Hypervigilance and emotional trauma are the two most prevalent perils for law enforcement professionals, research shows. They negatively affect to some degree everyone who goes about behind a badge. This article from The Atlantic Monthly is another argument for understanding and managing these forces for the lethal threats they are.
Life of a Police Officer: Medically and Psychologically Ruinous
By Erika Hayasaki
Police officer Brian Post recognized the 16-year-old girl lying face down in the grass at the Whispering Pines apartment complex in Lynnwood, Washington. He had gotten to know her in recent weeks, helping her obtain a restraining order against her abusive ex-boyfriend. Now, here was Sangeeta Lal, unconscious, with two bullets in her chest.
He knew she was a good kid. Brian had spoken to Sangeeta over the phone just a few hours earlier. He knew her mom worked the early shift, and she would be alone. He promised he would come immediately if anything went wrong.
The call came into 911 at 4:18 a.m. that someone was breaking into her apartment. James McCray, 21, had arrived dressed in dark clothes and a red and black stocking cap, according to police reports. He chased Sangeeta outside. “Please don’t,” neighbors heard Sangeeta scream, before he shot her.
Brian didn’t make it to the complex in time. He found her sprawled just beyond the sliding glass door of her neighbor’s apartment. He looked up and saw a little girl peering through a window at the teenager in the grass. He felt Sangeeta’s neck. It pulsed, and pulsed again. Then, no more. He touched her face.
“I know who the guy is, and I know where he went,” Brian told his partner. As the officers moved in on apartment 265 with weapons drawn, James looked out of the window and killed himself with a single bullet.
It was 1995, and for the next 19 years, Brian would blame himself for not being closer to Whispering Pines, for not saving Sangeeta. Brian was 31 when she was killed, and had been an officer for five years.
“She was in the worst environment, and she was trying,” said Brian, now 50. “You never know when you’ve saved a life, but you know when you’ve lost one.”
Sangeeta’s death marked the beginning of a downward spiral in Brian’s health, spurred on by a psychologically and physically challenging law enforcement career. Brian had been a healthy and fit ex-airborne infantry soldier when he began his policing career. But he eventually developed hypertension, anxiety, peripheral neuropathy, hearing loss, arthritis, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
When he was starting out, Brian says he wasn’t warned of how the career could do such damage. In 2012, an unprecedented study of 464 police officers, published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health linked officers’ stress with increased levels of sleep disorders, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and suicide.
Other studies have found that between 7 and 19 percent of active duty police have PTSD, while MRIs of police officers’ brains have found a connection between experiencing trauma and a reduction in areas that play roles in emotional and cognitive decision-making, memory, fear, and stress regulation.
In squad rooms full of cops, Brian would compare blood pressure meds with his colleagues. Most, if not all, of the police he knew with more than 10 years of service were dealing some kind of medical or psychological issue.
At night, Brian would hide his drinking from his wife. He went from sipping whiskey, to downing cheap 100-proof vodka.
“You see nothing but bodies, I swear, dead people,” he said. “Car accidents, hangings, suicides, murders, SIDS deaths.” He remembered a diabetic who killed himself by overdosing on chocolate. And then there was the conversation with a tongue-pierced meth user with an enlarged heart who had told Brian, “I’m white trash until the day I die.” He assaulted people in a parking lot and died in custody after deputies restrained him. The next day, Brian found himself close to fainting after viewing the autopsy photos of the same kid’s esophagus, and pierced tongue.
“I was so angry at this one woman for dying, that I yelled at her,” he said. “I just didn’t want to see another dead body…I should have recognized at that point, it’s time for me to back up.”
Years passed, and every once in while, Brian would Google Sangeeta Lal’s name. He wondered who else remembered her. He wondered if anyone had memorialized her.
* * *
Every few years, I would Google Sangeeta’s name too.
She was my friend, and high school classmate. We were the same age. Like the rest of her friends, I had known about her abusive boyfriend, who was gang affiliated, and how she had broken it off, which only enraged him more.
