My Burden, Downfall and Recovery from Police Work-Related Post Traumatic Stress

By Brad Carlson, MTI Contributor

2011. Graveyard shift on patrol. I had been a police officer for 5 years, and had recently made it onto SWAT as a collateral assignment.

I was working the south end of town when the triple tone went off alerting that a priority call was about to be dispatched. I was being sent, along with the rest of my shift, to a shooting in progress.

We were dispatched to a well-known apartment complex in the city. This place had many crimes originate and many end. Dispatch advised that they were receiving multiple calls of “shots fired” with several victims running from an apartment.

I arrived within seconds. I exited my vehicle and ran to the trunk to grab my SWAT rifle and additional body armor.  I could hear gunshots. My sergeant arrived along with one of my partners. We formed up and started making movement towards the complex.

Almost immediately, we located a victim lying lifelessly on the ground outside. My partner stopped to try to render lifesaving measures to the victim. My sergeant and I made entry followed a blood trail where we found another victim lying in a pool of blood. The victim was “guppy breathing,” and my sergeant stopped to render first aid.

I was now solo. Our department had been decimated by the pay cuts and lay-offs that happened during this time period. We had been cut in half from eighty officers, to thirty-nine. We were the only officers on scene.

Two young teenage adults came crawling out of the bushes at me shocked, scared, and crying.

The chase for the suspect was now over unless we heard gunfire or had some other direction to go, it was now time to provide aid for the wounded, protect those who were not shot, and begin a homicide investigation. 

I watched the second victim stop with the death gurgles and finally pass away.  We were too late to help.

I do not remember what I was thinking in that moment, but as I went to take a breath, I instead made an audible sobbing sound.

I immediately caught myself, and regained my composure. 

But I was definitely shaken up – not because of what I had just seen – I had seen stuff like this for the last five years of police work and before that when I was in the US Army and during my deployment to Afghanistan. I was shaken up because I had never felt like this and had never experienced an emotional, outburst, like this, ever. I felt weak.

What I did not know then was that this was the beginning of the end of my tactical career.

I enlisted into the US Army after high school as a Cavalry Scout, spent a year in Korea, another year in Afghanistan and some time at Ft. Knox and left the Army as a sergeant. I came home, ran into a family friend, and very shortly later was hired on at a small Southern California department in San Bernardino County. As a child I only wanted to be two things, a soldier, and a police officer – I was literally living my dream.

I came up as a police officer under the tutelage of cops who cut their teeth in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I learned quickly I was to be seen, not heard. I had better be the first at work and the last one out. Any sign weakness made you “PNG,” persona non-grata. You were a good cop if you were tough, smart, and did not ask for help.

I dove into this career headfirst and loved every minute …. until I didn’t. I answered every call for overtime. I had been in a significant number of pursuits, chased criminals on foot, and had been primary on several homicides and even more shootings and stabbings. I had been in a shooting where my partner and I killed the bad guy and had been on-scene for other officers involved in shootings.

Over the totality of my 17-year career, I worked patrol, gangs, FTO, SWAT, detectives, fugitive apprehension, range master and a host of other assignments that spread across the spectrum of “nerd – cool guy assignments.” I had been suspended and received honors and awards. I had done my best to not only be a police officer but a “street cop.”

Then, in 2011, my first child arrived.

I’d witnessed multiple, vicious, child-related over the years. One call was for the death of an infant from drowning, however the investigation concluded the child had been thrown into a wall. I will spare the rest of the details, but it was a homicide.

I was also involved in an investigation where two young girls were repeatedly raped by their stepfather for several years with their mother’s full knowledge. When this case finally went to jury trial, I watched jurors cry as one victim described being forced to do sex acts that would make a porn star blush. These and other child-related crimes I’d witnessed came back to haunt me with the birth of my child.

In 2014, I lateraled to that larger agency, which gave me room for professional growth. I now had a toddler and had just welcomed my second child into the world. 

I had eight years of experience, but was the new guy again, which meant I had to restart my reputation-building. One of my first calls was a car collision where an infant had been belted into the baby seat, but the baby seat was not strapped into the car. The child was ejected from the vehicle and impaled on a fence. I had to remove the child from the fence, but he was gone.  So, I left him to to treat those vitims still aliave. At another call, a drunk driver rear-ended a car stopped at a traffic light. Inside were grandparents and  two young grandchildren on vacation. The two children were seat belted in booster seats in the back seat – but deceased. The back seat was folded into the trunk of the car due to the velocity and impact of the collision.

