Killer Cocktail: PTSD and Your Local Police

by , April 27, 2010

The moment that Austin police officer Wayne Williamson began unloading his pistol in a filled parking lot was probably the first time he realized he hadn’t left Iraq too far behind.

Williamson never hit his target –a fleeing, "possibly armed" suspect – but only one of the bullets he discharged in the parking lot was ever found. It was lodged in the back seat of a car in which two children, a 14-year-old girl and a four-month-old baby, had been sitting (miraculously, neither was injured). There were no excuses or cover-ups, however – Williamson was subsequently terminated from his nine-year career as a police officer.

Williamson is one of thousands of veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though he had not been treated for it before the aforementioned incident on March 14, 2007. A National Guardsman who left his job at the Austin Police Department (APD) to go to war in 2005, Williamson saw heavy combat in Tikrit before coming home and going back on patrol. He later told a reporter how a fleeing suspect like the one he had encountered in the parking lot would have been handled in Iraq.

“Bad guys get away over there, they come back with things strapped to their chest, and they don’t mind blowing themselves up – or you or somebody else around you,” he told writer Jordan Smith, who added, "That was a soldier’s lesson it seems that no one at APD thought to help him unlearn before he returned to patrol."

Members of the Army National Guard and Reserves have been rotating in and out of the two-front war with such regularity it’s become difficult to tell the difference between the "part timers" and the active-duty force – with one major distinction. Guardsmen and reservists go back to civilian jobs in between their multiple tours. Many are police officers. In fact, police departments across the country are actively recruiting part-time soldiers and veterans because their acquired "skill set" apparently makes them a desired fit for this line of work.

So what happens when they bring the war to work with them?

Williamson never denied the gravity of what happened in the parking lot that day. When speaking before the police disciplinary review board on the matter, he said, “That day, I posed a threat to other people … innocent civilians. If I’m a greater danger to the people than the guy that I’m chasing, then there’s … something definitely wrong there, sir.”

Experts who spoke with Antiwar.com said the relentless urban war zone through which these citizen soldiers have rotated for one, two, even three tours can warp their perspective of the policing environment back home. Their "area of operation" today may be a gritty public housing project or a sleepy middle-American burg, but it may all seem like Baghdad again in a troubled vet’s mind. Unfortunately, the acceptable military "rules of engagement" are completely incompatible with the authority and obligations of a civilian police officer.

Soldiers are trained to kill; police are trained to "keep the peace." Soldiers shoot first and ask questions later. Cops read Miranda rights. They are supposed to abide by the Constitution. In a hyper-criminalized society in which police are already criticized for being too aggressive and the gulf between cop and "civilian" is ever widening, this could be lighter fluid poured on a fire for departments and communities across the country.

Allen Kates, author of CopShock: Surviving Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, said that any cop left to go about his job with untreated PTSD is like ticking time bomb. "It can be very dangerous for military people who have not dealt with their PTSD to do their police work," he stressed, noting that departments struggle enough with how to handle officers who are traumatized by events that occur on the job. Handling vets who come back from urban combat overseas is even harder.

Plus, while 54 percent of departments across the country have some sort of counseling unit, "that does not mean a majority of cops will go – there is still a stigma," Kates said. Unless there is confidentiality promised to the officer up front, many will see counseling as a potential blot on their record, and cause for suspicion and ridicule. This is not so different from the way military people have viewed mental health care as a potential stain to be avoided.

So what are the symptoms? We know Williamson suggested he reacted like a soldier in Tikrit, not a cop, when chasing his suspect that fateful night. In addition to disorientation, experts say hyper-vigilance to the point of paranoia, a quick temper, overreaction, lack of empathy, and poor performance due to a loss of sleep and problems at home are all potential signs of a cop in need of readjustment and treatment.

The problem is that police not only carry weapons, but their badges give them special power over the civilians they are sworn to "protect and serve." That trust is put on the line when an officer is temporarily stuck in a reality thousands of miles away.

"[Cops] are trained to stuff their feelings," said Kates. "If you keep stuffing them, they’re sooner or later going to come out, in a dramatic way."

But while the vast majority of vet-cops will never shoot into a crowded parking lot or repeatedly punch a handcuffed suspect in the face, an important study released in September by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance indicates that a growing number of officers admit to carrying negative baggage from the war – and their superiors are noticing.

"Employing Returning Combat Veterans as Law Enforcement Officers" [.pdf] is the result of interviews with 53 Iraq/Afghanistan veterans now serving as police officers and 112 department leaders, as well as written responses from 340 additional veterans.

Of the vets who responded to the question about behavioral changes on the job after returning from war (about 19 percent of the total), 75 percent reported they were more sensitive to sudden noises and movement, and 72 percent reported changes in mood. They were also more irritable and more prone to anger post-deployment.

Of all vets surveyed, 28 percent said they "were experiencing mental health symptoms that they associate with combat." Some comments included "examples such as exaggerated survival instincts, PTSD, paranoia, and anxiety."

