Crime & Courts

Mastering their demons: Richland deputies learning to recognize PTSD early

Experience With PTSD Helps Deputies Teach Others

Richland County Sheriff's Department is requiring a new class about PTSD for all deputies. The instructors are deputies who have experienced traumatic events.
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Richland County Sheriff's Department is requiring a new class about PTSD for all deputies. The instructors are deputies who have experienced traumatic events.

Larry Payne has carried two bullets in his body for the past 10 years of his law enforcement career.

The 42-year-old lieutenant now works in internal affairs at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. He’s comfortable enough with his wounds to crack jokes about them – noting with a wry smile that it still sounds funny to tell folks he has a bullet in his butt.

But Payne’s grace didn’t come easily. He was shot in 2006 while breaking up a methamphetamine lab and has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder since.

Now, though, he is part of an innovative new program at the sheriff’s department, in which deputies are trained to recognize the signs of PTSD in themselves and their fellow officers.

It’s standard for departments to offer counseling after an officer is involved in a stressful situation – it’s unusual to try to preempt it. But addressing the stress thoroughly is what helps many sufferers recover, experts say. Talking about it also might help law enforcement agencies, just like military branches, change their tough-guy culture that forces officers to suffer in silence – or worse, make mistakes on the job that could have terrible outcomes.

Emergency personnel suffer PTSD at twice the rate of the rest of the population.

A University of British Columbia study found that emergency personnel experience post-traumatic stress at twice the rate of the rest of the population.

When Randy Scott resigned in 2013 as chief of Columbia’s police department, he said he was suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by several incidents in his career, most notably the death in 2005 of a deputy he helped hire when he worked for Richland County.

Many emergency departments, like other workplaces, have employee counseling or mental health intervention programs.

But with PTSD, early identification is key, say Payne and four other Richland deputies who helped develop and are teaching classes in the program based on their own experiences with PTSD.

‘HE WAS AN EXCELLENT COP’

Payne almost didn’t get to teach the class – in October 2011, he tried to resign from the sheriff’s department, after a flashback during a traffic stop almost turned ugly.

“I pulled over a guy on the interstate,” Payne said. “As I approached the car, (the driver) was reaching up under the seat. Now, he might have dropped something, he might have put a gun under there, he might have put a beer under there – there’s no telling what he was doing. But as soon as I saw him reaching under the seat, I went back to that mode that I went to that day.”

When Payne asked the driver for his license, the man reached under the seat again. Payne drew his gun, pointed it at the back of the man’s head and started pulling the trigger, he said. He stopped himself when he realized the man was holding a wallet. Fortunately, Payne said, the driver never realized he had drawn his weapon.

After that, he sent the sheriff a letter of resignation.

That day changed everything for me.”

Lt. Larry Payne

“That day changed everything for me,” Payne said.

He’s still in law enforcement because Sheriff Leon Lott wouldn’t let him quit. As soon as Lott got Payne’s letter, he called the deputy into his office and sat down beside him.

“He was an excellent cop,” Lott said of Payne, who was a sergeant at the time. “I was not going to allow him to throw that away for something that is our responsibility to help him fix. We had thought Larry was fine. He had went through our PTSD program – he had successfully completed it. He was on the job. We just didn’t know what was going on inside him.”

I was not going to allow him to throw that away for something that is our responsibility to help him fix.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott

‘WHEN YOU DON’T ADDRESS IT ...’

Despite Payne’s close call on the road, Lott said officers with PTSD usually are a danger to themselves, not to the public.

Payne isn’t alone in his struggle. Lott said many deputies have PTSD – they just find ways to cope with it. But he has seen it cost some officers their careers.

“When you realize what you have and you address it, then you’re able to control it,” Lott said. “It’s when you don’t address it – when you ignore that it’s there, when the department ignores it’s there and your fellow workers ignore it – that’s when you have issues.”

The department’s new program aims to teach deputies early on about what PTSD looks like and how to deal with it. It’s also meant to help them understand the process of investigating a “critical incident” – getting shot, shooting someone else or even just witnessing a traumatic event.

 

Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor who has studied police safety and wellness extensively, said he’s not aware of anything like the program in South Carolina or the United States.

“It provides an opportunity for officers, who will hopefully never be in those kinds of situations, to be prepared,” Alpert said. “If you’re in a position where you have to fire your weapon at someone, it’s an enormously stressful situation. What do you do afterward? What do you do when the other officers get there?”

CHANGING POLICE CHARACTER

The program has taken about a year to develop, and the first class was just rolled out last week. All deputies at the department will be required to go through it.

Sgt. Kellye Hendrick, 36, was the first deputy to address the class last Monday.

Hendrick went through two separate incidents in 2007. She witnessed a fellow officer’s death, and she shot a suspect who was wielding a knife.

‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I just shot this guy.’”

Sgt. Kellye Hendrick

“My initial thought was, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I just shot this guy,’” Hendrick said. “I had to throw up in a lady’s yard with a dog barking at me.”

Teaching the program also serves as therapy for the deputies who developed it.

“It made me feel like I was left here for a purpose – to help other officers,” Hendrick said.

In addition to filling an educational void, the program is a step toward changing police culture, said Capt. Roxana Meetze, 49. Meetze developed PTSD after she shot a suspect who confronted police with an AK-47.

One thing that’s taught in class: PTSD can take years to set in.

Her case highlights a lesson taught in the class, showing that PTSD can take years to set in. Though the incident happened in 1999, her PTSD developed slowly and came to a head in 2012, Meetze said – 13 years later.

After the shooting, Meetze received the Medal of Valor. She said it felt wrong – why should she get an award for killing someone? But as a female cop, trying to look tough in a traditionally male profession, she didn’t think she could talk to anyone about it.

Now, as a captain who oversees other deputies, she has a different perspective.

If I didn’t share my experiences and what has helped me, I’m not really a leader.”

Capt. Roxana Meetze

“My ultimate responsibility is to take care of my people,” Meetze said. “If I didn’t share my experiences and what has helped me, I’m not really a leader.”

Glen Luke Flanagan: 803-771-8305, @glenlflanagan

LT. LARRY PAYNE: THE 911 TAPE

After he was shot while breaking up a methamphetamine operation, Lt. Larry Payne got a hold of the recording of his 911 call.

It became an obsession.

“One of my girlfriends, she’d come home and say, ‘You listened to your tape today, didn’t you?’ I hadn’t even said anything to her.

“I don’t know if it was just (my) physical features – I don’t know. She would know I had been listening to it.”

SGT. KELLYE HENDRICK: DRUGS AND ALCOHOL

At the first pre-PTSD class taught by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Sgt. Kellye Hendrick had a key message for her fellow deputies.

“If you have been involved in a critical incident, don’t self-medicate. Does everybody know what I mean by that? Drinking, taking medication.

“I can stand here in front of you guys and tell you I did it. I did it. I drank because I wanted to forget what happened to me. But that caused me two problems. One, it gave me a really bad headache the next morning when I woke up – and two, it just made my feelings worse.”

CAPT. ROXANA MEETZE: LOSING FAMILY

When the sheriff urged Capt. Roxana Meetze to get counseling, she pushed back. It wasn’t until things came to a boiling point in her personal life that she was willing to seek help.

“I covered it up for a little bit longer, and it just came to a head, mainly for home issues. My relationship was gone – it was over.

“I was still having trouble coping with the anger and the guilt. After I pretty much lost my family structure, that’s when I decided something’s got to give.”

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