Post-Columbine, attitudes toward officer trauma slowly shift
LITTLETON, Colo. (AP) — The first SWAT team members to see the horror in the Columbine High School library had to step around bodies and ignore a wounded student’s plea for help as they searched for shooters they didn’t know had already died by their own hands.
As member Grant Whitus put it, officers carried something home with them that day, a level of trauma and a sense of futility that stayed with them for years and may have contributed to the team’s demise.
“It was just beyond anything I’d ever thought I’d see in my career,” he said of the 1999 shooting that left 12 students and a teacher dead and remains locked in the nation’s memory. “So many children were dead.”
Amid the emotional toll of what it experienced, the Jefferson County Regional SWAT team began to fall apart. By 2002, only three of its 10 members remained. The others were reassigned or left the department.
On the 20th anniversary of Columbine, the effects of trauma and turmoil experienced by law enforcement authorities who respond to school shootings are still largely unknown. Experts say agencies are reluctant to let researchers interview officers and dredge up potentially painful memories.
Many officers also view seeking psychiatric help as a sign of weakness — particularly in elite units like SWAT — and see their own mental health as secondary when civilians suffer grave loss.
“That’s what they signed up for, right? To deal with this violence and see these violent outcomes,” said labor attorney Eric Brown, who handles cases for Newtown, Connecticut, police officers. “So there’s not a lot of empathy for them when they show the signs of PTSD or other mentally disabling side effects.”
But attitudes are starting to change. A group of global law enforcement administrators recently began work on a set of uniform guidelines for psychological care for SWAT teams and other officers who respond to the worst of the worst carnage.
State legislatures also are taking note, with four states, including Colorado, recently passing laws to extend workers’ compensation for mental health to police officers and other first responders.
After the Columbine shooting, Jefferson County Regional SWAT team members went through a group debriefing and were offered department-paid therapy. But due to the stigma attached, therapy wasn’t an accepted option, said Whitus, who added some officers would ask him, “What’s it going to take before you crack?”
“My response is, ‘I will never crack. No matter what happens, no matter what I see, no matter what I do, I will never crack,'” Whitus said of his attitude at the time. He thought seeing a therapist “would have been my own weakness.”
Whitus stayed on the team but didn’t escape unscathed — he was divorced within a year as he dove into rebuilding the team and changing how the department responds to active shooter situations.
He rose to become head of the team, but then tragedy struck again in 2006 when members responded to a shooting at Platte Canyon High School in the town of Bailey, southwest of Denver. A man entered the school, took several female students hostage and sexually assaulted them, then fatally shot one student and himself as SWAT officers moved in.
After that, there was another exodus from the SWAT team, with eight of the 12 sheriff’s department members leaving — including Whitus — over the next three years.
Also with the team that day was Al Joyce, a post-Columbine recruit who volunteered 500 hours in a year as a reserve officer to get hired with the Golden Police Department west of Denver.
Joyce was among the members who stormed the classroom and saw the aftermath. It wasn’t long before the nightmares began and he started drinking heavily to avoid them. He ended up leaving the SWAT team, divorcing his wife and withdrawing from the world.
“I wanted to just shut down, turn off,” he said. “It didn’t work out so well.”
By 2013, he was out of law enforcement and homeless. He moved back to his parents’ home in Maine. He’s now in therapy and works a low-stress job as a cashier.
Current Jefferson County Regional SWAT leadership declined to comment for this article. But Sgt. Sean Joselyn, who was recruited by Whitus and was a member of the team at Platte Canyon, said attitudes had been changing because of Columbine. The team had “check-in” meetings in the months after, but he doesn’t recall members talking about how they felt and doesn’t know why so many left.
Joselyn later held the post of team leader until being reassigned in 2017. He said he encourages openness and trains officers to consider post-traumatic stress an injury that needs to be treated.
“I think it’s bigger than what we realize,” Joselyn said.