Crime takes a toll on police, too


Herald Writer

Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart remembers when a deputy he described as "a cop’s cop" killed himself in the 1980s. Bart was a detective then and had to process the death scene.

He also recalls working with a senior homicide detective assigned to investigate the killings of two women and a little girl.

"We were easily upset … We were expected to take it as part of the job. We had nobody to talk to about it — nobody," Bart said.

The challenges officers face — such as grisly crime scenes, injured or abused children, repeated exposure to the negative side of life, facing the possibility of violence and death every day, and seeing fellow officers slain or dying by their own hands — takes a heavy toll.

"It is a really hard job to do, and by the nature of the work that’s done, you’re isolated from the normal community, you think, in your head," Bart said. "What I’m finding, personally, is the older you get, the less you cope with it."

Calls, such as seeing dead children, can be really traumatic, Edmonds Police Chief Robin Hickok said.

When officers go to a gruesome scene, departments usually provide support to help them handle it. But in everyday cases, "We don’t do a very good job of debriefing."

"It’s sort of, ‘Well, you’re a police officer, you should be tougher,’ " Hickok said. "And they believe that.

"Sometimes they don’t ask for it, and managers don’t offer it when they should. It’s better than it was 27 years ago when I walked into the business. It’s in the culture that we don’t want to open up to our peers and appear weak."

Bart added, "It’s beat into their heads to be tough, to show no weaknesses."

Managers want to make sure officers get whatever help they need, but "things move fast," Hickok said.

"There’s a new crisis the next day and the next. (Sometimes) I think we let officers fall through the cracks."

Managers need to make sure problems are dealt with so they don’t grow, he said.

Being able to get away from the job is important.

"The officers who tend to do the best with it tend to have a separate life," Everett Police Sgt. Boyd Bryant said. "They’re active in sports, church, community group or hobbies.

"Some of our officers farm, some are skiing enthusiasts. They have distractions that help them in their off time to be mentally and spiritually away from work as well as physically."

Several years ago, an Everett man killed his wife and two children in view of an entire apartment complex, then killed himself, Bryant said. Since then, debriefings after major incidents are routine.

"In the ’60s, ’70s, even in the early ’80s, you just didn’t talk about it," Bryant said. "It was uncommon for officers to come into the trade and stay married very long" because of all the stress.

Officers who see the worst in society usually aren’t willing to talk about it at home, and their spouses don’t understand why they won’t talk and they’re so angry, Bart said. Family activities often are disrupted. If he and his wife go to a movie, they take two cars because he could be paged and have to leave at any time and may not be back for two days, he said.

Once divorced and separated from his second wife, Bart said police are married to their jobs. They need to make sure their family comes first, he said.

Years ago, many officers drank excessively, Bryant said. In the past 30 years, however, the level of professionalism has increased and officers’ divorce rates are down, partly because of increased support, he said.

Being an officer is also a dangerous job.

Since 1980, Bryant has been in two head-on collisions on patrol, "totally trashed" a knee in a foot pursuit and broke a hand three times in different altercations.

"The officers who do their job get hurt like football players get hurt. Not everyone can be verbally persuaded to go to jail. You’ve got to fight sometimes. Not only do they have to fight, but they know they have to restrain themselves while fighting or face discipline. All of those things tend to make things stressful," Bryant said.

Add that to coping with hysterical people with mental illness, traumatic incidents and violent acts, and over the years it takes its toll, Bryant said.

Police agencies often have employee assistance programs, peer support groups, chaplains and paid leave for personnel coping with stress.

Undersheriff Randy Nichols, a 27-year veteran, is on leave now.

"This has been a tough year," Nichols said.

One deputy was fired and faces a criminal charge for allegedly forcing sex on a 17-year-old girl, and the former bureau chief of operations resigned and pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography.

In 1996, Nichols was in a meeting when he thought he was having a heart attack. He went to the hospital and learned it was a stress attack, and that he needed to change some aspects of his life. For one thing, he began a more consistent exercise program.

Nichols seldom has been out sick in his career and has a year of leave on the books if he chooses to use it. But he plans to be back at work in mid-December.

As undersheriff, he’s responsible for discipline in the office, and union and budget issues with the county council and executive staff. All those things wore him out, he said.

"I’m too nice of a guy to be giving out discipline. It kills me," he said.

It’s hard to argue that being an officer isn’t a demanding job.

"It continues to evolve and grow more complex and requires an ever-increasing breadth of knowledge of law, culture, community and technology," Bryant said.

"It’s probably the most challenging job anybody could have, because you have to be so many things to so many people: counselor, priest, psychologist, self-defense expert, firearms expert, investigator, analyst."

But it’s also a rewarding job.

"Till my dying day, police officers will be my heroes," Bryant said. "They go in when everybody else is leaving. When it’s completely out of control, they’re the ones who have to get things back to normal."

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