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What can’t be unseen

Witnessing despicable evil shatters an officer’s assumptions about how the world is supposed to work


A family pays their respects next to crosses bearing the names of Tuesday’s shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Another school massacre leaves officers with images and memories they can’t unsee.

The Uvalde school incident is different, the pain and horror compounded, because officers’ loved ones have perished.

One of the two teachers who sacrificed their lives to protect their students, Eva Mireles, was married to a Uvalde Independent School District police officer. A Uvalde Sheriff Deputy’s daughter is among the murdered children. These agencies are not only dealing with the shooting incident, they are mourning the loss of family members.

Uvalde, Texas, is a small town where citizens and police families know each other. This makes the grief and horror worse. Officers personally know the victims and their families.

The pain of the losses for these officers who took an oath to protect and serve, to see their own wife and child slain, to see friends and neighbors’ children murdered, is devastating. The images of murdered children at Robb Elementary School will forever be carved into their beings.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott acknowledged in his Wednesday press conference that police officers are struggling emotionally to process this horrendous crime. He stated that the Texas Department of Public Safety and the FBI are providing emotional support resources to officers and federal agents.

The governor encouraged first responders to reach out for support.

Police officers must investigate, notify loved ones of their murdered child, process the crime scene, while enduring horrific bloody sights they can’t unsee. Officers regularly experience death: natural, vehicular, overdose, homicide, suicide, assault, abuse and neglect. None of those calls can prepare an officer for the aftermath of an active shooter gunning down 19 fourth graders and two faculty members in their classroom, and injuring 17 more.

In an interview after the Columbine incident, then Jefferson County Sheriff SWAT lieutenant Terry Manwaring told me that the scene was overwhelming. He thought about his own kids and wondered how human beings could slaughter others in that manner. But you “have to shake it off like a football injury and play the game professionally.” He said that the images never leave you. “You wake up and go to bed with it.” “Something in you gets changed,” he said, describing that he saw an older man looking back at him from the mirror.

Manwaring admitted that media scrutiny made it difficult to heal. He says it “was hard to be second-guessed by everyone.” His officers had to deal with, and process what happened, with the whole world watching.

Houston Police sergeant David Svahn made the scene in June 2001 where Andrea Yates drowned her five children. One of the most profound memories for him was the look of utter shock and disbelief on the faces of the other officers and first responders.

They had never encountered a multiple child homicide scene before. That a mother could murder her own children so methodically was beyond comprehension.

Don’t numb out. You must feel to heal

The officers responding to the Robb elementary school will likewise be changed forever.

Witnessing despicable evil shatters an officer’s assumptions about how the world is supposed to work. The evil act wounds your soul. It doesn’t matter how many years officers have on the job or what other horrors they have seen. This will change them. Innocent children were murdered.

What are you going to do with your pain? Where will you put it?

Both Svahn and Manwaring stressed that there is no shame in seeking help. Officers MUST talk about how they feel. They MUST share their feelings with someone.

Talk with the officers who share your shock. The other cops who were there. With them, you don’t have to explain what you saw. They share what was seen that can’t be unseen. Share your grief and cry with each other. Share your suffering and pain.

And you must grieve. For the murdered children and teachers and your lost assumptions about life. Grieve the lost part of yourself that you can never get back. The part of you that has seen what can’t be unseen.

In his book, “Surviving the Shadows,” former New Jersey State Trooper and NBA Referee Bob Delaney states: “[officers] see things the rest of the world doesn’t, things that can cause scars that may not be visible. But the injuries are just as real as a broken leg or a gunshot wound.”

How you treat that wound will determine how you heal. With grief, you don’t get over it, you get through it. You learn to live with it. Make it part of your life. Everyone heals and grieves differently. It’s unique to you. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Do what will heal you.

Svahn attended the children’s funeral and visited the children’s graves. Jefferson County started a peer support team. Officers who were at Columbine share a connection that binds them together for the rest of their lives. They share a bond because of what they saw that can’t be unseen.

We must ensure that more lives are not lost due to this tragedy. Keep an eye on your partners and brother and sister officers. If they seem distressed, say something. Don’t leave them alone. Be with them and help shoulder their pain. Encourage them to take advantage of the emotional support resources being offered.

Cops control chaos. Understand that a traumatic event can leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless. Understand that these are normal feelings in the aftermath of a mass casualty event. And are hard and uncomfortable for a cop to accept and feel.

Avoid “what-ifs” and playing the shame blame game. Cops would rather blame themselves than admit they had no control over the outcome of an event. Blame provides a false sense of control.

You don’t have to share your experience with all those who are curious. Each time you tell it, you are dragging yourself through it again and rekindling the trauma. Develop a one-line sentence to answer those rude enough to inquire about your worst day at work.

Keep busy. Keep your routine as normal as possible. Write about how you feel. Putting words to feelings activates the language center of your brain that can help you process traumatic memories.

Emotional and grief support has to be ongoing. Grief has no end date. Support programs must be in place for months and even years ahead. Kids need to remain engaged with others over the summer. Don’t let anyone, adult, cop, or child, become isolated and alone.

Part 3 of The Department of Justice’s publication “Preparing for the Unimaginable: How Chiefs Can Safeguard Officer Mental Health Before and After Mass Casualty Events” provides tips for agencies on how to support officers after a mass shooting.

Over the years, I have had to write too many articles in support of officers in the aftermath of a mass shooting. My previous articles, (links below) contain additional suggestions on self-care for officers.

Reach out to me here. I will acknowledge and honor your pain. Do not suffer alone. As a fellow Texan, I grieve with you.

Copyright©2022 Barbara A. Schwartz All Rights Reserved.

No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the expressed written consent of the author.

Additional resources

Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to supporting the brave officers of law enforcement for 52 years.

Schwartz is certified as a first responder peer supporter by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS). She maintains specializations in grief, injured officer support, suicide prevention, and traumatic stress injuries.

As a reserve officer and Police Explorer, Schwartz served in patrol and investigations. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in American Police Beat, The Thin Blue Line, Command, The Tactical Edge, Crisis Negotiator Journal, Badge & Gun, The Harris County Star, The Blues, The Shield, The Police News, and Calibre Press Newsline.

Schwartz was instrumental in the passage of the Blue Alert legislation across the country, the enactment of the National First Responders Day, and the establishment of the Houston Police Officers’ Union peer support team. She is proud to be a founding member of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Foundation.

She maintains memberships in the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).