I got promoted and moved into the Detective Division. At this agency, we were all “general” detectives, which means there were no specialties. So, a detective could be handling a homicide, a petty theft, and everything in between at the same time. Most of my 20-30 ongoing cases were petty crimes, with a few violent and major crimes mixed in.

For no specific reason, I got handed a significant amount of child abuse and sexual assault cases. One of my first cases as a detective was the homicide of a toddler by the mother. I will spare details, but the death was drawn out with prolonged physical abuse and emotional/physical neglect. Child victims were so common that detectives would get confused about which “baby with skull fractures and injuries in various stages of healing” we were talking about.

My wife and I had been having problems for a few years at this point. Constant fighting about everything. My kids were getting a little older, not old enough to know exactly what I did, but old enough to know that when my phone rang they would immediately get mad and ask if I had to go to work. I was also experiencing other issues. The time that I did spend with my kids was fruitless, I would come home, sit in my chair and slip into a vegetative state just watching cartoons with my kids. Randomly, and often for no reason, I would break out into tears.  As quickly as it would start, I would stop it.

On the drive home from work I’d get these crazy ocular migraines and terrible headaches. My whole world would go black except for my peripheral vision. I knew I should stop the car and seek some help, but I just did not care if I lived, so I would keep driving at freeway speeds struggling to see. I was never going to outright kill myself, but I definitely did my best to give anyone who wanted to hurt me a strong chance at success.

My sleep had turned to trash as well. I would fall asleep immediately but wake up within a couple of hours and be wide awake. And when I did sleep, I would wake up chewing on my own tongue like it was a piece of steak.

My wife and I got past arguing and screaming. Instead, our fights turned into conversations and negotiations. She would get the kids on these days; I would cover these bills. We quit fighting and began planning the divorce and with that contemplate a life apart from each other and the kids every other week.

We were friends with another couple who were also having problems. The husband and I met in the military and hit it off as he was from Northern Cali and I was from Southern. He had deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and had also become a cop when he got out. My wife and I made a joke about driving the eight hours up to see them, hanging out for a day and then driving back. My friend’s wife said it would be a wonderful surprise that my friend needed. We loaded our two young children up and started driving.

On this trip my wife and my friend’s wife talked, and I talked with my friend. My buddy and I vented about a lot of stuff, but mostly police work, how it sucked, and why our wives sucked for causing us grief. Every so often we would hear our wives’ conversations and they were talking about our anger. My friend told me he was going to get out of police work and was in counseling.

During the eight-hour drive home my wife and I talked non-stop, and candidly. It was a hard conversation to have and it’s still hard to even write about now. I told my wife I did not want to not see my kids regularly. I told my wife that I loved her. I also told her I wanted to die. On search warrants I would go without a vest on and take knock and notice – hoping to catch a few bullets through the door. I’d secretly wish a DUI would blow through an intersection and hit my car. I told my wife about the weird crying outburst, not sleeping, and biting my tongue so bad I would draw blood. I told her how all I could see were our kid’s faces when I responded to child abuse after child abuse, and how I worried about the kids going to anyone else’s home because I was worried someone would molest them.

I was broken. My wife told me about her conversations that weekend, that she wanted to get into counseling with me. We made our first appointment, but we did it through a counselor we found on our own. I didn’t tell my supervisor or any of my colleagues. I did not want anyone at the department to find out I was going to any type of counseling.

Within the first few sessions, our the therapist told me I was suffering from post tramatic stress (PTS). Initially, I was pissed. I was still on the sharp end at work, was capable of doing the job, and in my mind PTS meant I was weak. All I wanted was to stop those crying episodes and make my wife learn to deal with me.

After a year of coundeling, I began to realize that my friends from work and I had some problems. But I could not fix my friends, I could fix me. I went to the department and told some of the leadership ,I trusted that I was burnt out and needed to reset myself. I resigned from SWAT, asked to be removed from Detectives and put back on Patrol. Initially my leadership was hesitant and rather suggested I take leave and get help, but I fought them and they begrudgingly accepted my decision with the caveat that I come to them if anything changed.

