Opinion: The Walking Dead
By: Paul Jacobs (Retired Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department Sergeant)
Posted: 2/12/2023 @ 12:00PM
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I contacted ABQ Raw and asked them if I could contribute an article about the effects of PTSD and the impact that it has on first responders. I read the article from Retired APD Sergeant Danny Klein, on “The Night Two Cops Died”; it was originally published in 2015. The John Carrillo shooting was all too familiar to me and many others, because this was an incident that we learned about in the Academy. While we learned about the death of officer Carrillo, the other name that became synonymous with the night of February 22, 1987 was that of John Messimer. After the academy, I met John as our paths had crossed many times.
Sergeant John Messimer
Reading the article that I had seen for the first time when ABQ RAW posted it, it brought back a flood of memories and other thoughts that came to mind. When John passed away, I was the motors and traffic supervisor for the Sheriff’s Department and had the privilege of escorting Officer Messimer to his final resting spot with the members of the APD motor unit. Looking back at that day and reading the article, I don’t know how many people caught what Danny Klein was saying. THE NIGHT THAT TWO COPS DIED. “It took John twenty-eight years to die,” but John isn’t the only one who was basically a walking dead man.
Officer John Carrillo
I mean that with no disrespect to John or his family, but what happened to him, has and is still happening to other officers and first responders day in and day out. One of the things I have been working on is trying to get local agencies to create a mandatory, non punitive, mental health program for all first responders. I can say that writing this hasn’t been easy. I have written, deleted, edited and re-written just about every aspect of this article. Over the course of writing this, an incident took place in Memphis Tennessee, where 5 Memphis Police officers were terminated and charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols. Like many, I watched the video and cannot condone what I saw in any way, shape or form. A big part of me wants to tell the world about what happens to first responders over the course of their career and a small part of me wondered what kind of negative comments it would generate. In the end, the need to tell this story outweighed the negative comments that people will have to offer. Reading this, there may be some answers as to why incidents such as Tyre Nichols continue to happen.
I went to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, Regional Academy. I can tell you that I was as green as any cadet could have been. My only exposure to Law Enforcement prior to the academy was being the victim of two armed robberies and a home burglary. In the Academy, we had a short mental health block that covered how to deal with stress and how cops have a tendency to die early because we develop bad eating habits. At the time, in 1995, it made sense. In that block, they also had officers with APD and deputies with the S.O. come and talk to us about events that they had been involved in. Two of the incidents that I vividly remember, were the stories from Officer Jeff Arbogast with the Albuquerque Police Department and Deputy Brian Murphy. Jeff told us about a murdered woman who had been dumped into a sewer shaft near the PIT. He explained how he had to crawl down into the sewer drain and recover her body several days later. Brian told us about a traumatic shooting incident that he had been a part of back in 1986. At the time, me and my fellow cadets listened to what they were saying, but we didn’t hear what they were trying to tell us. What they were trying to tell us was something that you have to live and learn for yourself. As the years passed by, I began to change and so did my classmates. As a rookie, when you first start out on your own, everything in the world is based on right and wrong. You know that what you are doing is right and when someone breaks the law, they are wrong. Day after day we respond to the world's problems and put our own personal problems on hold. Stress starts to build from all angles, and the brain starts to become rewired. At some point, in each of us, there is a defining moment between right and wrong that changes everything that we know to be wrong and makes it normal.
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This is the part where we should be having adult conversations about what happens when first responders start to develop signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (PTSD) That “normal” is what changes first responders and their behavior. Sometimes, the onset of PTSD is rapid and for others, it creeps up on them for a long period of time. Either way, as they start to change, many first responders self-medicate with alcohol, sex, porn, and even violence. The general public only hears about these incidents when someone in public safety has reached a breaking point and they end up getting arrested for domestic violence, DWI or use of excessive force. With that being said, I am not making excuses for the officers who are charged in the death of Tyre Nichols but the incident itself should have you asking other questions about what is happening and why?
