How I Learned to Process Trauma in My Policing Career
Start a criminal justice degree at American Military University.
By Wendy Hummell, contributor, In Public Safety
I recently retired after 20 years with the Wichita Police Department (Kansas). I spent 14 years in Persons Crimes, constantly on call, working murders, gang and sex crimes, and domestic violence cases. I was living my childhood dream of being a detective. I loved my job. I sought out every opportunity I could to get more training and enhance my skills and knowledge to make sure I was the best officer I could be. But now that I’m retired and able to reflect on my career, I realize just how utterly unprepared I was to deal with the trauma and intense stress that would accompany a career in law enforcement.
There are some cases that will never leave you and, if you’re not properly trained to cope with the after-effects, can cause long-term emotional and mental damage. For me, it was a case I was assigned more than 17 years ago, soon after my promotion to detective.
An Early Experience with Trauma
I learned that the victim in this case had come home to find her estranged boyfriend near her home and, while she was driving, he threw a large rock through her driver’s side window. The glass shattered, leaving her with cuts and abrasions and damage to her car. The officer who took the report issued a felony pick-up for aggravated assault and criminal damage to property. Since there was probable cause, officers attempted to arrest him right away, but could not locate him that day.
After reading the reports, I called the victim, just like I was taught, and reviewed her story with her to make sure I had all the facts. We spoke for approximately 10 to 15 minutes and at the end of the conversation, I asked her if she felt safe, just like I was taught. She hesitated before she answered, then said “yes.” Something in her voice told me it wasn’t true, so I asked again. Again, she said she was fine. I told her about some of the victim advocate services we could provide, but she insisted she felt safe. She lived at her residence with several of her children.
I left several phone messages for the suspect. He hadn’t been at his residence and was MIA at work. He was a parolee now on the run for this case. He eventually actually called me back. He said he didn’t want to turn himself in because didn’t want to go back to prison. I convinced him to make an appointment to tell his side of the story, just like I was taught. He never showed.
The next day, the victim was murdered by her boyfriend. He executed her on her front yard in the middle of the day while her family was home. A pretty open and shut case as far as homicides go.
Struggling with the Trauma
When I found out what had happened, I felt physically ill. I thought I was going to puke. Nothing had prepared me for this. I had done everything right, I thought. But I couldn’t help but feel responsible. Because of me, a mother was taken from her children. Because of me, a woman’s life was cut short. Because of me.
The next few days were a blur. I went to the crime scene and did my job, just like I was taught. What I didn’t account for was how sick I felt. My stomach was in knots. I was an emotional mess, but I couldn’t cry. Cops don’t cry, especially not when you’re a woman. Crying is a sign of weakness and this is just part of the job we do. No one said this to me, but it’s the unwritten rule when you sign up. Only one person out of many noticed my disposition was different than usual and asked if I was okay. I started to tear up, excused myself, and went to the bathroom to get my shit together. “You got this, Wendy,” I said to myself.
I think I scared the poor guy who asked how I was doing and he never said another word about it. No one else asked, no one else checked in. No one thought to. Thankfully, I have a supportive husband and was able to lean on him quite a bit. He was, and still is, my saving grace. Time went by and I never spoke about the case at work other than when I went to court to testify.
Finding Healthy Ways to Process Trauma
I was not prepared for the gut-wrenching feeling from a career that involves so much death, unspeakable violence, and the trauma of others. This case led me to stuff emotions way down deep; that’s why I felt sick when I worked certain cases that followed it, but then the feeling passed, and I kept working.
However, this was also why, over time, I developed some health issues. I have had trouble sleeping, and even had a panic attack on my way home from work. I suddenly couldn’t breathe while on the phone with my husband. We were discussing daycare for our new baby, who had been born very prematurely. I had just worked a case where an 18-month old was murdered by her stepmother. Another time I went to the emergency room because I thought I was having a stroke. I was shaky, my face felt numb, and I felt relentlessly anxious. After several hours in the ER, I learned I was fine. Probably stress, they told me. Ya think?
Over the years I learned ways to help manage my stress. Yoga and meditation have worked wonders for my mental and physical health. Fortunately, I also have a spouse I can talk to about it. But I had to figure this all out on my own. I never received professional training or even acknowledgement from my department or supervisors about the trauma and extreme stress I would experience as an officer. No one talked much about mental health and, as a result, so many officers suffered and continue to suffer in silence.
Now, however, things are changing. Many officers including myself are sharing their experiences and starting conversations about the importance of mindfulness and resiliency in order to combat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I designed the following infographic to illustrate the diverse ways officers can work towards improving their overall health and wellness.
Across the country, agencies and leaders are finally acknowledging the mental health crisis in law enforcement and offering mental health training and resources. This is essential to ensure the next generation of officers are more equipped to deal with the stress and trauma they will inevitably face during their career.
About the Author: Wendy Hummell is a retired Detective from the Wichita (KS) Police Department. She spent a majority of her career working Persons Crimes Investigations, homicide, gang, and sex-crimes cases. She was also a member of her department’s CISM (Critical incident Stress Management) team. She holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice. She is a 200-hour level registered yoga teacher and a Yoga for First Responders (YFFR) ambassador. She teaches YFFR classes to officers and restorative yoga at a local studio in Wichita. She is also an agency trainer for “Building Resiliency: Surviving Secondary Trauma”. Wendy is currently the Substance Abuse Coordinator for the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office.