“When am I going to wake up and this will be behind me?”
BY KELLY FOREMAN
His 18-year-old son was days from leaving home for the national guard. Just 17 days out of the academy, the Kentucky officer invited his son to ride along with him in their hometown to see what his dad was doing each day in his new career.
They responded to a domestic disturbance call. A local man had assaulted his father, attempting to stab him with a broken walking stick.
“When I got to the door, the man sitting inside looked so pleasant, I thought maybe I was at the wrong residence,” the officer said.
The man inside was the accused. His father had left the home, and the suspect told the officer the two had an argument, but everything was fine now.
“He seemed so pleasant,” the officer repeated. “It was cold outside, and this was a big mistake on my part. I said, ‘Sir, it’s cold out, and I’ve got my youngest son with me, but he’s an adult, he’s 18 years old, do you mind if he steps inside while we’re talking?’ He said, ‘No, buddy, tell him to come on in.’”
Soon the suspect’s family returned to the residence, including his father. Two other deputies also arrived on scene. After asking the suspect some questions, the officers informed him he would be arrested and charged with fourth-degree assault, domestic violence.
“When we went to arrest him, everything changed,” the officer said. “Almost like a classroom setting in the academy. He pulled a firearm and started waving it around the room. My main concern at that point was getting my son out of the room.”
The officer got his son to safety and took cover behind a wall where he could still catch glimpses of the suspect, who continually refused commands to drop his weapon.
“I couldn’t see all of him, but I heard a gunshot,” he said. “I thought a deputy had shot him, but [the suspect] had fired his gun at the ceiling. Then I heard a deputy say, ‘Don’t do that, drop your weapon.’
“He then walked out into the center of the hallway with his gun up toward the deputy,” the officer continued. “I screamed for him to drop the weapon. When I did, he spun on me and started to come toward me with the gun, and I shot this person. And it ended up being a fatal shooting.
“So, I almost immediately started having a lot of issues with that.”
Prior to his career in law enforcement, the officer spent more than two decades in ministry. After the shooting, the officer said he began receiving phone calls from people checking on him. One of those was Department of Criminal Justice Training Criminal Investigations Branch Manager Travis Tennill.
“I remember telling Mr. Tennill that I think I owe my life to the academy,” the officer said. “I’m not sure I would be alive if it were not for my training. But one thing we never talked about is, how do you deal with these things after going through something like this? For 25 years, I had been telling people how to live life abundantly, and talking about eternal life and now here I have shot and killed a person.”
‘It bothered me that I was bothered so badly’
The officer’s nightmares were so graphic, violent and frequent that he sometimes woke up sobbing, his heart racing and afraid to go back to sleep, knowing what was coming, he said. Many people told him he would be fine and to just give it time. But as time went on, he wasn’t fine. Emotionally, he said he was nearly disabled by the event.
“The nightmares started weighing on me,” he said. “I feel like I’m a pretty strong person, but I knew I couldn’t deal with this on my own, so I started looking for people to help me.”
The officer sought help from a psychologist near his hometown who worked with soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress. She explained the symptoms and that it’s OK to not feel the same as before the incident, the officer explained.
“You can be normal,” he said. “It’s just a different kind of normal.”
Soon Tennill contacted the officer again and told him about a Post-Critical Incident Seminar hosted in South Carolina. The officer attended and benefitted so much from the first seminar that he returned a second time to continue his healing.
“I felt like a sponge when I went back the second time, absorbing more,” he said. “Maybe I wasn’t as numb at that point.”
During a group session where other officers shared their stories and responses, the officer said when his turn came, he told the psychologist leading the session that he felt bad about feeling bad.
“He said to me, ‘Look, you shouldn’t feel bad about who you are or what you had to do,’” the officer recalled. “’You said you would do it again if you had to, and of course that is very important if you continue in this career. You have to be able to do that to protect yourself or others. But never feel bad about not feeling the same way someone else feels.’”
That moment of understanding an individual’s response to critical incidents are unique was a turning point for the officer. Once he understood he was not just going crazy, that what he was experiencing was normal, he began to handle the stresses better. While his story is still painful for him to tell, he said he tells it knowing a lot of other officers face some of the same stresses he did and don’t know where to turn for help.
“I wouldn’t take anything for my experience at PCIS in South Carolina,” he said. “I don’t know that it saved me, but as a father, grandfather, husband and officer, it certainly may have in some of those areas. I’m really glad the folks at DOCJT are looking into offering this type of assistance for officers.”