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Teams help officers deal with trauma after police shootings

Staff Writer
MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
Richmond County Deputy Terry Skinner (left) and Cpl. Ryan DiGiacomo stand at the roadside memorial for Deputy J.D. Paugh.
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Latest by thewayitis 2 years 27 weeks ago

Deputy David James never saw the gun that almost killed him.

It was a dreary day in March 1990. A light rain had started to fall when James parked his Richmond Coun­ty sheriff’s Crown Victoria in front of the house at Augusta’s 2904 Belwood Drive and went to speak to two young men there – one in a car and the other on the front porch.

He didn’t know the 16-year-old on the porch was armed with a .25-caliber pistol.

“I went to the trunk to get my rain gear, and that’s when he shot me,” James said. “I never saw him. That’s how quick it happened.”

The first shot caught James in the left temple, destroying his eye. The next four bullets went into his back. He managed to call for help on his portable radio before losing consciousness.

Unlike many officers who endure such traumatic experiences, James talks about it without hesitation.

“That is what has helped me cope with it over the years,” he said.

Experts are working to help officers who live through such shootings or witness the death of a colleague get through it and get back on the job. That’s the driving force behind the Crisis Incident Support Team, a volunteer unit with the Georgia State Patrol that comes to the aid of officers and agencies across the state.

The group was formed in October 2010 in response to a series of officer deaths around the state, but the concept has been in place since the late 1980s when the FBI would bring in “shooter teams” to debrief agents after an officer was killed, said Lt. Andy Carrier, the state trooper who heads Georgia’s team.

One of the biggest obstacles the group faces is overcoming the stoic police culture. You don’t discuss the horrible things you see or the feelings that accompany that, and you certainly don’t ask for help, said
Martin Teem, an employee relations specialist with the Georgia Department of Public Safety.

“The old paradigm is if it’s too hot, then get out of the kitchen,” Teem said. “If you can’t handle it, find something else to do.”

Teem said the results of this macho attitude are apparent in the often grim statistics that go along with a career in law enforcement.

“They are twice as likely to die from suicide as they are in the line of duty,” Teem said. “It’s part of the emotional load that comes with a career in this occupation.”

Over the years, the crisis team concept has been refined into a model that uses established techniques to assist officers experiencing emotional trauma. There is even an organization – the International Critical In­ci­dent Stress Foundation – that sets standards for training, certifies members and provides resources for teams across the nation.

The teams are critical for opening the door to counseling and getting psychological help for officers, Teem said.

“We are trying to recognize that these careers are potentially damaging and to do something about it,” he said.

Coping with trauma

Teams in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina were instrumental in helping Georgia establish its crisis incident organization, said Teem. He said they worked closely with Eric Skidmore, the program manager for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assis­tance Program, a joint effort of four state agencies that began in 1997.

Skidmore, an ordained Presbyterian minister and former police chaplain, said the core principle to the model is peer counseling – bringing police in to talk with police. It provides a shared experience and a sense of credibility that those outside law enforcement don’t have.

Police are reluctant to talk with anyone about the things they experience on the job, especially the death of a partner or colleague, Skidmore said. The object is to get them to open up and deal with some of the things that might be bothering them. Seeing someone else in uniform reassures officers that what they need to say won’t be misunderstood.

“As a police officer, I need to know that you understand what it is I do,” Skidmore said.

A former power-lifter, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 250-pound Carrier doesn’t come across as a hand holder. He also has 22 years’ experience in uniform, which he says is what makes him more effective at helping other police officers deal with bottled-up emotions.

“I hear from some officers who say, ‘If you can talk about this, then I guess I can, too,’ ” Carrier said.

In the case of officer deaths, Carrier said the crisis team comes in for a “debriefing” with the permission of the local agency and gathers all those who responded to the event and who were close to the fallen officer. Crisis team members introduce themselves and tell their own stories, the images they saw, the emotions they experienced and how well or poorly they dealt with those things to let others know they aren’t alone. Each officer, in turn, is expected to say a few things about what they saw and felt,
gradually opening up as the debriefing continues.

