Shedding light on PTSD and police

Posted: Updated:
PHOENIX (CBS5) -

Craig Tiger patrolled the streets of Phoenix for 12 years with an unblemished record. But that all changed on a hot summer afternoon in June 2012. He and his partner responded to an emergency call at a north Phoenix park of a man acting wild and threatening people with a bat, including a 4-year-old.

"We gave him numerous verbal commands to drop the baseball bat. He didn't comply. I actually back stepped a couple of times trying to give him even more of an opportunity to drop the baseball bat. He did not," Tiger said.

Both Tiger and his partner fired three shots at the suspect simultaneously. The suspect died at the scene.

"I went home that night to an empty house. It started immediately. I proceeded to self-medicate with alcohol and it started that night. That very night," Tiger said.

Mental health experts say post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real concern in first responders.

Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia is a Tempe-based psychologist who specializes in treating emergency personnel with PTSD.

"We pay them very little. They work ridiculous hours. And then we're surprised they would come down with PTSD or acute stress symptoms. We should just expect that they would come down with it. Not be surprised when they do," Adler-Tapia said.

Discussions of PTSD usually surround military personnel returning from the front lines of war-torn countries. And while the attitudes of some officers are slowly starting to change, many believe police managers and the upper brass are reluctant to acknowledge PTSD as an on-duty injury and address the growing problem in the rank and file.

"Departments need to know that with quick treatment, with treatment options, with therapy, their employees who are having trouble can get back to work very easily," said Nathan Schlitz, a retired Mesa police officer.

Schlitz took a medical disability retirement from Mesa in 2011 due to PTSD. He had been with the department for 12 years.

"I was involved in several critical incidents during the latter part of my career that left me with symptoms that just weren't conducive to being a police officer and left me unable to do the job appropriately," Schlitz said.

The first incident, in May 2009, Schlitz opened fire on a gang member trying to run down his partner. One of his stray bullets hit a 15-year-old passenger in the car, leaving Schlitz to deal with having unintentionally killing an innocent bystander.

"The symptoms were immediate and I needed help right away," Schlitz said.

He returned to work after seeking counseling, but within a year another critical incident triggered another bout with PTSD and ended his career.

Schlitz has jumped in the back of an unmarked patrol car that had a prisoner cage in the back. His two squad mates were in the front seats and they were chasing suspects who had just shot and killed Gilbert Police Lt. Eric Shuhandler.

When the suspects car ran out of gas the car Schlitz was in was directly behind it.

"The suspects came out firing and my partners did what they were trained to do. They got out and returned fire. Unfortunately they left me locked in the car taking fire from the suspects," Schlitz said. "I was in the car, what I thought, taking rounds, for about 30 seconds. The car was never hit, even though to me, I can still see this big revolver pointing at me and the muzzle flash from his shooting at me."

Most departments give officers involved in shootings and critical incidents a few days off and send them for an hour-long psychological evaluation to be cleared to return for full duty.

In the case of former Phoenix Officer Craig Tiger, he was back to work within a week. But he knew he was not OK.

"I drank every single day after work. Everyday. To self-medicate. Trying to forget what happened. Trying to erase it. Trying to help me sleep. I was having nightmares," Tiger said.

Getting officers to talk about how their experiences on the street affect them is a challenge, in part because of the attitude that officers get paid to protect and serve and should suck it up and push through anything. There is also the stigma that if officers ask for help they are weak.

"You go into the job knowing that it's a possibility that you're going to shoot somebody. I knew that going in. But you don't know how you're going to react after you kill somebody. You don't know that until it happens," Tiger said.

Dr. Adler-Tapia believes PTSD in officers can be caused by an accumulation of calls or it could be one significant call.

"They're exposed to critical incidents everyday. And the wear and tear of it just takes its toll on them. And we don't provide services to keep them in shape. You know, psychologically healthy," Adler-Tapia said.

As the year anniversary of Tiger's deadly police shooting approached, his drinking increased even more than usual and he became suicidal.

"We have a family cabin up north. And I was going up north to kill myself. I had guns with me in the car and I was subsequently stopped for DUI on the way up. In hindsight, it saved my life because I wouldn't be here right now," Tiger said.

But the DUI did cost Tiger his job. Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia fired Tiger despite Tiger's diagnosis of PTSD, which he believes led to his drinking problem.

"I had a problem. And that problem stemmed from an on-duty injury," Tiger said.

The department didn't see it that way. Tiger said they did not offer him help or rehabilitation services. They just fired him. Tiger sought treatment and counseling on his own. He said he has not had a drink since the day he was arrested for DUI.

Adler-Tapia believes departments are actually costing their cities, counties and states money by ignoring PTSD in first responders.

"You invest so much money in training this professional, why wouldn't you take care of them after you've trained them," Adler-Tapia said. "We send them for fitness tests, we make them qualify on the range, why not clear out six months, a year of a accumulated trauma exposures?"

