Policing Vets


11.16.09copsandvetsIn the third and final part of our Veterans Day investigation of how the U.S. justice system interacts with veterans, we look at innovative programs designed to help police understand the traumas afflicting soldiers in the transition to civilian life.

Last August, in the hallway outside a classroom at the Oklahoma City Police Training Academy, Sergeant Cory Nooner was playing dress-up. Instead of his gray uniform and black boots, he was sporting old Army fatigues and beat-up sneakers. He pulled a dingy wool blanket around himself, took a moment to get into character, and waited for the signal.

“We're ready,” said social worker Vicki Downing, poking her head out from behind a metal door.

Nooner nodded and stepped inside. He was no longer the department's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainer: for the next half hour, Nooner was a homeless vet.

He shuffled into the classroom mumbling nonsense, his eyes darting around the room like spun marbles. Two of the student officers approached him and began a 10-minute role-play where the officers tried their best to communicate with the troubled man, determine whether he was dangerous, and finally assess whether he needed to be taken to jail or to the city's mental health crisis center.

Nooner had played this role before. A veteran of the Gulf War, he was instrumental in creating the department's 40-hour CIT program, which, like a growing number of similar programs around the country, now includes a section on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and discussion of how officers can better spot, approach and interact with veterans.

“We're trying to create an empathetic response,” says Darin Farr, a former marine who fought in Desert Storm and now works as the outreach and research director for the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs. “The PTSD soldiers suffer from is different from that endured by rape victims or car accident survivors. There are so many circumstances that can trigger a reaction, from driving to crossing beneath bridges to crowds.”

Farr explains that after reading about an incident near Las Vegas during which police responded to a troubled vet in what he considered to be an over-aggressive manner, he concluded that with the proper instruction they might have been able to talk the vet down. He decided to use his college training as a filmmaker to create a video that would give police an “awareness and sensitivity” to the psychological issues faced by returning veterans.

“We as a society have created this problem,” says Farr. “We took these kids who were basically innocent , and subjected them to horrific circumstances. To expect them to rationally integrate, it's hard.”

The problem of veterans who struggle with the psychological scars of war is not new. Tom Schumacher, the PTSD Director at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington State, helped police interact with troubled Vietnam veterans in the 1980s, and says that although law enforcement had relationships with VA counselors back then, there was never any formal training provided to officers.

Farr wanted to change this. He sought permission and support from his bosses at the VA for the video, and in late 2008 received $5,000 from his outreach budget. He consulted with Utah's CIT program director, hired some friends to help him, and in March 2009 began presenting the 18-minute video entitled “Walking Wounded,” to law enforcement leadership in Utah.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, and Farr says the video is now being used by law enforcement in at least 28 states and by three federal agencies. Further information about the number of law enforcement agencies who are training officers on veterans issues is hard to get. The International Association of Chiefs of Police told The Crime Report that it did not collect such data.

“It’s all been word of mouth,” says Farr. “CIT officers started talking to each other, saying, ‘You gotta use this for training.'”

Trouble on the Road

Because much of the fighting (and dying) in America's current overseas wars occurs in urban areas and on roadsides, highways and roads have emerged as a common point of interaction between police and veterans.

“Roadside bombs are a huge tool for insurgents, so soldiers are trained to drive at high speeds, and if you see anything – a package, a car – alongside the road, (you) veer,” says Ron Bruno, Utah's CIT program director. “So when a soldier comes back, hits our streets and sees a broken-down car, out of habit, he may swing wide. If an officer sees this, he may think the driver is impaired, and pull him over. The veteran is already experiencing nervousness, anxiousness – he's having an emotional reaction, almost like a flashback – and the presence of the officer adds more stress. Maybe he starts sweating.”

For a police officer, these bodily signals often indicate that the person they've pulled over is intoxicated, or hiding something. But for a vet, Bruno says, it can be a “a normal response to an abnormal situation.” Simply asking, “Are you a veteran?” can put the vet at ease and help the officer end the situation peacefully.

Schumacher recalls hearing about the case of a local veteran who, while driving the highway, spotted a police officer with a radar gun.

“The vet went nuts,” says Schumacher, who fought in Vietnam. “He tried to aim his car at him, then realized what was happening and veered away at the last minute.”

Stateside Shoot-outs

Of course, not all situations are as easily resolved as a simple driving incident. In the fall of 2007, I wrote an article about Sgt. James Dean, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Dean had returned to his hometown in rural Maryland suffering from depression, and began drowning his sorrows in alcohol. He received inconsistent mental health treatment from the local VA and just after Thanksgiving 2006, received news he would be redeployed, this time to Iraq.

Dean, who'd just gotten married, took the news hard, and on the night after Christmas, holed up in his childhood home and called his sister threatening suicide. Dean's sister called 911. She told the operator that her brother was a veteran, was armed, and needed help.

Unfortunately, instead of following the guidelines for intervention espoused by Farr and Bruno, the responding agencies, perhaps acting out of fear that a soldier with a gun is highly trained and thus potentially dangerous, surrounded Dean's remote home with armored cars and snipers.

Although a negotiator attempted to interact with him over the phone, the tapes of the call revealed a clear lack of understanding of Dean's situation and mental status. Dean begged the negotiator to tell the dozens of officers to stand down, back off, leave him be. Instead, the officers launched tear gas into his home, and finally, when Dean stepped out on his front porch with a rifle in hand, they shot him dead.

Farr hopes his video, and the training that goes along with it, will educate officers about why a veteran like Dean might react poorly to the kind of escalation of force the Maryland State Police engaged in. “Vets with PTSD often have an exaggerated fear response, and more stimulus will cause them to be more reactive,” he says.

Last year, Schumacher, a Vietnam vet, was approached by the state's Department of Health and Social Services to create a program for law enforcement aimed at promoting better understanding of new veterans' issues. He received a $40,000 grant which allowed Schumacher and his colleagues to train more than 200 officers in Yakima County, and in July he received another grant that will allow him to continue and expand the training over the next two years. Part of Schumacher's aim is to educate officers about the similarities between the kind of work soldiers do overseas and the work police themselves do stateside.

He explains, “When veterans get approached by police, they often think, 'Wait, I'm one of the good guys – I'm on your side!'”

Julia Dahl is a contributing editor to The Crime Report

Photo by amg200, via Flickr.

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