Officers' wounds heal, but emotional scars run deep


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Mark Tyson
July 14, 2003, 08:33 PM
http://www.stltoday.com

Officers' wounds heal, but emotional scars run deep

By Heather Ratcliffe Post-Dispatch

updated: 07/12/2003 11:24 AM


Officer Kevin Stevener swaggered through dark and dangerous streets as if the St. Louis County Police badge on his chest made him bulletproof.

That was before he answered a call in Bel-Ridge one day in 2000. A man with a shotgun blasted a hole in Stevener's side opposite that badge and through a gap in his protective vest.

"I felt like someone hit me with a sledgehammer," he would say later.

The physical wound healed. The emotional wound never will, he learned as a new member of a club no cop wants to join. More than 2,150 nationwide also joined that year, according to the FBI. Somebody tried to kill each one with a gun, knife or other dangerous instrument; 51 times somebody succeeded.

Experts say that while police see more violence than most people, they are vulnerable to the same emotions that visit anyone who becomes a victim.

Frustration about losing control is one - and a big problem for police, who are trained and conditioned to calmly handle any situation. Getting hurt can represent an ultimate loss of control and a failure as sworn protector of the innocent.

"Police have to realize that they can do everything right, and still not prevent a bad thing from happening," said Linda Housman, a psychologist who works with law enforcement. "Officers have to decide if they can go back out on the street, knowing that they can't control all the variables."

Most victims who fear another attack never again face serious danger. But a wounded officer, by returning to the job, returns to a life of looking for trouble.

"Their world has been shaken up, and they are not sure if they will be safe again," Housman says.

Positive support from the police department plays a major role in an officer's recovery, she said, and she rated most as good at it.

In addition, she explained, the course of post-traumatic stress may be determined by the victim's immediate reaction.

"Someone who might think, 'Wow! I survived!' might have less trauma that one who thinks 'Wow! I could have died!'" Housman said.

Despite what might seem good reasons to quit, officers who faced life-threatening wounds in the St. Louis region over recent years chose to pin the badge back on, slip into the Kevlar vest and strap on the pistol.

Six of them shared their stories. They are five men and one woman, white and black, protecting both sides of the Mississippi River. Five were shot, and one was stabbed. Their stories reveal a variety of reactions.

Kevin Stevener admits he was an "arrogant and hard-headed" street cop - until the day he was shot. The experience turned him 180 degrees. "I'd hear a cricket outside, and I was scared," he said.

On Sept. 26, 2000, answering a "shots fired" call in Bel-Ridge, he encountered a man named Barry Baker who had just shot two women, one fatally. When Stevener arrived, Baker shot him, too.

Stevener got off three rounds from his pistol and then collapsed.

One month later, Stevener returned to light duty with 40 pellets left in his spine and lungs by doctors who decided it was too risky to dig them out. The next day, his friend and former academy instructor, Sgt. Richard Weinhold, was killed in an encounter with a man wielding a shotgun.

The shock ripped open Stevener's emotional wounds. A bachelor, he dwelled on Weinhold's wife and four children. "I thought 'Why couldn't Rick have lived and I died?'" he recalled.

Courage returned slowly. His first day back on patrol, it took several minutes to work up the nerve to investigate an abandoned auto. He would be tested three weeks after that, directing several other officers as a team to rescue a wife and children from an overwrought man with a gun.

"That situation reaffirmed my confidence in myself," he said.

A year later, Stevener, now 33, was assigned to the county's Community Action Team, an aggressive patrol unit.

"I knew I needed to go back to the street," he said. "I knew I could still do it."

Baker was convicted of murder and will be sentenced next month.

Thinking of family

Ernest Green of the University City police feared the shot that wounded him would kill his fragile mother when she heard the news. So he kept it secret.

Green had been on the force only four weeks in 1988 when a bullet hit him in the gut. It had been fired through a wall as officers gathered outside an apartment where Stephen A. Martin had fatally shot his former girlfriend.

"I saw smoke, and my ears started ringing," Green said. "My body told me to go into retreat mode."

Waiting for paramedics, he thought about his mother; Green, a bachelor, had cared for her daily since she had a stroke. He instructed comrades not to tell her and called her hours later with a claim that he had to leave town on some emergency.

A .22-caliber bullet had lodged in the wall of Green's bladder. After two surgeries, the doctors decided to leave it. Five days later, Green was urinating when he heard a sound in the toilet. The bullet had found its way out.

"I looked down and almost passed out," he said.

Not until Green was released from the hospital did he explain to his mother what the emergency had been. She cried and hugged him, and then gave her son some advice: Go back to police work.

"Of all the people, she was the most supportive," he said.

Now a captain, Green, 39, commands the detective bureau.

Martin was sentenced to life in prison for his girlfriend's murder plus three years for shooting Green.

Never give up

Like other Illinois State Police troopers, David Fort was used to relying on himself. He rode alone, with only a radio for a partner, and fought alone when a speeder he chased into Alorton one night in 1989 turned against him.

At first, the violator only took a swing. Fort didn't know the man had a gun until he saw a flash from its barrel.

A bullet bored through Fort's arm and side; he fired back twice as the gunman fled into woods.

Fort had his radio, of course, but he didn't know where the pursuit had ended. He had to get back into his car and drive a block to find a street sign to tell a dispatcher where to send help.

Unsure of whether he was dying, Fort returned to block in the shooter's abandoned car, lest the fugitive double back and escape in it. Remaining on his feet, Fort recalled, he fought the urge to panic: "Most people die from shock. I thought if I'd stay calm, then I'd stay alive."

