More officers seek counseling after big incidents

SAN FRANCISCO—Two mass killings just 10 days apart sent spasms of shock through the San Francisco Bay area and also took a toll on the police officers who had to sort out the carnage.

In San Francisco, an unusually high number of officers, about 30, sought counseling after witnessing the gory scene following the massacre of five people inside a home.

“Cops see things on a day-to-day basis that the outside world and the average person doesn’t,” said police union president Gary Delagnes. “But we also go through our range of emotions. We are human.”

In Oakland, when officers responded to reports of shooting at a tiny Christian college near the city’s airport, they found numerous people dead, dying or wounded in scattered locations.

Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, the city’s former police union president, was among the first to arrive. “It was gruesome, and I don’t know if that might even be the right word to describe it,” Arotzarena said. “It was disturbing scene and I will never forget it. I think we’re all going to remember it.”

With the toll at seven people dead and three wounded, several of his fellow officers later received counseling to help them deal with the trauma of seeing the bloodshed that investigators have attributed to a former student with a .45-caliber handgun.

While law enforcement officers undergo rigorous training to prepare for the violent side of their jobs, they can also become emotionally affected by what they see and experience. Most major law enforcement agencies have mental health services to help officers deal with traumatic encounters.

Experts say officers are increasingly being encouraged to express their feelings after they have lived through traumatic events like the two mass killings.

“We’re trying to change the culture which has been to never talk about these things, both in the military and in the police department,” said Andrew Leeds, a psychologist who counsels Santa Rosa, Calif. police through the department’s Employee Assistance Program. “We’re making changes and it’s slow. But the stigma has been taken away.”

Counseling is particularly important, Leeds said, for officers who have been exposed to the line-of-duty death of a colleague, catastrophes, multiple casualties at a crime scene and deaths of innocent people and children.

Without group or private counseling sessions following such episodes, Leeds said, officers can end up suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and physical maladies such as high blood pressure and premature disabilities. The stress also can lead to domestic and substance abuse.

On March 23, San Francisco police came upon what they described as horrific and surreal scene in a row house near City College. Law enforcement sources said five victims were bludgeoned to death with a sharped-edged weapon and a blunt instrument. Several body parts and blood were scattered throughout the house, and the killer had splashed paint and bleach over the scene.

The officers were in “fight or flight mode” trying to determine if a killer was still inside the house, said Sgt. Mary Dunnigan, who runs the department’s Behavorial Sciences Unit. They quickly calculated that the victims were related because there were framed photos of them—mostly smiling—around the house.

“Your fear center is on high alert as you encounter these bodies around you for the first time and then you see them in these very intimate photos portrayed as a vibrant family,” Dunnigan said. “It’s profound.

“Police officers are wired to help and save people and they feel sort of defeated when they come upon a scene like that, like it’s too late to help, even though they’re not at fault,” she said.

Within 72 hours, police were getting the first of several debriefings and counseling sessions. Among those who participated were first responders, crime scene and homicide investigators and 911 dispatchers.

Binh Thai Luc, 35, of San Francisco, is being held on $25 million bail after he was charged with five counts of murder. He has pleaded not guilty, and police have not disclosed any motive for the slayings.

In Oakland, as officers arrived to the gruesome scene at Oikos University on April 2, Arotzarena said he saw a woman bleeding profusely outside the building and a dead woman just inside the building’s glass front doors. Fearing a gunman was still inside, he used his beanbag gun to shatter the doors.

“We thought we were going to have a possible shootout. I had to ask my officers to go in and there was no hesitation whatsoever,” Arotzarena said. “They listened to every word when I said, ‘We gotta go! We gotta save people and engage the suspect!'”

Dr. Michael Palmertree, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist who has worked with the Oakland police department for 35 years, said the officers were “in shock after going inside the school and they were exposed to mortal jeopardy.”

The officers came across a blood-splattered classroom where several people had been shot and raced to get them out of the building.

“We pulled out five bodies. We didn’t know if they were alive or not,” Arotzarena said. “We found one body alive. She had a lot of internal bleeding and was gasping for air. She died at the hospital.”

One Goh, 43, was arrested and charged with seven counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder in the deadliest campus attack since the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. He has not yet entered a plea.

Palmertree, while declining to give detail about the Oakland debriefings, said that some Oakland officers are still seeking counseling related to the fatal shooting of four officers by a parolee in 2009.

Oakland police union president Barry Donelan said officers regularly encounter traumatic situations in arguably one of most dangerous cities in America.

“Our officers here experience more trauma…in one year than most police officers elsewhere would experience in their entire careers,” Donelan said.

From The San Jose Mercury News.

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