Troubled veterans pose problem for police
TAMPA — Police Cpl. Steve Cragg knows well the dangers officers can face when coming upon an armed veteran. Three years ago, good friend Cpl. Mike Roberts was gunned down by Humberto Delgado, a former soldier.
And almost exactly a year ago, Cragg arrived at the scene where a former Marine with post-traumatic stress disorder shot a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputy.
"Those two situations are always on my mind," Cragg said.
As a hostage negotiator, Cragg has helped defuse numerous standoffs, from people with guns holed up in houses to people waving knives in the streets. But he says one of his biggest fears is coming upon an armed veteran.
The challenge of confronting someone who might be unresponsive to typical negotiating strategies and well-trained in combat tactics "muddies the water when you are dealing with someone," Cragg said.
For police, it is a concern that is only going to increase. Nearly a half-million troops who served in Afghanistan or Iraq may have post-traumatic stress disorder, based on a 2008 Rand Corp. study.
With that in mind, Cragg in March enrolled in a unique course, conceived by a special forces soldier from Tampa, that teaches law enforcement officers how to more safely approach veterans in crisis. Since it was first offered in January 2011, nearly 100 law enforcement officers across the country have taken the course.
Cragg said that even after eight years as a negotiator and his own experience as a soldier, the course, "Law Enforcement Tools For Supporting Veterans in Transition," opened his eyes.
"I thought, going into it, there would be a lot of things I already knew," he says. "But when I actually completed the course, there were a lot of things brought to light I never thought of."
In crisis situations, he said, "A few wrong words can spell disaster."
"I learned that we as negotiators can never underestimate or downplay the things service members have experienced, especially in a combat situation," Cragg said. "Negotiators have to be cognizant of the reality of their feelings and never use the 'I know how you feel' unless we have been through similar experiences."
The unique course had its roots, in part, in a conversation over beers.
Master Sgt. Scott Neil, at the time a senior enlisted adviser to the Joint Interagency Task Force at U.S. Special Operations Command, was discussing the problems faced by returning veterans with Bobby O'Neill, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida and part owner of Four Green Fields, a restaurant and pub on Platt Street.
It was August 2009.
Neil, one of the first soldiers to enter Afghanistan, helped author a white paper on the difficulties veterans experience reintegrating with society. O'Neill had at his disposal a working group called the Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, with representatives from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, military and local government officials from across the region.
"Scotty said he was noticing a lot of guys coming back with PTSD or other issues and police are now approaching someone who may be a ticking time bomb," O'Neill said. "They are often younger, more fit and have the ability to use a weapon. It is almost a perfect storm."
The two talked that night about creating some kind of course to teach law enforcement officers how to deal with returning veterans.
Two days later, Roberts came across Delgado, a mentally disturbed homeless veteran and former police officer. Delgado fired a shot from a .45-caliber handgun, killing Roberts instantly.
Roberts' murder "reinforced everything we were talking about," O'Neill said.
With help from O'Neill's group, Neil approached St. Petersburg College's Center for Public Safety Innovation, and the course began to move from concept to reality.
Neil gives much of the credit for the course to former U-2 pilot Jerry Lavely, who in addition to being an Air Force lieutenant colonel also held a master's degree in strategic intelligence.
"He did the bulk of the research," Neil said. He also credits New York City police Detective Rich Miller for helping build the course.
The 16-hour course, developed with the help of an $800,000 Department of Justice grant, offers case studies, teaches what post-traumatic stress disorder is and how to recognize and respond to it. It also teaches how to establish a rapport with veterans.
A video re-enactment shown in class gives both sides of a confrontation. The scenario allows instructors — experienced law enforcement officers and retired military personnel — to illustrate what to do and, just as importantly, what not to do.
The course also teaches tactics such as looking for military bumper stickers or flags flying in a yard, Neil said.
Educating law enforcement officers about the effects of PTSD is important, said Carrie Elk, a University of South Florida PTSD researcher.
"The veteran may be dealing with material from their traumatic event, coloring their perceptions and responses," said Elk, who also serves as a PTSD expert at Socom's Joint Special Operations University and treats troops. "Knowing that, law enforcement officers will be in a better position to provide a safe outcome for all parties."
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee agrees.
"Anything that would assist with the education of a law enforcement officer, especially with the population of military personnel that have been in combat, is a good thing," says Gee. "This is an issue that is out there and we need to deal with it."