For Dallas LEOs coping with trauma, a focus on mental wellness

Stress and long-term trauma are a growing concern in LE

By Cassandra Jaramillo
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Dallas police Officer Jorge Barrientos doesn’t remember at what point a bullet struck him.

In the chaos of an ambush against Dallas officers at the end of a July 7, 2016, protest downtown, adrenaline surged through Barrientos’ body as blood poured out of his wounded finger. He didn't notice the pain at first.

He had trained for emergencies like these. The Dallas-raised officer was a four-year veteran by then and knew the job came with risks.

But nothing prepared him for the deaths of three officers he knew well from working at the southwest patrol division. And his emotional wounds took longer to mend than his physical injury.

“It’s going to be a part of our lives as officers forever,” Barrientos said. “It’s feelings of missing the guys you worked with. It’s feelings of what you could do different if the situation arises. It also is a reminder that life is precious.”

Most officers will likely go their whole careers without ever encountering the shooter-on-a-rampage scenario that Barrientos faced. But North Texas has had several such incidents in recent years.

Now, stress and long-term trauma are a growing concern in law enforcement for the officers who are expected to take on shooters and go back to work. Some departments are paying increasing attention to mental health after such incidents, implementing special wellness policies in a field long known for a “suck-it-up” culture.

Melissa McLemore, a counselor with the Dallas Police Association’s Assist the Officer Foundation, said sometimes officers might be too nervous to seek help. She said some are worried that counseling or medication will mean they can’t handle their jobs.

“They see other people just keep going, so they think they’re supposed to do the same,” McLemore said. “But really they don’t know that it looks like from the outside they can keep going, but they are really suffering emotionally.”

Focus on wellness

After July 7, Barrientos felt frustrated he couldn’t have done more. He grieved for his DPD friends and colleagues, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Lorne Ahrens, who were killed in the ambush. They were among the five cops, including Dallas Sgt. Michael Smith and Dallas Area Rapid Transit Officer Brent Thompson, who died that night after an Army veteran with a history of mental illness unleashed a torrent of gunfire. Barrientos thought about the pain their families were feeling.

For a week afterward, Barrientos had trouble sleeping as he replayed the evening in his head.

Barrientos took advantage of counseling sessions, which he said “definitely helped.”

The department under Chief David Brown tried out a policy to take officers involved in a critical incident off the streets for a month so they could recuperate.

And his successor, Chief U. Renee Hall, told the City Council's Public Safety & Criminal Justice Committee that officer wellness is one of her strategic priorities for 2019. The department offers officers 24-hour access to chaplains, counseling and peer support and mindfulness training.

“We have emotions that have to be dealt with,” Hall said in an interview. “It’s OK to not be OK. It’s just not OK to stay there.”

Barrientos said that after the ambush, officers had counseling resources available to help them. His chain of command offered support and reassured him it was OK to take time off.

B.J. Wagner, a senior director at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, said untreated cumulative stress and trauma can create health risks for law enforcement officials.

Sometimes, that manifests in tragedies. According to nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P, which is focused on mental health awareness in officers, 167 officers died by suicide in 2018. It's more than the 158 line-of-duty deaths reported by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Wagner said that because of suicide concerns, the institute is working to create a nationwide policy review of agencies' mental health programs.

“A healthy workforce is critical for public safety professionals and the communities they serve,” he said.

In Irving, department leaders implemented a peer support team, which includes a clinician, for critical incidents and stress in late 2016 after an officer died by suicide.

Irving Police Chief Jeff Spivey said that when he was a rookie Irving officer in 1988, law enforcement culture stigmatized mental health.

“It was always the ‘suck-it-up, buttercup' mentality,” he said.

But Spivey said he advocates for officers to take care of themselves. Historically, he said, officers were scared to seek help for fear it might jeopardize their jobs. He said officers should be able to feel secure.

"That can only happen when the message from the top is consistent, is believable and is trustworthy," Spivey said.

Other shootings

Other North Texas law enforcement agencies have had to cope with major traumatic incidents in recent years.

In Garland, Officer Gregory Stevens prevented a potential mass shooting in 2015. Stevens shot two men, who carried assault rifles and armor, when they arrived at a cartoon contest sponsored by anti-Muslim activists to see who could make the most outrageous drawings of the prophet Muhammad.

Bruce Joiner, a Garland security guard, was shot in the attack but survived. He said he experienced loss of sleep from the traumatic event. He told The Dallas Morning News in 2017 that the shooting “intensified all of his emotions.”

“If something is sad, it’s sadder. If something is going to make me aggravated, I feel like I get aggravated more like a young man than the old man I had become,” Joiner said.

Garland Lt. Pedro Barineau said for his department, "when the officer has to use deadly force, we want to provide them everything we can to make sure they themselves are OK."

"It's nothing that goes away overnight," he said. "We take that very seriously."

The June 10 shooting at the federal courthouse bore similarities to the Garland attack. In that shooting, federally contracted security officers fatally shot a gunman — an Army veteran — who had opened fire in their direction. No officers were wounded.

Eric McMillen, senior vice president of the United Government Security Officers of America International Union, said preparation was crucial. Most officers who protect federal buildings are former police officers or military members, he said.

“We hope that this day never comes,” McMillen said. “Thank God, these individuals were ready and prepared.” 

McMillen said the incident was a best-case scenario. No innocent bystanders were hurt. The only reported injuries were minor. The officers received paid time off until they were ready to come to work. 

“They’ll have to decide themselves when they feel comfortable to return to work, and there will be a process in place before starting,” McMillen said.

Peer support

Each critical incident can affect officers differently, experts say. 

Courtney Runnels, a mental health coordinator with the Grand Prairie Police Department, said officers sometimes can feel intense stress from responding to calls constantly without much time to decompress. 

Runnels helps officers find resources or peer support. When Grand Prairie Officer Albert “A.J.” Castaneda died June 7, Runnels had members of the peer support group at the hospital and department.

Runnels said people underestimate how much trauma officers go through from the job and stress in their personal lives. 

“The best way I know how to describe is that we all have a backpack and we put pebbles in that backpack. Each pebble isn’t heavy, but eventually we fill it up,” Runnels said.

Barrientos, the Dallas officer, said that although counseling helped, he got more out of hearing his colleagues open up about their feelings.

“It helped immensely to get with them and talk about our feelings,” he said. “Some of them felt guilty that they weren’t there.”

Barrientos said talking is needed because officers “see horrible things on a daily basis, and it does take a toll.”

“As any psychologist will tell you, if you suppress your feelings long enough, then they’re going to come out one way or another, and more likely than not it’s going to be an unhealthy way,” he said.

‘Reminds me I’m needed’

Barrientos, now 31, still works in the southwest patrol division. He said he’s never thought about leaving police work.

His left index finger bears a scar, but otherwise looks normal.

On a hot July day, two days before the third anniversary of the attack, Barrientos returned to the downtown area where the ambush happened.

Two Hispanic men approached him for help to find the tax office. They didn’t speak English well, so Barrientos started speaking in Spanish and helped them with directions.

Another woman, suitcase in hand, also asked him how to find the train station. She was lost.

Passing interactions, destined to be forgotten.

But Barrientos learned on July 7 that life in his line of work could change in an instant. And he said that over time, he’s learned to make peace with that.

“If anything, July 7 reminded me why I am a police officer,” he said. “It reminds me I’m needed.”

©2019 The Dallas Morning News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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