastroo walked into a meeting of fellow ski lift operators at the Eldora (CO) Ski resort, began menacing his coworkers and shouting “whoever is not of my religion will die today” and fired a round into the ceiling.  When resort general manager Brian Mahon walked into the room to investigate the commotion Bonastroo asked him, “What religion are you?”  Mahon answered he was Catholic and was immediately shot twice and killed.  After asking “all the Christians to stand up” and receiving tentative responses from a couple in the room that didn’t result in their being killed, one of the employees said, “We’re all Christians, everyone stand up,” which they did.  Bonastroo wished them all a good day and fled in his car. 

Within minutes of the 911 call going out Deputy Seifert spotted Bonastroo’s fleeing vehicle and gave chase after another resort employee following Bonastroo caught his eye and signaled he was the shooter.  The pursuit lasted only about two miles before Bonastroo abruptly stopped, leaned out the driver’s door window, and opened fire.  Seifert exited his squad and engaged Bonastroo in a fierce firefight that saw at least 27 rounds fired in his direction, while landing seven rounds on Bonastroo and preventing further bloodshed.  It is believed that the badly wounded Bonastroo killed himself with a shot to the head from his own weapon.  He was found in possession of additional weapons, dozens of rounds of ammunition, a bloody axe he had used to kill his own cat, and religious literature.  He was later found to be off the psychotropic meds he’d been prescribed after a brief hospitalization earlier that year.

For his courage and actions John Seifert received the Sheriff’s Department Medal of Valor and was name Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.  Despite taking on a heavily armed and motivated assailant alone, and having to overcome an immediate misfire with his sidearm while under taking fire, Seifert suffered only minor lacerations from the spray of his shattered windshield.  Physically, he escaped more or less unscathed; the really serious wounds were invisible… at least at first.

Despite the well-deserved awards and accolades for his very real heroism the shootout seemed to send Deputy Seifert into an emotional spiral; struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, he began drinking heavily and sank into depression that contributed to Seifert leaving the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office a couple years after the shooting.  He was never able to overcome his depression and, on December 10, 2013, like far too many law enforcement officers, turned a shotgun on himself to end his emotional pain. 

"Like so many heroes, he had a really difficult time handling that," said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. "That unlocked some real issues for him with post-traumatic stress and alcohol."

He said the office worked with Seifert after the shootout to try to get him the help he needed.

"We invested heavily in John in treatment, intervention and professional support, and we couldn't get him over the hump," Pelle said.  - From The Denver Post, 6/19/2014

It is widely accepted that a single, overwhelmingly intense traumatic event can overpower coping mechanisms and lead to what is commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and this is often what most of us think of when we think of PTSD; the soldier’s psyche cracking in the fog of battle, a accident victim unable to cope post-incident, or the cop rendered ineffective by the memory of a horror witnessed and worked.  This is what many of us have been taught, the easy narrative usually featured in popular media, and this might well have been what happened to John Seifert.  Running hot to a call, coming into sudden contact with the offender, and exchanging dozens of rounds at close range in a matter of seconds would leave anyone shaken.  Also consider that Brian Mahon and Seifert were friends and he would only later learn of his death while already in a compromised emotional state, and is it any wonder he came to struggle?

But while it is true a single trauma might overwhelm someone’s ability to cope and effectively integrate the experience, leaving them with all the signs, symptoms, and negative effects of PTSD, we now know there is much more behind many cases of PTSD and how it develops.  Researchers studying the effects of chronic stress on neurobiology are finding strong correlations between chronic stress and the development of PTSD and how it also has the capacity to overwhelm normal coping mechanisms as does the classic “traumatic moment in time” most of us have been conditioned to think about.   The more likely reality of a long series of unrelated and dissimilar events that, over time and with diminishing defense mechanisms, overwhelm an officer’s ability to cope is something far more cops will someday face. 

Relatively few police officers will ever find themselves in a shootout but most will face other less lethal, but still dangerous, attacks many times over a career.  Most will suffer a job-related injury at some point and probably several.  Death becomes familiar, with its sights, smells, and even sounds – the drip of blood, family keening in the background – another human tragedy just tucked away in the litany of daily events a cop sees all the time that would shock most but have seemingly lost any shock value to an experienced officer.  Still, somewhere deep in the brain shock registers once again, unfelt and unknown but there, and scars the psyche just a little more.  What will be the final straw to doom the camel’s back is anyone’s guess.

Deputy Seifert’s suicide has drawn attention to a recent bill in Colorado’s legislature to provide workman’s compensation to police officers suffering from job-related PTSD.  The bill has faced opposition by municipal and state leaders and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and has so far not gotten out of committee, although legislators have taken steps to look more closely at the issue. 

Police stress, and especially the stress and depression that derails motivation, effectiveness, careers and can, in disproportionate numbers, lead to officers taking their own lives, has long been a concern.  Ron Clark, Chairman of Badge of Life, was interviewed for the Denver Post article and estimated up to 1 in 8 police officers experience symptoms of PTSD.  If true, that comes out to over 109,000 of cops.

We’re not going to wade into the debate over whether PTSD should be covered under workman’s compensation – not today, anyway.  What we are going to suggest is this: 

  • If Clark’s numbers are to be believed PTSD may afflict a huge number of officers, and even if most of that number do not have full-fledged PTSD they are still impacted by what they’ve seen and been exposed to and remain at risk of getting worse. 
  • There still exists a stigma in law enforcement that acknowledging emotional problems or mental health issues – even as general knowledge about how widespread they really are grows – is tantamount to admitting weakness, and can lead to both informal and formal sanctions against cops who dare to open up about their problems.  Awareness is growing and it’s getting better, but the threat of repercussions – real or imagined – still prevents many from seeking help.  Ignorance or denial at the highest levels of a police organization restricts access to knowledge at the line level. 
  • This stigma must be eliminated, especially at the command level, and police administrators need to become advocates for their officers instead of sycophants to civilian leadership that might have difficulty understanding law enforcement concerns.
  • Education of both new and experienced officers about what PTSD is, how it manifests, how to recognize it in themselves and their peers, and how to seek help early needs to be stressed as much as procedural and tactical skills at the academy level and beyond.  John Seifert was an experienced and skilled SWAT operator and his skills kept him alive and ensured he could end the threat in the moment of crisis.  Once the shooting stopped he was ill-prepared for what was to come.
  • New and experienced officers alike must be taught that no matter how mentally and physically tough they are, PTSD is still a possibility, it is not only possible but likely they will someday experience symptoms of PTSD, and the odds are high they will, in fact, someday be a candidate for a diagnosis of PTSD. 
  • They must also know that PTSD and its characteristic symptoms are treatable and recovery likely if they learn proper coping techniques, identify and tap into resources, and seek help when stress gets too great.  It need not be a permanent condition.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a real problem in law enforcement that needs greater attention.  At best it impairs officers functioning on the job and off, at worst it costs lives.  Knowledge is the first step in beating PTSD.