When Sgt. Troy Anderson arrived in Newtown, Conn., the morning of Dec. 14, he had a different mission than the dozens of other police officers who had responded to one of the worst school shootings in American history.
Most were there to help the children and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
It was Anderson’s job to help the cops.
Anderson was there to help his fellow officers and other first responders deal with the flood of emotions and psychological trauma that comes with such high profile tragedies – known as critical incidents.
“This was something that no police officer could prepare for. There was no way to be psychologically ready for that event,” said Anderson, the coordinator for the Connecticut State Police STOPS program, which stands for State Troopers Offering Peer Support.
Anderson will be in Augusta this week for the state’s first Post Critical Incident Seminar, which will gather area officers who have experienced on-the-job tragedies with those from other agencies across the nation. He is part of the growing field of peer counseling and critical incident stress management that was once unheard of in the world of police work.
Although not universally practiced, Anderson said more and more law enforcement agencies are recognizing the value of acknowledging the kinds of psychological trauma police officers encounter on the job and are taking steps to mitigate its lasting detrimental effects.
The goal of seminars like the one in Augusta is to allow officers to share their experiences with others who’ve gone through similar tragedies, and to open the doors to processing their feelings, so they don’t develop problems later on, said Lt. Andy Carrier, with the Georgia State Patrol. Carrier leads the state patrol’s Critical Incident Support Team and is coordinating the event, which is the first of its kind in Georgia. It will bring mental health professionals and trained peers together for an intensive three-day seminar Tuesday through Thursday.
“My bottom line is for 35 or 40 people to come to Augusta and leave better than they were,” Carrier said. “If I stay in this line of work for another 20 years, I really believe this will be one of the most meaningful things I ever do.”
It’s not a cure, but a method to help officers begin to move past emotions and stress they might hold in after experiencing a death or other tragedy on the job. Carrier said just getting officers to talk is a big step in a culture that values stoicism and professional reserve over feelings.
“The essence of peer support in a nut shell is that if you have been through a shooting or if you have shot and killed someone on the job, you want to talk with someone else who has been through the same thing,” he said. “They have a credibility that no one else has.”
This sort of peer-to-peer counseling hasn’t always been the norm in law enforcement.
Anderson said there has been a huge paradigm shift from when he first got behind the wheel of a state trooper car almost 20 years ago. Psychological stress was not discussed at the police academy or on the job, he said.
“My first fatal accident, I was six months out of the academy,” he said. “There were four dead teenagers scattered across the roadway.”
The only counseling offered then was a brief, “Hey, how are you doing?” in the hallway from his supervisor.
“I said, ‘OK, sarge,’ and that was it,” Anderson said.
Now, when officers need help they can get it. The Sandy Hook shooting in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down 20 children and six staff members exemplified how much focus is put on helping officers deal with tough crime scenes.
While others were caring for survivors and evacuating the school, Anderson prepared for the aftermath.
“I thought in terms of, ‘I need to get chaplains here. I need to get clinicians here. I need my peer support teams on scene right away,’ ” he said.
They brought in counselors, set up respite centers for officers and family members and made sure everyone knew that help was available, even if they didn’t ask for it that day.
“Even if it was just a 30-second conversation while passing them a bottle of water, we tried to make contact with everyone,” he said.
Counseling can start the same day and become an ongoing part of the job until officers have normalized their feelings, he said. Seminars, such as the one in Augusta, are a structured way for officers to revisit those incidents and continue the healing process.
The feelings associated with the types of trauma officers encounter often never go away.
For Investigator Kate Battan, it has been 14 years since she walked through the doors of Columbine High School to begin an investigation into a shooting that claimed 15 lives, including the shooters’.
As lead investigator for the Jefferson County (Co.) Sheriff’s Office, Battan spent weeks in the school piecing together what happened there that day in April 1999.
“I can’t talk about Columbine without it bringing up all the emotions again,” Battan said. “In fact, I figure it will always be that way.”
Battan entered the school on the day after the shootings, after SWAT teams and bomb squads had cleared the building to ensure it was safe.
“Walking into a school where you are supposed to hear happiness and laughter and noise, and all you hear is silence, it’s like walking into a different planet,” she said.
She saw bullet holes, blood and the bodies of the dead, most of whom were killed in the school library.
“It was absolutely surreal and heartbreaking,” she said. “You saw all this opportunity that was just gone.”
Battan said the tragedy affected people differently. Some officers left the force, others were able to continue working. Counseling was offered, but she and many others didn’t think it was necessary.
“I thought, ‘I’m a big tough cop.’ I was fine and I didn’t need anything,” she said. “Boy, was I wrong.”
Battan said the case and civil actions related to it kept her busy for almost two years. Then she “hit the wall.”
“I started pulling away from loved ones and drinking too much,” she said. “I was incredibly irritable. I didn’t socialize with my friends. I would sit at home.”
That’s when she sought counseling. She hasn’t spoken about the shooting for a while, but when she was invited to come to Augusta for the seminar, the thought of helping other officers made her want to do it again.
“Even though I am honored to be included in this, I suspect I will get a lot out of it myself,” Battan said.
One of the local officers she will meet is Richmond County sheriff’s Deputy Terry Skinner.
Skinner was the first officer on the scene the night of Oct. 23, 2011, when Army Spc. Christopher Michael Hodges fatally shot Deputy James D. Paugh before taking his own life.
By the time he arrived at the scene of the shooting on Bobby Jones Expressway, both men were dead. Skinner still thinks about how it might have turned out differently if Paugh had been a little later or if he had arrived sooner.
“If I had been there first, maybe it could have turned out differently,” he said. “But the way it went down there is nothing I could have done.”
He still gets hit with those emotions whenever he passes the Gordon Highway exit on Bobby Jones. He said the one-year anniversary of Paugh’s death was another rough day.
“There are reminders out there that you can’t ignore,” he said.
Skinner said one of his friend’s on the force encouraged him to attend the seminar this week. His friend, who was involved in the fatal shooting of a suspect, attended a similar event in North Carolina this year and told him he had to do it.
“At first I didn’t want to go, but now I’m starting to look forward to it,” he said.