Adler-Tapia and Schlitz both work to bring the issue of PTSD in first responders to light. Both say there is some progress, but much more needs to be done.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

Craig Tiger patrolled the streets of Phoenix for 12 years with an unblemished record. But that all changed on a hot summer afternoon in June 2012. He and his partner responded to an emergency call at a north Phoenix park of a man acting wild and threatening people with a bat, including a 4-year-old.

"We gave him numerous verbal commands to drop the baseball bat. He didn't comply. I actually back stepped a couple of times trying to give him even more of an opportunity to drop the baseball bat. He did not," Tiger said.

Both Tiger and his partner fired three shots at the suspect simultaneously. The suspect died at the scene.

"I went home that night to an empty house. It started immediately. I proceeded to self-medicate with alcohol and it started that night. That very night," Tiger said.

Mental health experts say post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real concern in first responders.

Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia is a Tempe-based psychologist who specializes in treating emergency personnel with PTSD.

"We pay them very little. They work ridiculous hours. And then we're surprised they would come down with PTSD or acute stress symptoms. We should just expect that they would come down with it. Not be surprised when they do," Adler-Tapia said.

Discussions of PTSD usually surround military personnel returning from the front lines of war-torn countries. And while the attitudes of some officers are slowly starting to change, many believe police managers and the upper brass are reluctant to acknowledge PTSD as an on-duty injury and address the growing problem in the rank and file.

"Departments need to know that with quick treatment, with treatment options, with therapy, their employees who are having trouble can get back to work very easily," said Nathan Schlitz, a retired Mesa police officer.

Schlitz took a medical disability retirement from Mesa in 2011 due to PTSD. He had been with the department for 12 years.

"I was involved in several critical incidents during the latter part of my career that left me with symptoms that just weren't conducive to being a police officer and left me unable to do the job appropriately," Schlitz said.

The first incident, in May 2009, Schlitz opened fire on a gang member trying to run down his partner. One of his stray bullets hit a 15-year-old passenger in the car, leaving Schlitz to deal with having unintentionally killing an innocent bystander.

"The symptoms were immediate and I needed help right away," Schlitz said.

He returned to work after seeking counseling, but within a year another critical incident triggered another bout with PTSD and ended his career.

Schlitz has jumped in the back of an unmarked patrol car that had a prisoner cage in the back. His two squad mates were in the front seats and they were chasing suspects who had just shot and killed Gilbert Police Lt. Eric Shuhandler.

When the suspects car ran out of gas the car Schlitz was in was directly behind it.

"The suspects came out firing and my partners did what they were trained to do. They got out and returned fire. Unfortunately they left me locked in the car taking fire from the suspects," Schlitz said. "I was in the car, what I thought, taking rounds, for about 30 seconds. The car was never hit, even though to me, I can still see this big revolver pointing at me and the muzzle flash from his shooting at me."

Most departments give officers involved in shootings and critical incidents a few days off and send them for an hour-long psychological evaluation to be cleared to return for full duty.

In the case of former Phoenix Officer Craig Tiger, he was back to work within a week. But he knew he was not OK.

"I drank every single day after work. Everyday. To self-medicate. Trying to forget what happened. Trying to erase it. Trying to help me sleep. I was having nightmares," Tiger said.

Getting officers to talk about how their experiences on the street affect them is a challenge, in part because of the attitude that officers get paid to protect and serve and should suck it up and push through anything. There is also the stigma that if officers ask for help they are weak.

"You go into the job knowing that it's a possibility that you're going to shoot somebody. I knew that going in. But you don't know how you're going to react after you kill somebody. You don't know that until it happens," Tiger said.

Dr. Adler-Tapia believes PTSD in officers can be caused by an accumulation of calls or it could be one significant call.

"They're exposed to critical incidents everyday. And the wear and tear of it just takes its toll on them. And we don't provide services to keep them in shape. You know, psychologically healthy," Adler-Tapia said.

As the year anniversary of Tiger's deadly police shooting approached, his drinking increased even more than usual and he became suicidal.

"We have a family cabin up north. And I was going up north to kill myself. I had guns with me in the car and I was subsequently stopped for DUI on the way up. In hindsight, it saved my life because I wouldn't be here right now," Tiger said.

But the DUI did cost Tiger his job. Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia fired Tiger despite Tiger's diagnosis of PTSD, which he believes led to his drinking problem.

"I had a problem. And that problem stemmed from an on-duty injury," Tiger said.

The department didn't see it that way. Tiger said they did not offer him help or rehabilitation services. They just fired him. Tiger sought treatment and counseling on his own. He said he has not had a drink since the day he was arrested for DUI.

Adler-Tapia believes departments are actually costing their cities, counties and states money by ignoring PTSD in first responders.

"You invest so much money in training this professional, why wouldn't you take care of them after you've trained them," Adler-Tapia said. "We send them for fitness tests, we make them qualify on the range, why not clear out six months, a year of a accumulated trauma exposures?"

Adler-Tapia and Schlitz both work to bring the issue of PTSD in first responders to light. Both say there is some progress, but much more needs to be done.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.