It’s inevitable, we all have to sleep.
Sleep is required for essential things like body and cell repair, restoration and resurgence.
For many police officers, sleep can be a frightening thing.
Closing your eyes and drifting off to a peaceful sleep is simply not a reality for many officers in law enforcement. It’s a time when police officers are vulnerable to the graphic images they store in their minds after being exposed to extraordinary events by virtue of their employment. It’s a part of the job no one likes to talk about.
To serve and protect can mean many things. It can mean attending fatal traffic accident scenes, grotesque murder scenes, accidental deaths, suicides or horrific industrial accidents. It can mean being exposed to life & death situations that come from deadly force encounters that can haunt an officer with a variety of graphic images.
Using deadly force can be an extremely traumatic event for a Police Officer.
Images of the suspect closing ground, staring down the barrel of an offenders gun, the light reflected from a suspect’s edged weapon, the split second life or death decision, the recoil of the firearm or the look on the perpetrators face as he takes his last breath.
Combine these things with the intensity of taking a human life.
These incidents create imagery that can invade and infect a police officer’s mind.
If you didn’t know it, these events are all common occurrences in the City of Winnipeg.
As a recruit in field training it didn’t take long for me to experience my first traumatic incident. It was an attempt suicide call. A teenage girl calling 911 from a pay phone at Logan Ave and Main Street indicating she cut herself.
After placing her in the cruiser car I asked her where she was cut. To my shock she nonchalantly rolled up her sleeves and exposed a dozen or more extremely deep horizontal lacerations on both of her arms.
Lacerations so deep they exposed muscle tissue and bone. Lacerations so deep they were literally oozing what seemed like gallons of thick gooey crimson blood.
I did my best to take it all in stride but I feared the brave face I put on was going to be betrayed by the undeniable physiological changes I was experiencing, the dry throat, the intense sweating and light-headedness.
As graphic as these images were, it wouldn’t take long before they would become blurred by my exposure to increasingly horrific incidents.
Like the images imprinted on my mind from my first experience with a deceased person.
A sudden death call to a small green space off Ellice Ave where I would find the body of a deceased man who died of natural causes related to lifestyle issues. A disturbing sight for my innocent eyes, a lifeless body, an empty shell, limbs contorted with the effects of rigor mortis.
His name is still fresh in my mind, the fact I can remember it twenty-six (26) years later should tell you something.
Not long after this I would witness the passing of a man who had been shot by a Police Officer. I was in the hospital with a robbery suspect in the emergency department at the Health Sciences Center Hospital when the dying man was wheeled into the resuscitation room.
I watched in stunned silence as he became combative and then suddenly flat lined. The intensity of the life saving attempts were overwhelming.
I was in a state of shock when I realized the man just died in front of my very eyes. It was at this precise moment I realized I had to get fresh air or my ass was going to be on the emergency room floor.
A few urgent gulps of fresh air and I was back. I somehow managed to put my brave face back on and got my head back in the game.
Then there was a Downtown house fire where a one year old baby girl perished, her body scorched and blackened by heat and flames. Tiny limbs outstretched, fists clenched in a horrific death pose.
It was a surreal scene, hysterical people all around us, and me, struggling to be professional and do my job as opposed to doing the natural thing and succumbing to the overwhelming emotion I was feeling.
Countless suicides with horrific gun shot wounds to the head, lost souls hanging by the neck from electrical cords or ropes and crumpled up disfigured bodies of victims who decided to end their lives by jumping from tall buildings.
The graphic images in my mind would multiply one hundred fold by virtue of an eight (8) year assignment to the Homicide Unit.
Brutal gang killings, one of which featured a crack house door man who was shot pointblank in the face with a sawed off shot-gun. Upon arrival to the scene I was stunned to see a four by four hole in the victims face and an empty cavern that was once called his head.
The stench of spent gunpowder in the air and wispy smoke still coming from the wound, brain matter on the walls and ceiling.
I saw it all, decapitations, dismemberments and disembowelments.
It wasn’t only the graphic scenes that stuck with me.
In April of 2000 I interviewed a young man named Stephen James Treller who reported his twenty (20) year old girlfriend Cory Dawn Lepp missing. The problem was Treller’s story started to stink.
He did his best to play a game of cat and mouse with us but in the end, he broke the cardinal rule.
When you play cat and mouse, you should always know which one you are. It turned out Treller was the mouse.
Hours later he confessed to killing Cory and agreed to lead us to the site where he disposed of her body.
That site turned out to be the crawl space under his grandmother’s cottage in Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba, a scenic resort town just north of the City of Winnipeg.
It was a beautiful, peaceful, sunny spring day. One of those famous Manitoba deep blue skies above, not a cloud in sight.
The town was ultra quiet, the cottagers still dwelling in the City working their 9 to 5’s. As I walked up to the cottage my stomach was churning with nervous anticipation.
As I knelt and shone my flashlight into the crawl space the tragic events previously described by Treller became very real. There she was, a beautiful girl, her face angelic looking with no signs of stress or violence.
She looked so peaceful I couldn’t stop staring at her, it was as if I was trying to will her to open her eyes and come to life.
That, of course, would not happen. Treller subsequently plead guilty to murder and received a life sentence with no chance of parole for a minimum of ten (10) years.
The images of Cory Lepp’s angelic face still visits me often.
In fact, when I close my eyes I can still see every graphic image from every tragic case I worked on. As my nephew Tyler often tells me, “Your eyes cannot “un-see” what they have seen!”
Exposure to these kinds of incidents can cause sleep disruption, sleep deprivation, eating disorders, substance or alcohol abuse and worse, the destruction of a person’s faith in humanity.
Many of these images haunted me during the course of my career in Law Enforcement.
Thinking “happy thoughts” is a great concept but doesn’t work so well in the real world. It takes a great deal of concentration and strategy to learn how to deal with these images and the emotional injury police officers experience.
Reliance on frequent exercise, good nutrition and retreating to the warmth and comfort of family is a good start. Getting lost in the trusting arms of your lover, partner or spouse can help.
Opening your heart, sharing feelings and communicating with the people who care about you can help keep you from the unhealthy urge to bottle it all up inside.
Learning how to create a filing system to store these graphic images can be an effective strategy. Putting the images into a folder, burying them with other data and then closing that imaginary drawer, it works for me.
If all else fails, seeking help from a qualified mental health professional should be considered.
Fear not, with a proactive approach and a little time, the images will surely start to fade.
The images I describe are familiar to almost every police officer who works or has worked a prime response cruiser car on the streets of their chosen City.
These are the reasons why police work is unique and simply cannot be compared to most other professions. These are the reasons why we have to make sure we’re alert to the need to take care of the mental health of our police officers who are exposed to these types of critical incidents.
These are the reasons why police officers deserve our concern, support and respect.
Police officers are the ones who we call to do the dirty work, the ones who walk where others fear to tread, the ones who are there for all of us, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where and no matter how extraordinarily horrific a situation may be.
Horrific situations like the one that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut.
The graphic images, the lifeless bodies of innocent children and the carnage present in that school will never be erased from the minds of the police officers who answered that call.
I, for one, am grateful there are still people out there who are willing to do this kind of work.
Now I lay me down to sleep……..
This post solely concerns the effects of critical incident imagery on Law Enforcement Officers.
I would also like to acknowledge these effects are often experienced by members of the Military and our First Responder Community, all of whom are equally deserving of our respect, concern and support.
(Previously published in The Power of Words 12-15-12)