 I went back to patrol “in shame.” You don’t voluntarily leave special assignments to return to patrol – doing so was considered career suicide. This caught a lot of people off guard. Back on patrol I was feeling a little better but I returned as a supervisor. This meant that I had to respond to respond to my entire patrol team’s sex and assault cases to assist. My exposure to this stuff actuall increased.

On top of all that we were in the middle of the worst levels of trust and respect towards law enforcement I had ever seen. I was worried about these young officers getting themselves into trouble, even when they were doing the right thing. One night I responded to a shooting and  was driving towards the house where the victims said the shots were coming from.  Two knuckleheads were out near the street and I drove up to confront them. Immediately one is uncooperative and starts to walk back towards the house and the other is doing the “that’s my friend, but I don’t want any part of what’s next,” routine.

The night has been pandemonium and I do not want this turning into a bunch of search warrants and probable SWAT callout that we’d have to deal with while still trying to keep the calls for service within manageable tolerances. So, I follow the suspect up the driveway and go hands on with him as he refuses to comply with my instructions. I will never describe myself as a stud, ever. I wrestled in high school, enjoyed combatives in the army, and had found a fondness of Jiu Jitsu in law enforcement, but would train in waves. I worked out before work every day with weightlifting, running, sometimes CrossFit type stuff, but I ate like crap so I was also 5’10” and 260lbs. The guy I was now grabbing onto was none of these things. He was between 19 and 20, 5’08” and rail thin. Very quickly it went south for him, and I took him to the ground, mounted him, and got the cavalry coming to help me out.

While I am sitting on top of the suspect handcuffing him, I look over and see the butt of a pistol sitting on the tire of the car we are next to. Ultimately both suspects were positively identified by the victims as having shot at them. And both were taken to jail on a number of charges. We had just gotten two gangsters and a gun off the street, but I was furious, now I had to write a use of force report, which really felt like I was explaining that I was not a racist and that the world did not need to come to our city to burn it down because I was just doing my job.

Every day was the normal plethora of calls from transients being passed out in the gutter, to pursuits and chases, to shootings.  And then in the middle of all this was the normal BS we all contend with like sexual harassment training. I was trying to get this training completed as I was sitting in my patrol unit watching the videos, taking the test, answering my phone for questions about how to deal with calls when the medical aid tone came across the radio. It was a Friday day shift and I was sitting in center city so I could more easily respond to a hot call or if an officer needed my assistance. Dispatch started to broadcast a “baby was not breathing.”

I authorized the two closest units to respond with their lights and sirens. I paused the training videos and set aside some of the reports I was reviewing and began to drive that way. In my head though I knew baby’s do not typically stop breathing for no reason. I was going to let the patrol officers deal with trying to revive the child, but my brain was already in investigative mode preparing for what we may find and the investigation we were going to have to do.

Dispatch came back on the radio within a minute and told all units the call was cancelled. They then advised the “baby” was the reporting party’s dog. I lost it, I wanted to continue to drive down to this person’s house and scream at them. I had just sent two officers driving at breakneck speeds to go help this person to find out this person’s level of trauma response was to panic because their dog died. I called my buddy and cussed him out for a good several minutes. He laughed at me, because this type of call is not unique, and he reminded me that people are dumb which is why I have a job. I immediately got that ocular migraine and a headache again.

I had just responded to two other teenage kids dying from overdosing on Fentanyl. I watched as two different families reacted to the news that their children were gone. These were two normal-looking families whose lives were forever changed by kids who could not fathom what the consequence of action looked like. 

I lied to the parents and told them that we had been there holding their children’s hands while medical units attempted to save their lives, but the honest truth was these kids died in their own vomit and pissed soaked pants while their friends panicked because they did not want to get in trouble in a shed at some tweaker pad before they called 911.

I went home after that weekend shift and never went back to work as a police officer again. 

I called my sergeant and then a lieutenant and told them I was done. My department and city were awesome to me, they put me on leave and sent me to counseling. As I went through counseling I started to learn so much about the human brain and how stress and trauma affect it.  I started researching therapy and learned of a few different techniques including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing “EMDR.”

I found a doctor in my area who specialized in first responders and military whose modality of therapy was EMDR. I emailed the doctor and explained briefly what was happening to me and that I wanted to be better. I received a phone call from the doctor who informed me that EMDR was intense and hard work but had the ability to work miracles. She and I started that week.

