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After traumatic incidents, officers no longer must 'suck it up'

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Willmar,Minnesota 56201
West Central Tribune
After traumatic incidents, officers no longer must 'suck it up'
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) - There was no time for Duluth police officer Dan Fogarty to think - only time to act.

Fogarty stepped into a Piedmont Heights home expecting to clear a simple "check welfare" call.


Inside, Fogarty found a 65-year-old patient on chemotherapy brandishing a kitchen knife at his wife. Fogarty twice ordered the man to drop it. Instead, Donald Herold raised the knife, and Fogarty fired four shots at close range. Barely 30 seconds had passed.

Just as quickly, conflicting emotions whipsawed through Fogarty's brain.

"At first, I felt really, really good," he said. His 17 years of police training and experience had kicked in; he had stopped a threat, probably saved a life.

Then Fogarty realized what had happened to stop that threat. He thought, "Oh my God, what did I do?"

When Fogarty, now a sergeant with the Duluth police, fired the fatal shots at Herold in 1999, it was the first time a Duluth officer had shot an assailant in more than 40 years.

Such events, called critical incidents, can have a deep and lasting impact on those who respond. They don't always involve using deadly force. For some officers, it means investigating a brutal rape or the death of a child. For others, it's watching a colleague be injured or killed.

"It's the dark side of law enforcement," Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said.

News of a critical incident usually catches the public's attention for a few days. The incident goes down, investigators sweep in, and the officer is sent home for a standard administrative leave.

But then what do they do?

After being part of a six-man SWAT team that shot and killed a suspected armed bank robber in 1995, St. Louis County Sheriff Supervising Deputy Joe Skofich went home and reassured his young daughters that he was safe, and so were they.

After his incident, Fogarty surrendered his gun and uniform, drove home and stacked firewood. He didn't watch the TV news that night.

After coming under surprise gunfire, Cloquet Police Officer Tom Hallfrisch drank two pots of coffee and replayed the scene hundreds of times in his head.

Each officer follows his or her own path in the days and weeks that follow a critical incident.

Some want to deal with it on their own. Some reach out to their family or other officers. Some enter counseling. And today, most local agencies call on a group of volunteer mental health and peer counselors to help people talk it through.

That wasn't an option when former Douglas County (Wis.) Sheriff's Chief Deputy Greg Guenard was a young patrol officer. In 1973, Guenard fatally shot a suspect after a high-speed car chase through rural Douglas County.

Many details are still fresh in Guenard's mind more than three decades later.

Speeds of 110 mph. A dark winter night. The suspect's car engine overheating, the man jumping from his stalled vehicle and running up a snowbank. Guenard firing one warning shot - "We could do that back then," he said - and reacting as the suspect reached into his coat as if for a weapon. Guenard made the decision to shoot.

The suspect, who had a hammer in his coat pocket, died nine months later, and Guenard was charged with manslaughter. For five years, he lived in limbo until the charge was dismissed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Guenard said there was no real venue for law enforcement to talk about how such an incident affected them emotionally. It was just part of the job, people said, and "you were supposed to suck it up."

So that's what he and many others did - but, Guenard believes, that method of coping can have its own price. He has known people who grew "sick at heart" and left law enforcement because they couldn't find a way to emotionally deal with what they had seen or done.

After he fired his first shot, Fogarty's vision narrowed and sharpened. All he could see was Herold, standing about 7 feet away. Fogarty didn't hear his own gun go off.

Almost everyone who goes through a critical incident experiences some kind of visual or auditory distortion, said counselor and trauma specialist Bill Maloney. He contracts with area law enforcement agencies to provide stress management services for their employees.

But it's also important to tell people that those and other reactions - including shaking hands, vomiting, even voiding the bowels - can be normal following a huge burst of adrenaline, Maloney said. They don't mean an officer is too weak for the job.

Some long-term effects are also normal, including trouble sleeping, recurring flashbacks and anxiety, according to a 2006 National Institute of Justice study of law enforcement officers involved in shootings. Other reactions include elation, a fear of legal or administrative problems, lingering fatigue, crying jags, guilt and fear for their own safety.

Retired Duluth police Sgt. Barry Brooks sometimes wondered about his own emotions in the months and years after one of the most traumatic incidents the department has experienced.

A group of Duluth police, including Brooks, were looking for a suspect in a nearby tavern shooting at the Seaway Hotel in Duluth on April 10, 1990. The suspect opened fire as police were poised outside his hotel room door, and officer Gary Wilson was shot in the head and chest. He died the next day, the first and last Duluth police officer to die in the line of duty since 1966.

The shooting affected the entire police force. The department was so shattered that people were ready to reach out for help, Brooks said, and two months later was "catapulted" into the age of peer counseling and critical incident debriefing. Brooks and most other officers had never heard of the process, though today it is routine.

During debriefings, people are encouraged to talk about the incident: what they felt, what they saw, what they wish would have happened.

"This isn't a process to forget about it; you never forget about it," Brooks said. "It's a process to live with it and be OK."


Information from: Duluth News Tribune,