Police and PTSD

How many of you know a police officer? I bet if you thought about it for 60 seconds, you could name a few of them. You could probably name off even more “personal police stories” and how an officer either treated you like an a*****e or respectful. How many of you really know a police officer, though? Do you know what they deal with on the day-to-day? Have you ever experienced the heartache like their family has? Could you explain what goes on inside of their brain and help them cope with every critical incident they have been through? A police officer isn’t a regular human being after responding to critical incidents over and over and many officers would deny having what is commonly referred to as “PTSD.”

I can clearly remember my first “dispatched call for service.” It was my very first day. I probably can’t claim this as “my call” but either way, I was responding as a ride-along and it was my first day on the payroll as the newest hired officer. We responded to what some may consider a duplex or a townhouse. The dispatcher informed us there was a medical issue; a possible cardiac arrest. We arrived on scene and made our approach to the doorway. I remember walking through the doorway and seeing people in tears and pointing us in the direction we needed to go. I didn’t really know what to expect. With some adrenaline rushing and some anxiety caused by the unknown outcome, I began to climb a flight of stairs with the other officer I was paired up with. We rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and went into a room where I observed the first of many dead bodies I would see over the next 11 years of my career.

The smell of that day is something I will never forget (No, not the dead body). It was something before that. It was the same smell I have smelled over and over and over again. I would describe it as an uncomfortable smell. A smell you can almost cut with a knife. This type of smell has a feeling to it. The smell brings anxiety and a sense of unease. You could call me crazy, but it’s a smell that almost whispers “SON OF A BITCH” in my ear. Whenever this smell comes around, I know s*** is about to hit the fan and the work shift is going to bring something seriously unpleasant into my life.

The smell of that day was the first of many “critical incidents” I would respond to and have yet responded to. The worst part, some of these incidents do not have closure. Many of these incidents end with you performing some sort of task – seeing them die in front of you – loading them in an ambulance or helicopter and never knowing the outcome – comforting the family on scene for their loss… And, the list goes on and on.

So, what is next… How do police officers deal with critical incidents? Is there a way to decompress and talk about what happened after every shift? Do police agencies have programs set up to help their officers? Are their families provided training and resources to help their loved ones or even themselves? At the end of the day, who is responsible for the officer and his mental state of wellness?

I would assume most people would say “Well, the officer is responsible for his mental health and wellness.” Take that into consideration and then ask any officer “How are you doing?” Do you want to know what they will likely say? “I’m fine, thanks.”

Well, what’s next? The officer said he was fine. So, the officer must be fine. The cycle continues like this for days, months, years, and decades. The officer may never receive or reach out for help. Maybe he talks about certain experiences to his family but doesn’t go into much detail. How many of you would want to hear a story like this: 

I responded to reports of a hanging. I arrived on scene and was directed to the child’s bedroom. Once I walked into the bedroom, I saw an 8-year-old child hanging from his neck due to him being attached to his father’s robe belt (Playing superman off his bunk bed). Quickly cutting him down, CPR was initiated until medical arrived on scene.” Are you getting the picture? Most of the time the story would stop there; however, what if it continued. Say, I went to the hospital to check up on him. As I walked into the E.R. I was directed to the medical room, just in time to see them cut a hole in the 8-year-old child’s neck. Spraying blood across the room like mist, I watched as they attempted to create an airway. Having seen enough, I walked out of the hospital room and left never knowing if the child lived or died that day.

This is just one of numerous critical incidents that have played back in my head on a weekly basis for nearly 10 years. They are as real as the day they happened. Are you ready for another story? Okay, okay … I won’t do that to you. But, guess what? I can stop telling you but that doesn’t mean my family doesn’t have to live with the guy who bottles these up and isn’t willing to share stories like these. Why wouldn’t I share them? Well, I don’t want to expose them to what I deal with daily. It’s not as easy as it may seem to retell police stories. It’s actually quite difficult to come up with something that is appropriate to share. My suggestion … Don’t ask an officer to tell you their craziest police story.

There are many officers who will go their entire career without obtaining mental health check-up. I know because I have gone 11 years and I don’t need a psychiatrist to tell me if I had mental problems. Are we stubborn or are we strong? I would say a we are a little of both. I would definitely say I am not a normal human being anymore. Do I have PTSD? I have never been evaluated for it so I don’t know. We as police officers live a different lifestyle. We are a unique family and we definitely support each other. There are some things that cannot be understood until you’ve lived the life or are a member of the law enforcement family.

Thank you to all the wives, husbands and children who make things better for us by just being there.

– Daniel Sundahl

– Mike Terry