Sangeeta had the face of a child, round and cheeky, with long wavy black hair that she smoothed down with coconut oil. She usually showed up to school in lipstick the same shade as her nails, and jeans four sizes too big for her 5-foot frame, cuffed at the bottoms and held up with a long belt. Her family had relocated from Fiji to our town 22 minutes north of Seattle.
Our campus sat between a grove of evergreen trees on one side, and a run-down mall on the other. It had all of the makings of a public school caught in the throes of a changing urban city. Gangs had begun infiltrating the area, and with them came the occasional drive-by shooting, drug deal, or murder. My freshman year, murders, robberies, rapes, and assaults jumped by 18.4 percent in our county from the previous year, according to The Seattle Times, and our 29,000-resident city of Lynnwood had the highest crime rate in the county per capita that year—about 110 crimes committed for every 1,000 residents.
Sangeeta’s apartment complex was about five minutes away from mine. Police referred to Whispering Pines as “Whispering Crimes,” Brian later said. On slow nights, officers would drive through the complex and inevitably find someone breaking the law. Sangeeta’s single mother worked an early shift at the Nintendo of America headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
Sangeeta was killed on the same day that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168.
That afternoon, I waited for news of Sangeeta’s death to come over the television set. But all channels went back to firefighters and frantic parents in Oklahoma. When the newspaper mentioned the murder-suicide the next day, it printed her age wrong. It said she was in her late teens, or maybe 20. It didn’t mention her name at all. So I wrote a front-page story about Sangeeta for The Royal Gazette, our high school newspaper. She was the first person I had known and cared about who died violently, and the first death I ever covered as a journalist.
I would go on to become a national reporter, covering many more shootings, deaths, and high profile news events. Sixteen years after Sangeeta died, I ended up writing about a college class on death. It was in New Jersey, taught by Dr. Norma Bowe, a registered nurse who also held a master’s degree in health administration, a Ph.D. in community health policy. I also became a student in her class.
“Most of you are here for a reason,” the professor said on the first day. “Maybe someone’s story in this room, or someone’s experience, might press on some scar tissue for you. So that’s okay. We’re sitting in a circle right now because we’re really beginning a bereavement group.”
She gave out the first assignment. Everyone opened up their notebooks and waited for her cue to take notes: “Write a goodbye letter to someone or something that you’ve lost,” she said. “I’d like you to say whatever you need to say to that person and then I’d like you to sign and date the letter. Whatever popped into your head first when I said those words, that’s where you should go.”
“Any questions?” she asked. Students shook their heads and began zipping coats and bags. “Alright, have a good week.”
A few days later, I opened a blank page on my computer screen and sat there for a moment remembering what she had told the class. Then, I began to type: Dear Sangeeta…
I held on to the letter for a couple of years, and then, last December, at the suggestion of the professor, decided to post it online.
* * *
In the years after Sangeeta died, Brian continued to self-medicate with alcohol. He sealed off her death, and all of the others, in a mental chamber he tried not to open.
“By sealing off, I mean I let it fester,” he said later. “I went through a very dark time.”
His job continued to plague him. Brian was one of the officers who closed in on Lonnie Cedric Davis, who went on killing spree in Shoreline, Washington, in 1999. Davis stabbed his mother and 18-month-old nephew to death in their home, before driving 100 miles per hour on the I-5, and crashing into a 64-year-old motorcyclist who lost part of his leg. Davis escaped into a Shoreline neighborhood, breaking the neck of an 82-year-old woman and beating a 63-year-old retired nurse to death.
“He went into a house that had guns in it,” Brian recalled. Police would later find five weapons, including a semiautomatic assault pistol, and lots of ammunition. “Then the fight was on. It lasted a couple of hours… fragments of my round hit him.”
Lonnie fired up to 50 shots at police, until a sniper round finally killed him with a gunshot to the head.
Brian’s drinking worsened. While he was on the force, his mother had died of cancer, his sister had committed suicide, and his father had died in a skydiving accident. His marriage ended.
All of the death. All of the misery. “What’s the point?” He thought those words would be carved into his tombstone.
After 10 years with Lynnwood Police, Brian spent seven years in the sheriff’s department, until one day in 2008, when he came to work drunk.
The sheriff fired him.
He could have given up on life right then. Instead, he gave up on alcohol. It was the last time he drank.