Fort refused when an arriving officer encouraged him to lie in the back seat of his car. "I thought if I lay down, that would be it. I'd never get back up."

The slug had sliced through his lungs, spleen and colon before lodging next to his spinal cord. He indeed had come close to dying, doctors said.

His attacker, Jerry M. Bell, was arrested days later. Bell told police he had been drinking that night and didn't want to go to jail.

In five months, Fort was back on the job. Now 46, he investigates the shootings of other people as a state police detective based in Collinsville. Bell is serving a 60-year sentence.

A long road back


Christine Fernandez of the St. Louis police fights pain and insomnia - and nightmares when she does sleep. Her wounded leg is not yet cooperating. But Fernandez, the daughter of a cop, says she will overcome it all to resume the career she loves.

Arriving at a traffic accident in October, she saw a man strolling away and asked if he needed an ambulance. He whirled around for no apparent reason, pulled a handgun from his waistband and fired twice before the pistol jammed.

His first shot hit Fernandez in the groin, breaking her femur. She fell but still fired 12 rounds back, hitting Kenneth J. Tate Jr. in both legs and a foot. Officers found him hiding 20 minutes later.

"I'm a strong-willed person. I wasn't going to die like that," she insisted. "He wasn't going to kill me."

Fernandez grapples for answers about why she was attacked. Blood tests showed he used drugs and alcohol that night. From jail, the suspect wrote her a letter of apology, she said.

"He says he was not in his right state of mind," Fernandez said. "But I know he's not sorry. He just doesn't want to be in jail." Tate awaits trial.

Doctors implanted a titanium rod and several screws in the officer's leg, but she required more surgery for complications. "It's like I'm starting from ground zero again," she said.

Fernandez, 31, a single parent, worries how the incident affected her 10-year-old son. "He goes through different stages," she said. "Sometimes he's proud of me. Sometimes he just wants his mom back."

No more undercover work

Kenneth Brudek of the St. Louis County police wanted to go back to work but never again on the kind of undercover assignment that almost got him killed. The job came with uncertainty he could handle before he was attacked, but not after.

Brudek was the victim of random street violence one night in 1985.

He was parked in a St. Louis bank lot while following a prostitute. Another car pulled in, screeching its tires and circling Brudek's plain auto. Brudek reached for his pistol in the glove box, but by the time he looked up, the man from that car already stood at his window. The attacker shoved a knife twice into the officer's chest.

As the man ran, Brudek fired three times; a shot in the head killed him.

At the hospital, Brudek recalled, he asked a nurse if he was going to die. "She patted me on the head and said, ''Course not, honey.'"

But it was close, doctors told him later. He got to surgery about 20 minutes before he would have bled to death.

Investigators decided the attacker, Robert L. Simpson, had suffered from a mental episode that had no connection to the vice investigation.

Brudek returned to work after eight weeks but soon left the detective squad. "I was scared to go back to undercover work," he explained. "You have very little control over the bad guy. I was uncomfortable with that."

He took an assignment as a patrol officer and, at 53, is still at it.

Over time, his apprehension and paranoia faded. "I think I just went back to my old self," he said.

Fear of being sued

Michael Hartmann of the Illinois State Police, wounded by a murder suspect, fired back and then worried about something that might not have crossed others' minds at all. Would he get sued?

"We have one-hundredth of a second to decide whether to shoot," Hartmann said later. "It's hard when people second-guess you."

There didn't seem to be much room for second-guessing about what happened the day in 1992 when Hartmann stopped a suspicious-looking pickup in Fairview Heights.

The driver turned out to be Christopher D. Sprinkle, wanted for murdering his brother and sister-in-law in Virginia. He fired, wounding Hartmann. The trooper shot back, hitting Sprinkle in the head. Investigators determined that Sprinkle then shot himself to death.

"With the adrenaline going, I didn't even think I was hit," Hartmann said. "But once it was over, that's when the pain came."

He was still in the hospital, he said, when he began asking himself, "Am I in trouble?"

The trooper put his uniform back on three months later. But long after his wounds healed, fears lingered that he might be accused of some wrongdoing. He even worried he would lose his job.

Nobody ever sued. And Hartmann is still out there, looking for suspicious-looking vehicles.


Reporter Heather Ratcliffe:
E-mail: hratcliffe@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-863-2821

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Gewehr98
July 14, 2003, 09:45 PM
I thought this was another "Officer Down" post by TheeBadOne. :scrutiny:

pax
July 15, 2003, 03:29 AM
Excellent and very interesting report, Mark. Thanks for posting it.

Folks, those of us who carry deadly weapons need to consider the aftermath we would endure if we were ever involved in a deadly force situation.

It never hurts to be reminded that there are long term consequences that follow such encounters.

pax

Leadbutt
July 15, 2003, 04:22 AM
Thank what ever GOD you follow that those brothers and sister survied, other then in War time it is the most gut wrenching thing to be in a gun fight,as you can see most were not expected, I whish years ago that we had people like Ms.Housman, it was just suck it up and hit the bricks, I am lucky i survied 3 and am still at it

If you carry you need to practice and do it often, and never forget, the best tool you have is your brain

Cosmoline
July 15, 2003, 01:54 PM
...unless they let me carry a carbine at least. Going up against shotguns with a SIDEARM?? The department heads who mandate that nonsense ought to be replaced. It is quite apparently costing lives.

Drizzt
July 15, 2003, 07:26 PM
when he heard a sound in the toilet. The bullet had found its way out

...and I thought my kidney stones hurt on the way out..... WOW! :what:

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