The shooting happened shortly before 4 p.m. on February 23, 2011. Chicago police officer Brian Warner says he and his partner were driving an arrestee back to the 18th district station. Warner was behind the wheel of the squad car.
They arrived at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Wells Street. Warner glanced over at his partner, who had turned white as a sheet. He then peered back at the man they had arrested. A gun protruded from behind his back. Before Warner knew what was happening, a shot rang out.
“From then on, the shooting’s about to start, everything goes in slow motion,” Warner said, pointing at the middle of the intersection. It’s hard for him to revisit the corner, which lies a few blocks from his house.
His partner bailed from the moving car. Warner slammed on the breaks and as he exited the car, he heard a shot and felt it hit him in the back. Once out of the car, Warner returned fire, shooting the suspect five times and killing him. After a night in the hospital, Warner was sent home to recuperate.
“I went home, walked in my door, sat on my couch, and I finally broke down. The whole gravity of the situation finally sunk in,” Warner said.
In the following weeks, Warner went to see a counselor as mandated by the Chicago Police Department. But he says the sessions weren’t helping, so he stopped going. He started going home each night, drinking enough alcohol to pass out. Back on the job, Warner was struggling to make arrests; he felt hypersensitive to street noises and experienced flashbacks. A full year and a half passed before Warner was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by a doctor.
Don’t show vulnerability
“Going in for help in an officer’s mind means there’s a vulnerability or a weakness, which is of course not true,” said Dr. Robin Kroll, Warner’s doctor who specializes in therapy for police officers.
Data show as many as 20 percent of officers experience symptoms of PTSD. Some of that comes from critical incidents like shootings or car accidents, but also from the daily grind of being an officer.
Kroll says a shooting often causes the officer’s body to pump an abnormally high level of adrenaline for at least 24 hours. In turn, that can create tunnel vision and memory loss. Kroll recommends officers take at least a week off work to “regulate themselves.”
The City of Chicago last year changed several of its policies on training and procedures around officer-involved shootings. It used to be officers would be put on desk duty for three days. Now it’s 30.
But Warner says that’s not enough: PTSD still affects him years later.
“It’s a burden I carry with me to this day,” he said. “I’m still a human being. I didn’t want to take that life. I took that life because it was the last resource to save my life or somebody else’s life.”
Warner wants CPD to provide mentoring for officers up to 12 months later. CPD spokesman Frank Giancamilli says the department does offer it if an officer requests it. But Warner says that puts the onus on the officer, when there’s already a stigma to seeking help.
On a Mission
Warner has resurrected a support group for officers who have gone through critical incidents called the Chicago Police Survivors. The Survivors talk to new recruits at the police academy. They connect officers to therapists like Dr. Kroll. They accompany officers to the sites of shootings to help them reprocess everything that’s happened.
Warner does this in part because retelling the story of the incident actually helps him get over it.
“Part of treatment for post-traumatic stress or critical incidents like this is telling your story. That’s why I’m trying to carry this on with the Survivors Group.”
The Chicago Police Survivors financially support officers in need of help paying for hospital bills or daycare for their kids.
They showed up en masse to a fundraiser at the police union hall in March. To open the event, several officers entered playing bagpipes – an homage to officers killed in shootings or who killed themselves as a result of PTSD.
Suicide was a repeated concern at this event.
Ken Malkowski has been a cop since 1978. Over that time, he said he’s been involved in five shootings.
“You know, it’s an experience you can’t describe unless you’ve been there. If we could break through that shell, these officers will open up and talk, it will save a lot of officers. It really will,” Malkowski said.
Malkowski telling this story can actually do a lot to blunt PTSD, not just for him, but for other officers who have never been in a shooting. It’s because telling the story can prepare officers for the possibility that they could one day shoot or be shot.
Dr. Lori Hauser did research on police with PTSD in Texas. She said trauma occurs when a person’s fundamental worldview is altered. So if you reset expectations for an officer about critical incidents to begin with, they won’t be so shocked when it does occur, thereby minimizing PTSD symptoms.
Some of the Survivors – though they don’t exactly express it that way – put this into action at the fundraiser
Later in the evening, 20-year veteran Jim Gochee was talking to two new recruits at the bar. Gochee said his street nickname is The Terminator. He’s 6-3, bald and built.
In describing being shot during a drug bust, Gochee told a couple of the rookies he saw the bullet leave the gun in slow motion.
“When it hit me in the arm, it felt like I was getting smacked by a wooden spoon,” Gochee said, pointing to his bicep.
Warner does the same when he visits classes at the police academy.
He says he always tells them: “Look around, somebody in this room is going to get into a shooting, someone in this room possibly could be shot. So here are the resources. We hang a badge on officers, put a gun on their hip and put a uniform on them and think they’re immune from all the awful things they see and do every day. It’s just not the case.”