In the past two months, five officers have been killed and three others wounded in three separate shootings that have rocked the region's law-enforcement community.
The first shooting stunned a community.
The second sent waves of anxiety across the nation.
And now, a third?
“It almost makes you numb. It’s like, ‘When will the horror stop?’ ” said Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.
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In the past two months, five officers have been killed and three others wounded in three separate shootings — the most recent Monday night — that have rocked the region’s law-enforcement community.
Mental-health professionals who deal with law enforcement say this cluster of police killings and injuries is likely causing widespread anxiety and fear among local police, their families and other first responders.
On Tuesday, 14 Pierce County sheriff’s deputies, along with a handful of fire- department personnel, were placed on administrative leave to give them time to recover from the emotional trauma of the latest shootings.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the dangers of law-enforcement work are at the front of every officer’s mind, “but we’re not going to police out of fear.”
The cluster began with the Oct. 31 killing of Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton and the wounding of his partner, Brit Sweeney. On Nov. 29 four Lakewood police officers — Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards — died in an ambush at a coffee shop. On Monday night, Pierce County Deputy Kent Mundell Jr. and Sgt. Nick Hausner were wounded at a home outside of Eatonville.
While Brenton and the Lakewood officers were targeted, the Pierce County deputies were shot while responding to a domestic-violence call.
Despite that distinction, the shootings all blend together “to enhance the feeling of danger and anxiety,” said Ellen Kirschman, a clinical psychologist and author of “I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know.”
Kirschman taught a class on officers’ emotional health at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien days before Brenton was killed as he and Sweeney sat in their patrol car on a residential street in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood.
Four days after the Lakewood shootings, she returned to Seattle at the invitation of the Seattle Police Department Family Support Group to discuss how spouses and family members can support and care for loved ones in law enforcement.
Kirschman said officers and their family members often engage in “adaptive denial.”
“In order to do a dangerous job, you have to somehow minimize the danger of the job — and the families have to do that, too,” she said.
Officers convince themselves that their training, their fellow officers and their officer-safety practices will keep them safe.
The recent shootings, however, likely have led to a breakdown in that sense of confidence, said Kirschman, of Redwood City, Calif.
“I think one of the things that happens when you have this pileup of law-enforcement fatalities is there’s kind of a loss of innocence,” she said, pointing out that nationwide, line-of-duty police deaths by gunfire have increased nearly 25 percent this year compared with 2008.
Domestic-violence calls, such as the one that led to Monday’s shooting, can be particularly dangerous for police. And those calls tend to increase during the holiday season.
“It’s just this time of year and the stress of the holidays,” said O’Neill, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president. “Police see a different side of the holidays — they see the ugliness that alcohol and relationships can cause.”
Hal Brown, a psychotherapist who has counseled roughly 200 police officers in Michigan and Massachusetts over the past 40 years, advised officers in the Seattle-Tacoma area to both acknowledge and talk about their fears and anxieties.
“Cops need to admit they’re human,” Brown said. “They are better than the average person in dealing with certain kinds of trauma but … they need to recognize that everybody has their own breaking point when something just hits them.”
The three local shootings are a statistical anomaly, a “once-in-a-decade phenomenon” with the Lakewood slayings representing “the peak of the insanity,” Brown said.
Area officers, especially those who responded to the shooting scenes or knew the officers who were killed or wounded, are at severe risk of suffering from post-traumatic stress, he said.
“It’s not just any stress — it has to be an unexpected, intense, unique kind of stress,” Brown said. “The brain tries to protect itself and pushes back the memories because they’re too painful.”
For first responders and crime-scene investigators, “those images they see are forever burned into their memories” and can resurface months later in nightmares and flashbacks, he said. “Even a smell can trigger a memory.”
Sleep disturbances, panic attacks, depression, marital problems and increased alcohol use are all symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
“It’s got to be on their minds, how vulnerable they are,” Brown said. “They’re not driving around in Humvees; they have regular cars like you and me. They don’t have bulletproof glass; they’re not the president.
“… Even though the cops won’t want to admit it, there has to be some real anxiety.”
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org