Some good news for officers suffering from trauma

Court rules cop is entitled to workers' compensation for PTSD

Sergeant John France’s long battle against his department and county has lessons for every officer in the country, and it may provide some helpful legal precedent.

A welfare check that changed everything

Sergeant John France has over 36 years of law enforcement service. Having worked in mostly rural areas he’d worn many hats – patrol, K9, SWAT, criminal investigation, academy instructor, suicide prevention and critical incident stress management. His experience was broad and deep.

Speaking as a husband, Sergeant John France said recruits and officers shouldn’t be told, “Don’t take the job home.”
Speaking as a husband, Sergeant John France said recruits and officers shouldn’t be told, “Don’t take the job home.” (Photo/John France)

One day in June 2017, Sergeant France and another deputy sheriff were dispatched to a residence to check on a person threatening to kill himself. When they arrived, they were stormed by a man who burst out of the house screaming in rage who pointed a 12-gauge shotgun in France’s face. France and the deputy fatally shot the gunman.

By mid-July, Sergeant France had been diagnosed with PTSD from the traumatic incident and he filed a workers’ compensation claim. That began a nearly three-year battle.

The legal battle

When first enacted, the Arizona Worker’s Compensation Act (the Act) didn’t cover mental illnesses, injuries or conditions. Those were added in 1980 with the limiting language that such injuries were not compensable unless “some unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress related to the employment … was a substantial contributing cause[.]”

The Gila County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Office and its insurer (collectively, GCSO) conceded that Sergeant France suffered from PTSD caused by work-related stress. But they argued it didn’t arise out of “some unexpected, unusual, or extraordinary stress related to the employment.” Rather, the incident that caused France’s PTSD was an expected job event for which officers trained.

Sergeant France appealed to the Industrial Commission of Arizona (ICA) where an administrative law judge upheld GCSO’s decision. The ICA focused on the event and ruled that France’s case fell within the normal line of duty for deputy sheriffs.

But in February, Sergeant France won before the Arizona Court of Appeals. That higher court held that the ICA administrative law judge erred in focusing on the job duties and training to prepare for danger, rather than the particular stress Sergeant France experienced after the event. As the court noted,

An event – such as the dispatch of a law enforcement officer to investigate a report of threatened violence – may be routine. The stress of the event – which here included staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun held by a screaming, manic gunman, careful repositioning to avoid injury to a fellow officer, and shooting and killing another human being at point-blank range – may not be.”

The ruling is “huge” and potentially precedent-setting for first responders, according to Sergeant France’s attorney, Matt Fendon. While it probably won’t help officers with chronic PTSD developed from the job over time (a battle to be fought another day), Fendon said the appeals court could not have been clearer regarding incidents like this that result in acute PTSD. Fendon feels confident the ruling will be upheld by the state supreme court, should that court accept GCSO’s appeal.

The department battle

While I was pleased to learn of John’s legal win, I was disturbed when John and his wife, Dottie, described their experience with the Sheriff’s Office.

John was kept on the scene of the shooting for 5½ hours. His vehicle was impounded and, when he was transported, they placed him behind the cage. When he had to use the restroom he was escorted. John felt he was being treated like a leper. Dottie felt like decking the deputy who let him out of the cage when she came to pick him up. The department had no policy or protocol in place for handling an officer involved in a shooting in its immediate aftermath.

Within 24 hours, John realized he needed help. He reached out to his department. The department had no idea what to do; it had no Employee Assistance Program in place.

A requisite 72-hour, post-incident interview with a mental health counselor didn’t occur for almost three months. John offered to sign a release for the department to see the records of the psychologist he’d been seeing during that time. The department said they’d contracted with a different psychologist.

An attorney advised John that the matter would be considered an unjustified homicide until the case was cleared. The attorney and John’s psychologist advised him not to discuss the incident with the department psychologist. John followed their advice. The psychologist hired by the department labeled him as “uncooperative.” Four days later, John was ordered back to work. The department wouldn’t consider him for light duty.

John’s battle may not be over if the supreme court accepts GCSO’s appeal. He still has no sense of closure.

Advice for other officers

I asked John and Dottie what they’d advise other officers based on their experience. John said he hadn’t been prepared for the total abandonment by his agency he felt. He’d always assumed your department had your back and would take care of you. Dottie’s response was more direct, “Don’t trust your department.” She did say she reached out and got help through a spouse support network.

Based on his long tenure in law enforcement, John said too many academies teach recruits to never complain. If a recruit says he twisted an ankle, he’s told, “Suck it up, buttercup,” often publicly. Ask an FTO if you can get a coffee after a stressful call and decompress, and again the reply too often is, “Suck it up, buttercup.” You’re trained to put your feelings on a shelf. There is little to no training on how to take them off the shelf and deal with them. Dottie said she’d heard too many stories of officers afraid to get mental health help because of their fear of job repercussions.

John is all for the tactical training recruits and officers receive to physically survive an incident like his. Such training helped him and his fellow officers reposition themselves before they shot so they didn’t wound or kill each other. But he said officers also need training about what’s going to happen afterward, how they may be treated by their department, the finger-pointing that can occur, how they’re going to feel, the doubts they’re going to have: “We need to educate them that it’s okay not to feel okay.”

And then give them training on what to do with those feelings.

Speaking as a husband, John said recruits and officers shouldn’t be told, “Don’t take the job home.” They need to share while also giving their spouse permission to say, “Okay, that’s enough.” For years when Dottie would sense something and ask after him, John would just say, “Bad day at work,” and close off the conversation. He put the stress on a shelf. But it stays there and the shelf can get crowded to the breaking point.

Speaking as a wife, Dottie advised, “Don’t let your spouse get away with not communicating. You have to communicate.”

Speaking as a law enforcement supporter, I can only add that the profession has to do better – with handling the officers and their families after these kinds of events, with training and preparing them for the non-tactical aspects of such critical incidents, and with compensating them when they suffer mental injuries as a result.

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