Carrier participated in such debriefings after Richmond County Deputy J.D. Paugh’s death in October, and in Aiken for the deaths of Master Public Safety Officer Scotty Richardson and Master Cpl. Sandra Rogers, which were organized by Skidmore and SCLEAP.

Skidmore describes what they do as “psychological first aid.” He said police are by and large good at coping with a lot of things they see on the job, but sometimes, they need help.

“By definition, if a person has been exposed to a ‘critical incident,’ then their coping mechanisms are overwhelmed,” he said.

After he was shot, James lost all vision in one eye and part in the other. He uses adaptive equipment to help him read and do his work at the sheriff’s training facility in south Augusta.

His experience is part of a talk he gives to cadets who are training to be police officers. He keeps a black three-ring binder on his desk that is filled with police documents, newspaper articles and photos of himself from that day. He has a cassette recording of the frantic radio call he made that saved his life.

“I think I struggled at first after the shooting because so much was taken away, like playing sports,” said James, who had played baseball and softball his whole life. For a while he tried to numb himself to escape the pain.

“I struggled with alcohol,” James said. “It was kind of my way of getting any rest.”

He said the turning point came when another officer who had survived a shooting drove him back to Belwood Drive and persuaded him to talk about everything he remembered about that day. The more he talked, the better he felt.

“Sometimes you need to talk with another person who’s been through it,” James said.

Lt. Mike D’Amico has come to realize that as well.

Officer down

On Oct. 23, D’Amico was in charge of the Rich­mond County sheriff’s officers assigned to D-shift, working overnight out of the south precinct, when the call came over the radio that T-31 was down. He immediately recognized the call sign as that of a motorcycle officer – Paugh.

“I knew who that was because for years I was the motor supervisor,” D’Amico said. “J.D. was my friend.”

Seconds later, he heard a deputy’s voice calling for an ambulance. With years of experience listening to police radio traffic, D’Amico knew it was bad.

“I could tell by the strain in his voice, the words that he spoke,” he said.

He pointed his patrol car south and sped toward Bobby Jones Expressway.

“It gave me five or six minutes to prepare myself,” D’Amico said. “The first officers on the scene had no time to mentally prepare for what was there.”

Still, he was not prepared for the shock of seeing his friend lying mortally wounded in the grassy shoulder of exit 3A. An entire career in uniform wasn’t enough time to prepare for that, D’Amico said.

“In my 26 years, I have seen plenty of death, plenty of destruction, plenty of violent death, but never the death of a fellow officer,” he said.

D’Amico said that when he arrived, he could tell which officers were functioning well and which ones were having a tough time already.

“There were a few of them out there that night that I knew needed someone to talk to,” he said.

One of those officers was Deputy Terry Skin­ner, the first on the scene. He was the first to see the grievous injuries Paugh had suffered, shot nine times by an M4 rifle. He was the officer who found the shooter, Christopher Hodges, a few yards away with a bullet wound in his head. He was the officer who let everyone else know T-31 was down and needed help.

Skinner still refers to it as “that mess up on Bobby Jones.”

“People will ask me and I’ll say, ‘Yes, I was in that mess up on Bobby Jones and I don’t want to talk about it,’ ” he said.

Skinner was lauded by supervisors for his composure on the scene and his swift actions to secure the area and call for help. It was afterward that the day’s events seemed too much to take, Skinner said.

Many on D-Shift didn’t sleep that day before having to return for roll call at 6 p.m. Sgt. Scott Redmon said he kept it together until he pulled into the parking lot at the south substation that afternoon.

“The first person I saw in uniform, I broke down,” Redmon said. “I don’t even remember who it was. I just saw that uniform and lost it.”

Skinner said he couldn’t help but think that he was the officer who should have been there first, that maybe if he had gotten there before Paugh, things would have turned out differently. Maybe not, he said, but he couldn’t get the idea out of his head.

He wasn’t one to share his feelings. However, Skinner said the debriefing with the crisis team has helped him work some things out.

“It helped to see that everybody else thought and felt the same things I did,” he said. “I came out of there with a little sense of relief. I felt that I was normal.”

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