Shootings Strain Cops' Psyches


Wisconsin State Journal
April 16, 2006

No matter how hard Wayne Strong tries to mentally distance himself from shooting and killing a bank robbery suspect three years ago, his daily commute brings it back.

The veteran Madison police lieutenant works just half a block from the Mobil Mart on South Park Street where he and three other officers shot Julio Cesar Contreras, 39, in July 2003.

Contreras had fired a gun at the officers after a failed bank robbery attempt across the street. It was later ruled that Contreras wanted police to kill him, a circumstance called suicide by cop.

"I can picture where he was standing," said Strong, 46.

After the shooting, Strong received counseling and talked about the incident with other officers, his pastor and his family. He decided the shooting would not drive him from the profession - as sometimes happens in the wake of police shootings.

All still on job

Of the 10 Madison police officers involved in five fatal shootings since 1997, all remain employed by the department.

The figure includes the officer involved in Wednesday's fatal shooting of Victor Montero-Diaz, 45, at a BP gas station on Williamson Street. Montero-Diaz, who had a long criminal history, locked himself in the bathroom and called 911, saying he thought people were trying to kidnap him. When officers Kip Kellogg and Kirby Harless arrived, Montero- Diaz attacked them with a knife and was shot by Kellogg, 47. A bystander was also wounded in the shooting.

Strong said he has no second thoughts about the decision he made to shoot Contreras. "You're just feeling bad that you had to take a life. There was no question we had to stop that person, but we still struggle with it."

For some, the trauma of taking another person's life can be too much. Former Madison police officer Paul Smith left the force two years after shooting and killing a man for the second time in two years. In 1992, Smith shot and killed a mentally troubled, knife-wielding rapist. In 1994, he shot a man who tried to choke him and was about to hit him in the head with a large rock, a case that led to considerable community questioning of his actions.

Both incidents were ruled justifiable uses of deadly force. But Smith was not yet 30 when he was granted a disability retirement.

Attempts to reach Smith for this story were unsuccessful. He told the State Journal in 1995 that the emotional turmoil and criticism that grew out of the 1994 shooting broke his spirit.

A stress debriefing

Many officers suffer psychological repercussions following a fatal shooting, although with proper counseling, most can return to full duty without lingering dysfunction, said Michael Scott, a clinical assistant professor at the UW-Madison Law School and co-author of the study "Deadly Force: What We Know" in 1992.

The Madison Police Department is considered exemplary in its support of officers because it offers ongoing counseling and requires officers involved in a shooting go through a stress debriefing the day of an incident, said Scott, a Madison police officer from 1981-84.

For officers involved in a shooting, the incident itself is just the beginning of a tough period that includes an internal investigation and, often, second-guessing by the community, Scott said. Given the power accorded police, this critiquing is appropriate and healthy but should occur with understanding for the officers involved, he said.

"Police officers see themselves as lifesavers, not killers," he said. "When they're criticized and accused of wantonly taking a human life, it conflicts so dramatically with what's going on in their own head about what they've done that they find it very confusing and hurtful."

Just a fraction of 1 percent of all police officers ever fire their weapons during a typical 20- year career, said Tom Aveni, a researcher and police trainer with the Police Policy Studies Council in Spofford, N.H. "It's extremely rare and getting more rare in that police have more options than they ever did before," he said, mentioning non-lethal stun guns as one such option.

Madison officer Phil Yahnke, 51, thinks it might be time to start a local support group for officers involved in shootings, including those who didn't fire their weapons but were at the scene and may have been equally affected.

"Some of my colleagues are having problems in the aftermath of their shootings," he said. "I've had less because I've been able to express myself. It's therapeutic."

Empathy to outrage

Yahnke is one of four officers from the 18-member 1988 Madison Police Academy involved in a fatal shooting. He was one of two officers to shoot and kill Gregory Velasquez, 39, who was armed with two meat cleavers at the Red Caboose Day Care Center on Williamson Street in 2004.

For family and friends of those killed, the shooting deaths can trigger everything from empathy to outrage.

Jon Hinds, Velasquez's close friend, said he has tremendous respect for police but remains convinced that officers did not need to kill his friend.

"They have rubber bullets, they have nets they can use on people, they could have shot him in the legs (instead of in the chest). That's three things right there," Hinds said. "They chose the one that would end this guy's life."

Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard ruled the shooting of Velasquez was justified.

After the Mobil Mart shooting, members of Contreras' family worked with police and the district attorney to sort through why he had sought to end his life through his suicidal actions, concluding he was deeply depressed. The family members released a statement at the time that did not criticize police. A member of Contreras' family contacted for this story declined comment.