Helping Cops Deal With the Down Sides

LA MESA -- On a warm Saturday evening in August 2011, a La Mesa man clearly had decided he wanted to die.

He took a shotgun, threatened his ex-wife and, when the police were inevitably called, he stepped out under a street light and raised the gun in the direction of seven armed police officers.

The officers had no way of knowing the shotgun was not loaded. They did what their training required and their shots delivered the man's death wish as shocked neighbors and family looked on.

To the public, all that really mattered was that the police had done their job -- no overstepping of bounds, no excessive force. Clearly a clean kill. The media attention lasted less than a 24-hour cycle.

But privately, those seven police officers, most of them very young, had had a life-altering experience.

They hadn't joined the force thinking part of their job was execution squad for the suicidal. Yet, here they were, standing over a dead body and seeing the man's brother and mother in tears for the loss.

In some ways this is an extreme example of being a police officer today, but La Mesa Police Captain Dan Willis says his department is learning to react very differently than years ago to the psychological effects of doing police work.

"Years ago we would have just pulled those guys into the street and done a walk-through of the event right away, with the body lying out in the street,'' Willis said. "We didn't do that.''

Instead, the body was covered and the officers involved sent home to gather their thoughts and emotions. Mutual aid was sought from other departments to cover their beats; off-duty officers raced in to fill the gaps. Follow up meetings with each of the shooters gave them a chance to discuss the impact of the event.

Willis, inspired by a training session at the FBI Academy in Washington, is leading an effort to incorporate into routine police training, exercises that teach the officers to deal with what can be the debilitating effects of constantly associating with the dark side of human failings.

Willis, himself a 23 year veteran of the La Mesa force, advises officers to remember their original motivations in seeking out police work.

"Most officers today are drawn to the work because they want to help people, make a difference,'' Willis said.

But once on the force, the daily routines of arresting repeat offenders and dealing with the constant threats of violence from perpetrators large and small can take a toll. Officers often become emotionally detached, Willis said, spending more time alone and their own marriages and family life often suffer.

"Between 300 and 400 police officers a year commit suicide in the U.S.,'' Willis said. "It is a direct result of this pressure.''

Willis, with the blessing of Police Chief Ed Aceves, has begun building "spiritual'' training into the routine of police classes officers regularly go through to keep effective in their police work. Willis is about to get more attention for his work in this area as a new book, A Stranger's Gift, includes a chapter on how Willis uses his own religious faith to manage the stress of doing police work.

The book, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tom Hallman Jr., traces the role of faith in unexpected places through the lives of people like Willis.

Hallman learned of Willis' efforts by reading an essay Willis penned for an FBI publication.

"I think cops with faith have more tools to draw upon to help them,'' Willis is quoted in the book. "It helps me sustain an inner spirit. This job can drain the life out of you and destroy normal relationships at home. Without my faith, I would not survive this job. I've known cops with no faith who lose hope or perspective. They drink too much. Their mind, body and spirit can't process what they see.''

Though Willis' own answer to combating the constant negative experiences in police work is to rely heavily on religion, his "spiritual'' training with other officers does not dwell on God or religious issues. Rather, he focuses on teaching them to be attuned to the effects the work can have on their "spirits'' and find their own way to keep in touch with the essential value and meaning of the work. Doing volunteer work in the community, getting involved in the schools or keeping up with personal hobbies, combats the tendency to sit at home alone during their off time. They often become more and more isolated from the community they had hoped to help when they joined the force, Willis said.

"If we are investigating a brutal rape or child molestation case,'' Willis said, "we don't want to dwell on the facts of the case. They are so disturbing it can really get you down. We want the officers to imagine how many other crimes we prevented by getting this person off the street, how many lives have been saved.''

In A Stranger's Gift Willis also recounts to young officers the times he has arrested an angry citizen only to have that person return years later and thank him for having spurred needed change.

Chief Aceves said this more pro-active, wellness campaign has begun to pay dividends. He sees more willingness to talk about critical incidents and an acceptance by the force in general that sometimes outside help is needed.

"In the old days if you said you needed to talk to a counselor you would have been laughed out of the briefing room,'' Aceves says. "Now, we understand it's part of caring for your officers' complete well-being. These things take a toll and the days of 'buck it up kid and get back out there' are over.''

Hallman, the author of A Stranger's Gift will be appearing at the Crosspointe Life Church, 8809 La Mesa Boulevard, on Friday, May 4th at 7 p.m. to discuss his book and Willis expects to be there, perhaps joined by some of the 13 other people profiled in the book, sharing his role in the effort as well.

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Tags: A Stranager's Gift, Author Tom Hallman Jr., Chief Aceves, Chris Lavin, Crosspointe Life Church, Dan Willis, FBI Academy, La Mesa, La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa Police Captain Dan Willis, More…La Mesa Police Department, On La Mesa, Police Chief Ed Aceves, Pulitzer Price winning author Tom Hallman Jr.


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Comment by Jack Leary on May 18, 2012 at 8:54am

Very well presented. I came from the "buck up and get out there" era and what officers face today, every day, is far more stressful. It's important to say "Hi" to any cop and show you appreciate their efforts.

Comment by Anne Pacheco on April 11, 2012 at 9:16pm

"A Stranger's Gift" introduces us to everyday people all in different places in their lives with their faith journey. It talks about strengths and weaknesses and how human we all are.  It is an thought provoking book.  I encourage those who are on this journey  and even those who are not - to stop by on May 4th.   Thank you Dan Willis for your contribution to the book.  The public really has no idea what officers go through in their daily work to protect all of us.

Comment by chris shea on April 4, 2012 at 11:19am

Very well written and timely article, Chris.  I can't imagine the stress police officers endure on a daily basis. The book sounds like a great read, too.

Thanks as always for the excellence of La Mesa Today!

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