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National News

Many police officers suffer trauma. But not everyone gets the mental health support they need.

Lt. Jim Creed at a blood drive he organized at Plymouth Memorial Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Lt. Jim Creed at a blood drive he organized at Plymouth Memorial Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Six years ago, Jim Creed was hailed as a hero.

He and his wife sat waiting for their check after dinner at Bertucci’s in Taunton when they realized there was a man attacking people with a knife.

“There were tables flying, chairs flying, people were running everywhere,” recalled Creed, then a deputy with the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department.

Creed drew his gun, pulled out his badge, yelled he was with the police and told the man to drop the weapon. But the man kept coming, telling Creed, “We’re both going to die today.”

Creed fired a round.

The attacker fell to the ground and later died, ending what turned out to be a rampage through the city. Two others also lost their lives that day, stabbed by the assailant.

Creed and his wife were not physically harmed. But they weren’t unscathed. The next day, Creed started feeling ill. It was the adrenaline leaving his body, he said.

“I just had really bad stomach pains,” he said. “I ended up pretty much laying on my bathroom floor for about two or three hours that day, just kind of in pain, not knowing what was going on.”

Law enforcement experts say it’s all too common for officers to struggle emotionally after going through something traumatic. It could be a shooting, like the one involving Creed, losing a colleague to suicide or responding to a horrible incident involving a child.

But officers don’t always get the help they need and many wind up resigning in the months and years that follow.

“Going through something like that is extremely difficult,” said Sherri Martin, a former police officer who now works for the national Fraternal Office of Police union. “Even when it’s handled well, it’s difficult for the individual.”

Martin said there’s a national effort to help officers in need. Just look at her job. The Fraternal Order of Police union created a new division focused on wellness three years ago, which Martin now leads.

She said it’s critical that officers receive support, not only in the immediate aftermath of an incident, but for months or even years afterward.

And Creed is pushing a bill that would provide more support for officers in Massachusetts. If it passes, law enforcement agencies would need to establish programs to help officers deal with trauma. That includes training to help officers understand what to expect when they encounter wrenching incidents in the future.

It would also require departments to offer help to family members. That’s especially important to Creed, whose wife, Laura, was there for the shooting and tended to the wounded.

State Rep. Kathy LaNatra sponsored the bill after Creed told her about the issue. LaNatra said officers often internalize the horrific things they encounter on the job. She should know. Her husband is a police officer in Kingston and worked for the New York police when terrorists struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Law enforcement officers are trained to kind of like, suck that up,” she said, adding that officers are reluctant to share their feelings with colleagues or family. “With this bill, it will really insist that they do get the help that they need.”

She also hopes her discussion will held end the stigma about talking about trauma. “There’s no tough guy or tough woman mentality,” she said.

The bill has already been approved by the joint public safety committee and now awaits a vote in the House Ways and Means committee.

Rob Swartz, a Taunton police officer and leader of a regional team that helps officers after traumatic incidents, said this kind of help is vital to keeping officers on the force.

“A mentally healthy police officer is a better employee, less sick time abuse, less complaints against them and they’re better [able] to serve their community,” Swartz said.

But Creed, who struggled after the Taunton shooting, said he thinks most people have no idea how such incidents affects real officers.

In the movies, he said, it’s common for an officer to be in a shootout, then immediately go back in the office, laugh about it, and then go back to hunting down bad guys.

“And there’s three more shootings, and there’s no emotional impact at all,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”

Despite all the news coverage about the attacks in Taunton on May 10, 2016, Creed said he kept his personal struggles to himself.

The shopping center where he and his wife were dining has since been torn down. It’s now just a quiet parking lot.

But standing at the site, Creed said he still thinks about the people who lost their lives that day.

A man at Bertucci’s, George Heath, tried to stop the attacker, but was stabbed and killed. Earlier that day, the assailant broke into a nearby home and stabbed a woman, Patricia Slavin, and wounded her daughter.

He tried unsuccessfully to carjack others, then crashed his own car into a Macy’s at the mall. He attacked several people inside the department store, before going on to stab others at the nearby Bertucci’s.

“It was a really, really bad day,” said Creed, now a lieutenant with the sheriff’s department.

Creed said he feels fortunate, however. He got help from a supportive department and community.

The night of the shooting, other officers showed up to help him. He got time off, and later eased back into the job. Instead of his usual duties, he was able to spend a few months focused on training his new police dog.

He and his wife got help through Boston’s peer support services, speaking with both a therapist and an officer who had been through something similar.

“I don’t think I would still be working in law enforcement if I didn’t get the help I received,” he said.

Creed said others officers deserve the same kind of help, no matter where they happen to work.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.