I have never worked so hard in my entire life. Our first meeting was just to explain the process, do some administrative paperwork, and do some baseline psychological tests. The second week we set the stage for the EMDR therapy. The doctor had me give her a list of some memories based on “themes” that bubbled upl from the tests on day one. These memories were on a scale of one to ten based on how traumatic I thought they were and I was supposed to provide memories that crossed the whole scale so there were easy ones to work on and hard ones that would require more focus.

The third session cracked off EMDR. Basically, EMDR works on memory chains. One of my themes was “not being good enough.” And so anytime I felt like I had not been good enough, a whole litany of memories that I associated with that theme would light up in my brain. EMDR’s goal was to make that light less bright. We started that first session off with a simple memory that had no bearing on my life, it was a one on that scale. As I started to focus on that memory I was thrown back, almost instantaneously, to a memory that I had forgotten completely about when I fished a drowned baby out of a pool. We tried to resuscitate the child and I escorted the ambulance all the way to the hospital, but this child died. I had tried, but I just was not good enough, to save this baby.

In therapy, I cried like I had never cried a day in my life. Tears burned my cheeks and snot bubbles were popping like popcorn. I was instantly overcome with a couple of more memories that I truly had not remembered from over a decade ago, other calls where I felt I failed. I was doing that ugly cry where I could almost not breathe. The doctor let this go on for a few more minutes, but ended up stopping us short. The doctor told me this first session was supposed to be a “toes in the water,” session but instead my brain just dove into the deep end and got after it.

The worst part was not reliving the memories but feeling so weak and having to be vulnerable. My worst fear was looking weak as a cop and now it was not only coming to fruition, but I was going to be doing it repeatedly for the indeterminate future. The only other way I can describe it is to go to work naked and just go about your day, butt naked, with a sign hanging on your neck stating your deepest, darkest secret, is what EMDR felt like at first.

It took a long time, several months, of weekly hour-long sessions before I stopped sobbing like an infant during the sessions.  And it took even a few more months before I actually started to feel better and realize that the therapy was helping. I was in EMDR for over a year and a half before I “graduated.”

During one of the later sessions, my wife came in with me to watch and then talk to the doctor and give feedback. This will be another article down the road, but what I had not known was that while I was getting better and becoming “me” again, my wife was still in it. No one had checked on her while I was getting help and getting healthy. Worse, my wife was not getting the help and getting healthy from the decade plus garbage she had lived through with me as a cop. My wife suffered through the call outs, the pursuits, the fights, the crap attitude I brought home. She suffered through the secondary trauma of waiting to hear if I had been hurt after seeing incidents on the news or calls or texts she would get.

The lesson: If I had just gone to therapy earlier in my career I would still be a police officer and doing the work that I loved. I also learned that therapy is like dating for marriage, you need to find the right fit for you. Several of my friends left police work after I did, some had success with EMDR and others hated it. There are numerous therapy modalities out there, you need to research them and find what you think will work for you. 

Step one is knowing you need therapy. Step two is finding a therapist you feel like you can actually trust and open up to. I went through several before I found the doctor and EMDR that made sense to me. 

Step three is the work. There is no miracle pill, and the doctor does not, or should not, say a lot. This is your journey, and like a trainer at the gym or a meal plan, the doctor can only show you the way, you have to do the work to get there.

After therapy I never considered returning to police work. The progress I had made, the time I had gotten back with my family, was worth too much to risk with a return to the streets. I had done police work and I had done it for as long as I was willing to.

I try not to look back. My family and I moved to another state. I found work very quickly that was completely separated from my past life. I was scared at first because I had only worked in a small niche of related jobs, but what I found is that life experience is just that, experience, that can be applied across vast swaths of unrelated fields. I took a pay cut for sure, but am rich in family and memories now. We live very comfortably within our means, which means I get to go do all the fun things I want to do with my wife and kids.

I’ve also learned that I was not alone. In short order, after I left, three other friends left police work as well. I got too many calls to count from friends who wanted to stay in police work but were suffering some of the same issues I had gone through. I got calls from people from other departments just because word of mouth. The point is police, EMT and paramedics, firefighters, our ER nurses and doctors work is hard and can steal your soul if you let it. But more people are going through this than are not, particularly those who have been doing it for any amount of time I learned. Getting help is a choice and one that can only benefit you both in your career and in your personal life.

Brad is a former police officer.


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