Brian got counseling. But it was too late. He couldn’t get his job back. He went to work for an organization called Safe Call Now instead. Established in 2009 by former police officer Sean Riley, it is a confidential 24-hour crisis referral service for law enforcement and emergency services personnel, which also works with the FBI National Academy Associates Inc. to do mental health training for first responders.
“How do you prepare or train an individual to see 26 children who have been murdered?” Sean said. “Those tragedies. Newtown. Aurora. For any human being, how are they supposed to handle that?”
Sean had previously worked as a homicide and sexual assault detective, and got to the point where he was taking 40 Vicodin a day. Too often, officers will try to cope on their own,” Sean said. “In the profession, they often have been trained to think, “I can’t show weakness, I can’t break down.’ You’ve got this shield, this bullet proof vest, because you have to do your job. Where is your outlet?….You think, ‘Is someone going to report me? Am I going to lose my job?’ You have to keep up this façade.”
Last month in Nevada, Sean led “emotional body armor” training for 30 police and correction officers, dispatchers, and military personnel. Similar trainings take place around the country. After two-and-a-half days, these normally guarded professionals were “crying, reflecting down on their knees in the program,” he said. “We can break them down in about the first hour.”
Five years since Brian was fired from the sheriff’s department, he now answers calls from struggling law enforcement personnel across the nation. The organization averages 70 to 150 calls per month. He can relate to their concerns of not wanting to appear weak.
“You see these bright shiny faces in the academy, and you think, ‘Oh, you poor bastards. You have no idea how fun and how bad this is going to be for you,’” Brian said. “They get to play cops and robbers for real. They get to shoot bullets and drive fast.”
They have no idea yet which lives they will lose.
In February, Brian Googled Sangeeta’s name again.
If she had lived, she would have been 35 years old.
* * *
I got an email in my inbox on Feb. 12. It read:
“My name is Brian Post, I’m a “retired” former Lynnwood police officer who knew [Sangeeta]. I was the officer who talked with her about the Protection Order, I tried to stay close to the apartments, and I made sure the other officers on the crew knew about the situation. Unfortunately, I was also the officer who found her and felt her last heart tremor.
There’s more I suppose, and I’ve felt enormous guilt for being so far away… until now I’ve always been so saddened that there was apparently nothing to memorialize her. It was a lovely letter, I’m glad people will know her name.”
A week later, I met Brian at a Starbucks in Lynnwood. “It’s not Mayberry,” Brian said, referring to the idyllic small town from the Andy Griffith Show. But Lynnwood is a different city now. Crime rates have dropped, and gangs have been quelled. The mall has been upgraded and beautified. The old Lynnwood High School, demolished. A bright, modern high school built not too far away. Wealthier residents have hung on. Families from Somalia, Ethiopia, West Africa, India and beyond have moved in.
Brian towered over me, a barrel of a man with close-cropped blondish-white hair. I could see how he might be intimidating if you met him in a dark alley with his gun, but on this rainy day he seemed gentle.
About two-and-a-half years ago, he went through a period of mourning. He’d thought about trying to reach out to Sangeeta’s mother.
“I don’t think I will ever accept it,” he said. “In my perfect world, I would have been closer…I knew exactly where her apartment was. I’ve thought about how I would have approached him.”
If James had shot at them first, Brian would have swiftly killed him.
Sangeeta’s death changed the way he policed, and he carried her memory with him in every domestic violence case that he encountered. Losing a domestic violence case at trial, or when a victim declined to prosecute, became almost more than he could take. “I became unreasonably frustrated,” he said, “almost panicked, feeling that I’d failed again.”
Brian now teaches firearms and tactics classes, in addition to working with Safe Call Now and Code 4 North West, a similar program aimed at first responders in Washington State. He attends regular therapy, has remained sober, and has overcome his PTSD.
Often, he feels lost in the civilian world. “I still have to admit, I do struggle,” he told me. He still thinks of Sangeeta. He still doesn’t know whose life he may have saved over the years.
But he saved his own, and I am so grateful that he did.
Some sections of this essay have been adapted from the prologue of Erika Hayasaki’s book, The Death Class: A True Story About Life.
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