From the report’s summary:

"Troops must make instantaneous decisions when confronting resistance in the urban combat setting, and it is very possible that such combat experience enhances their decision-making abilities in the domestic policing environment. However, the environments in which service members work are quite different from the environments in which law enforcement officers work. Sustained operations under combat circumstances may cause returning officers to mistakenly blur the lines between military combat situations and civilian crime situations, resulting in inappropriate decisions and actions – particularly in the use of less lethal or lethal force. This similarity may cause an operational or reactive issue that could result in injury or death to an innocent civilian."

Let’s listen to the cops, as recorded in the survey, on making that "mental shift" to Main Street from Haifa Street:

"In [California], a gang city, I responded to gun fire. There was an 11-year-old gunshot victim. I get there, and chaos is breaking out, there is a crowd. They are all asking questions, pushing to get on the scene. And I thought I was back in Iraq, and I thought I was going to lose my control. … In Iraq you would fire a couple shots in the air to push the crowds back. …

"It is real hard, especially when have just come back from a tour. It is hard for your mind to transition from a military to a law mode. … I did not act on my impulse like it was Iraq, I actually physically stepped back to my patrol car and watched things for awhile and I was able to clear my mind. It wasn’t that I didn’t know where I was, it was more I felt overwhelmed by all the screaming. I was more nervous because of having to deal with crowds in Iraq."

Then there are the different rules of engagement:

"In SWAT, no one can get shot. When we enter a building or room [in the military] we yelled ‘down’ and shot anyone who didn’t, but not in SWAT. You have to make a judgment call. By military standards, I am successful if I take less than 13 percent casualties but in SWAT, you can’t take any casualties."

"Control issues" also come into play:

"The hardest thing for me during my transition was control issues. … A student told me recently that I was so intimidating. … I didn’t see myself as intimidating. I had two complaints lodged on me. Both of them dealt with people perceiving me to be very military in bearing and unbendable on the scene."

Some veterans express frustration with – and little tolerance for – the society they have come back to:

"I have no tolerance for people asking me for directions. Someone stopped me and I said, ‘Why can’t you just leave me alone?’ I had a bad attitude, and I could tell from his face that I made him mad, and rightfully so. I was disrespectful. [I have] this ‘I don’t care’ attitude. I don’t want to waste my time with disabled vehicles because I want to go catch the bad guys. I have less tolerance for the minor things, and they should be just as important."

Other responses included a learned bias against people with Middle Eastern names and features. Vets also admitted to bringing their family problems to work. Some admitted to disliking their supervisors and trusting and socializing only with fellow veterans, thus exacerbating the us-vs.-them atmosphere that can be poisonous in a department.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Lisa Zepeda was deployed for two years with the Army, one in Kuwait at a combat hospital, the second at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. A single mother, she returned to her teenage son and her job as a Chicago police officer in 2005. She recently joined up with two Vietnam vets to form a support group for fellow cops who have done time in combat and are dealing with readjustment issues.

"I think there are a lot of people suffering in silence – these are the people I’m going to reach out to," she told Antiwar.com.

Zepeda insisted that a lot of cops actually grow and become better police officers after war, and the survey in part bears that out – but they must get the treatment and have the transition time when they get home to realize the potential positives.

"I feel more compassionate, I have more empathy. I’m going to be more patient with people. [War] has made me more understanding," she said. "I know what’s important and what’s not important."

But she admitted that when she got home she was "angry" – mostly at the government for sending soldiers into a long, confusing mission with seemingly no end. She joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. She hung out with only fellow vets during the police department’s required retraining at the police academy.

But it was the transition – including the available counseling – that made her feel like herself again. The Chicago Police Department, she said, "had the resources to retrain us and keep us off the job for a few months. They buffered us and retrained us and sent us back on the street. With smaller departments, they don’t have that luxury. They’re just sending them back on the street. I don’t think that does anyone any good."

Some 84 percent of vets surveyed agreed that a period of transition bolstered by counseling and other assistance by the department is essential before putting combat vets back on the beat.

This puts smaller departments in a Catch-22. A small force can’t afford to train and maintain new officers while its Guard members and reservists are constantly rotating in and out of the force, so it is always stretched. When veterans come home, the department has to get them back on duty ASAP to plug the gaps.

Take the tiny Milton Police Department in Vermont. Five of its 14 officers are currently deployed overseas, according to a recent write-up in the Burlington Free Press.

"It’s created a lot of overtime shifts and a lot of officers are working many many more hours," said town police chief Brett Van Noordt, who said the department has not had any problems with returning veterans so far. He normally gives vets as much time as they need to re-acclimate. "We let them come back at their own pace."

We hope that most police officers are like Zepeda, more compassionate, reflective, and grounded because of their terrible experiences overseas.

Of course, the chances of this get slimmer as the wars wear on, requiring more cops to leave to fulfill their Guard and reserve duty, risking burnout, mental and physical stress, and moral compromise. Police departments – already strained by today’s fiscal burdens – are often too stretched to provide necessary mentoring and assistance to avoid the Williamsons and others who might blow up on the job.

While we should be grateful that someone out there is aware of all these pitfalls, it sounds like the only way to keep the war out of our police departments and off our streets is to get out of the war, period. We don’t need a survey or glossy report to tell us that.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos