The stress that comes with pulling the trigger

They killed a bad guy and saved lives, but there will be an emotional backlash because some in the community will condemn the actions

By John A. Torres
Gannett News Service

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — On Nov. 28, a Satellite Beach police officer shot and killed a murder suspect in what became the city's first-ever officer-involved shooting.

In fact, it was only the third time an officer had discharged his or her gun since the city was founded in 1957.

The officer, who has not yet been identified, found himself in an unfamiliar situation of having to react in seconds to defend himself and others that law enforcement and mental health experts say can take a toll on officers.

Brevard County Sheriff Jack Parker said the constant danger that comes with the job adds stress and subtracts years from an officer's life.

"Every day, deputies and officers live with the stress caused by knowing they could be forced to take a life," he said. "It is these types of stressors that shorten the lives of all officers. While most adults live well into their 70s, the average officer doesn't make it out of their 50s."

Those numbers are backed up by the Police Policy Studies Council, which reports that law enforcement officers in the U.S. typically only live between 53 and 66 years.

Only seconds
Seconds are all officers have in these situations.

Sheriff's Agent Tabbitha Gamble pulled the trigger of her .40-caliber Glock and fired three bullets into John "Andy" Krack in a 2007 incident. Deputies were investigating the theft of an assault rifle.

After two shots ripped into his body, Krack continued trying to load his already loaded 9mm handgun and shoot her partner, who had had fallen to the ground during the scuffle. Krack's gun malfunctioned, but he continued trying to fire.

A third bullet from Gamble's gun put Krack down for good.

"I was kind of frozen," said Gamble, who was 27 at the time of the shooting and known as Deputy Tabbitha Harvey. "I saw he was bleeding and that I was the only one with a gun out besides Krack."

What followed for Gamble was a feeling of uncertainty.

"This was huge unknown territory. You can't really prepare for this. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm going to jail," Gamble said. "You can't kill someone and not go to jail."

After Gamble was ushered into a squad car, she started to cry.

"I wasn't mentally prepared to handle it," she said. "Honestly, you can't take someone's life and not think about it."

Sheriff's Homicide Agent Rob Vitaliano knows the feeling. The 15-year law-enforcement veteran had never fired his weapon in the line of duty before Sept. 13.

That was the day he led a five-member SWAT unit to a home where 43-year-old Eric Keith Bricker was waving a pellet gun designed to look like a real handgun. He was threatening to shoot his family and himself.

When he would not put down the gun, Vitaliano and two other agents fired their weapons, killing Bricker instantly.

Similar to Gamble's description, Vitaliano said everything slowed down.

"It's almost like it's happening in slow motion and you get tunnel vision," he said. "Once it's over, your vision opens up again. You fall back on your training. As law enforcement, we are prepared to deal mentally and physically to deal with this type of situation."

Stress disorder
Psychologist Valerie Allen said extreme cases might lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. But most cases, she said, involve officers trying to work through an inner conflict.

"They killed a bad guy and possibly saved lives," she said. "But there will be some backlash because there is always an element in the community that condemns it."

Coupled with inner moral or ethical conflicts, the officer may need to seek counseling.

"Even if it is justifiable, the officer has to look at himself in the mirror every morning," Allen said. "It can be tough because they are not allowed to publicly grieve. There can be a machismo element, as well, where the officer will think it's a sign of weakness not to seek help.

"But when they are alone at night, they might hear the sound of that bullet forever and constantly replay the scene in their head."

Vitaliano started teaching a course at the FBI National Academy on officer-related shootings a few months before he became involved in one, and Gamble retells her story to cadets she teaches at the police academy.

"People look at me like I'm some kind of hero," Gamble said. "But I was just doing my job and I'm thankful for my life and for my partner's life.

"I tell people I just went to work and had a very, very bad night."

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