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Increasing stress creates PTSD concerns among cops

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 4:45 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - The past year of debate, recrimination and unrest that followed the death of George Floyd--and included a riot in downtown Reno--have left us divided as never before.

That division is having a very real impact on law enforcement officers.

It is, by any measure, a most demanding job one that may put people in difficult, stressful situations time after time.

“You can go from one tragedy to the next,” says veteran officer turned counselor Ryan Simpson. “It could be a car accident to a suicide. You decompress from that and the next thing you know, you’re headed back to work.”

Any one of these incidents would lead lasting, troubling memories, if not scars, on any of us. A career in law enforcement is studded with them.

“The average person who experiences a critical incident or traumatic event in their life, about two or three in their whole lifetime,” says Washoe County Sheriff’s Sgt. Andi O’Brien. “Somebody in law enforcement could experience up to in surplus of 180 critical incidents in their career.”

Sgt. O’Brien’s daily assignment is patrol, but certain incidents immediately place her in another role. “Baby deaths, severe child abuse, domestic violence, homicides.”

As a leader of the department’s Peer Support Team, she appears at the scene as an empathetic ear for a fellow officer who may have seen more than he or she can shrug off.

Ryan Simpson is a veteran officer who left the service with post traumatic stress after being involved in a pair of fatal shootings. Finding help, he also found a new calling, helping others recover. He’s the Sheriff’s new staff mental health counselor, a position created earlier this year in the wake of a pair of officer suicides.

They’ve seen and experienced the emotional toll this job has always had, and, they say, the last year--the pandemic, the fallout from the George Floyd death has made matters much worse.

“You’re having all those same experiences while being demonized,” says Simpson. “I believe the compound effect of that is just, it’s unbelievable. A lot of times when I talk with officers, that’s the heartbreak.”

“We’ve been spit on,” says O’Brien. “We’ve been punched. People will attack us just for wearing this uniform.”

O’Brien says the current climate has even affected family relations. “I’ve lost some family members,” she says, meaning they no longer associate with her because she’s in law enforcement.

Discouraged, it’s led some officers to retire early, turn to substance abuse, even--as we’ve seen--suicide.

The way forward? It may be programs like Ryan Simpson is now leading. He’s convinced the officer suffering from untreated PTSD may be the next abusive encounter waiting to happen.

“With that build up you’re getting overreaction. You’re getting some responses in the street that may not be the best way to go about business.”

In any case the goal should be clear, says O”Brien, even if the path leading there is still difficult and uncertain.

”I just hope our community learns to start loving each other again and being sweet to each other because the animosity, the hate and just the blatant disrespect is just sad to me, very sad.”

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