What if the quality of work and interactions with the public could be improved by agencies focusing on the mental health and well-being of their first responders? Think about it for a moment. Take away the allegations of officers being motivated by race, bias or consumed with power. What excuses are left to use? With that being said, Federal, State and local governments are allocating billions of dollars across America to study and create programs for mental health programs in their communities. Why aren’t they creating comprehensive mental health programs for their first responders? Currently, mental health services are voluntary. Psychological services are contracted and if someone chooses to go, they can. In some instances, they hold debriefs on critical incidents, these are also voluntary, and more often discuss what went right and what went wrong. Some take advantage of these services, but a large majority of first responders do not. I know from experience, because I was one of the ones who chose NOT to go.
The first time I stepped through the office doors of a psychologist, I had already been on for 18 years. I was told that my brain was taking all of my memories that should be filed away, and are now on a coffee table for me to view every day. By nature, I have always been a caring person, but somewhere along the line, I lost my compassion for the feelings of other people. In the late 90’s, I ran over a woman who was laying in the road. When my Sergeant asked me if I was ok, I was more worried about losing the overtime I had signed up for on the next shift. This is the same demeanor and attitude that many first responders carry with them at and away from work. We become desensitized to the needs of those we are there to serve. This is not something that we choose, nor is it something we long for. This is the mind's way of protecting us from the daily trauma that we are witnessing so that we can do it all over day after day.
My personal life was a train wreck for the last two years of my career, ultimately, it was the deciding factor in my decision to retire. In my retirement, I had to find myself again and figure out what was the best path for my life. I went back to school and during that time, found myself working on term papers about the mental health and well-being of first responders. I guess I was trying to find my own answers for what happened to me and why it’s still a daily struggle. While looking for answers, I actually found more questions. Some studies cite that only 6% of law enforcement officers will end up with PTSD, while other studies cite up to 65% will develop PTSD in the course of their career. Based on my experience and looking back at the changes and behavior of my co-workers, I’m going to take an educated guess that 100% of us first responders develop symptoms of PTSD.
Body cam from an APD officer involved shooting that had a man charging at officers with a large butcher knife.
Police work is typically reactionary. Changes aren’t made until after a major incident. These changes are made to appease the public. Government employers have been reactionary to employee behavior, without focusing on why this behavior is occurring and what they can do to prevent it. It’s time for employers to be proactive and create mental health programs that are mandatory and non-punitive. These programs need to include Police, Fire, Corrections and Dispatch. With comprehensive mental health programs, I truly believe that a lot of the problems associated with PTSD will be reduced dramatically. I’m not going to promise that every use of force complaint will go away and I’m not going to say that misconduct will disappear. I’m only saying that a lot of people are asking for help, only they don’t know how to ask. Take away the stigma of asking for help as a sign of weakness and offer training and programs throughout the duration of an employee's career and after. When I meet up with fellow retired deputies, we hug, we laugh and catch up on what is going on in our life at the moment. Somewhere in that interaction, the conversation always turns to how messed up our minds are and what we have been doing to try and make it tolerable. I’m thankful to have those conversations because the average suicide rate for law enforcement officers is 15.3 officers a year, per every 100,000 officers. I will say that that is pale in comparison to that of our military veterans, but even one is one too many.
The mental health block that I was taught in the academy did not stick with me. Partially because when you’re a rookie, you are too busy saving the world. Somewhere between thinking you’re going to change things and finding out it’s a never-ending cycle, you forget about what you were taught. I also know that as I listened to Officer Jeff Arbogast and Deputy Brian Murphy, I wasn’t going to learn what they were trying to teach me, until I had experienced it for myself. I wish I had listened to their stories with a different frame of mind. Now, looking back, I can hear both Jeff and Brian telling their story because it was their form of therapy. Jeff died of a heart attack at the age of 56 and Brian passed away at an early age from health issues. Their deaths can easily be attributed to the effects that stress and PTSD not only have on the mind, but the body as well.
Many of us die, somewhere along the way, only we get up every day and continue to do what we do. Often without a thank you and always with some form of criticism. When we signed up, all of us wanted to make our community better. We just didn’t know what the consequences were going to be. It might be too late for me or those I retired with, but there’s a whole new generation of first responders that are going through the same thing. I wish my old department was willing to have those adult conversations about what was happening, but they never did.