Dealing with a Line of Duty Death – A Police Officer’s Perspective
The following interview took place on Oct 26th, 2014 between Maryanne Pope (Cst John Petropoulos’ widow and author of the Crossing the Line blog series in Grieving Behind the Badge) and Rick Gardner, who was John’s Sergeant and close friend at the time of his death.
Maryanne: What impacts – emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical – did John’s death have on you personally?
Rick: Emotionally, John’s death hit me really hard. When John went into that building, I was there. I was the supervisor and John ended up getting injured on my watch. John wasn’t just a colleague, he was a good friend. I had golfed with him 7 or 8 times that year. I had renovated his bathroom. We had a professional and personal relationship – and I had got to know John better than many.
Psychologically, I was responsible for John before his death. After his death, I was responsible for his family, you and his team mates. Sometimes I get flashbacks of things that I didn’t remember then but do remember now. I just get glimpses now and then of things that happened that night – not all at once…they just come in small bits.
From a spiritual perspective, I asked why John died. What was the purpose? You look for answers that you don’t get. Your faith tests you. I didn’t get any answers. As a friend and a supervisor and a policeman, I was angry and bewildered. I went through all sorts of phases.
Physically, as you know, I passed out on your front porch the day after John’s death. I couldn’t sleep well for a long time. It took a long, long time to be able to sleep well again. I went to a naturopath and that helped get me straightened out.
John’s death affected me on all four levels. John wasn’t only one of my guys. I wasn’t just his supervisor. He was also a good friend.
Maryanne: As you know, Darren Leggatt, the K-9 officer who went into the building with John, started CPR on him when he found him in the lunchroom. Did you also perform CPR on John? Did any other team-mates on the scene?
Rick: No. I did not perform CPR on John. I remember 2 or 3 officers around me. I remember calling for EMS and then calling for an escort to get him to the hospital. There wasn’t enough room to do anything else for John. And the paramedics were there so fast. I don’t even remember Darren doing CPR. I remember Darren being very emotional – but I don’t remember seeing him doing CPR.
And I don’t remember other police officers doing CPR. That part of it – the scene – is a blur. I remember finding John with 2 or 3 other officers. I knew John was in good hands. I remember basically kicking myself into getting things moving. I knew we had to get the paramedics on scene as quick as possible. I knew I had to advise people on what to do. And I knew we had to get John to a hospital as fast as possible.
Maryanne: Are you okay with me asking you these questions?
Rick: Yes. I have thought a lot about John’s death over the past 14 years. But when you ask me these specific questions, I find I’m going right back into the memory bank that has protected me all these years.
Maryanne: After John’s death, members of his team told me how professional you were on scene: that you were an excellent leader. Why do you think they would say that? What did you do – or didn’t do – that would cause them to make this observation?
Rick: I don’t know. I think I kicked into the fact that there were things that had to be done. I just kicked into that supervisory role. The other officers in the building were Lil, Joel and Darren and we could all hear John trying to breathe but we couldn’t find the lights. It was a deep, deep type of breathing…I can’t explain it. I remember being on the radio and telling the dispatch what had happened and that we needed EMS. Then I called our Inspector.
I don’t know why they said I was a good leader. But in a crisis, business has to get done. People have to know what has happened and where we go from there.
My emotions didn’t kick in until I got in the van. I don’t remember going to pick up the Inspector. But the Inspector made me stop the van and he took over driving because he realized I wasn’t in any shape to. I remember my emotions really kicking in at that point.
I have dealt with John’s death but I don’t think I’m in the same place as you, since you have lived it over and over again through your writing, public speaking and the JPMF. And to be honest, being interviewed with questions like we’re doing here is VERY different from telling John’s death as a story.
For example, with your CPR questions, my memory goes right back to that point in time. I don’t think I have PTSD. When I think about John, it’s not sad for me. When I remember John, they are good memories – and far outweigh the fateful day John died. But your questions are directing me right back to the scene of John’s death.
Maryanne: Did you change how you approached your job as a police officer?
Rick: I always cared about my officers – that’s why I wanted the photo of the team taken at Chinook mall. But after John’s death, I thought more about the human side of policing – and how to be a better supervisor. John’s death taught me that things can happen on the job – and that they can happen quickly.
Maryanne: What impacts did John’s death have on you professionally?
Rick: I think I have changed professionally because I fully understand the impacts of a line of duty death. Before John’s death, I knew it could happen – and had happened to a partner of mine earlier in my career. But John’s death made me realize, again, that it does happen and the impacts are horrible, so if I can play some sort of role in helping ensure it doesn’t happen to someone else, then I have a responsibility to do so.
For example, when I retired from the police service and went to my new job as a supervisor with the Sheriff’s, I was responsible for the training. When the highway patrol started, the communication system was okay but not stellar. So I had it changed so that if an officer was on the road, a back-up could be there within 5 minutes. Officer safety was paramount. I think John’s death made me a more careful and caring supervisor and manager, knowing first hand what can happen.
Maryanne: Further to that comment, did you change how you approached your job as a Sergeant/leader of a team?
Rick: Yes. I formed relationships even more than I did before. I think it is really important to know how the people who work for you, and with you, tick. The people that were there the night John died – we have a bond that is probably difficult for most people to understand. Even so, it still strikes me as odd that John is gone.
Maryanne: Can you explain a bit about the process of leading your team through the aftermath of John’s death?
Rick: That was a tough thing because there was no bad guy. So you couldn’t really direct your anger or other feelings towards someone. But the job of policing still had to get done, so the team had to pull together to get it done. People were hurting but they had to get over the fact that something bad had happened and they needed to move forward. If they didn’t hit the road with their A-game then worse things could happen. So they had to get it together. I suggested that if anyone wanted to see the psychologist, they should. I did – and told them that I did, hoping that I would be an example to the team.
I remember us talking for long periods of time at Parade. It was important to let people vent and talk about John and what had happened. But at the same time, they had to be focused on their job. They had a job to do and it is an extremely important job because the next call could be life or death.
The team really became close after John’s death – more like a family. I had lots of one-on-one sessions with people, usually over coffee. I tried to lead by example. I think a good leader knows his people inside and out. I knew my people inside and out and I really think that went a long way to form how I supervised and how I did things.
Maryanne: Did you have a formal debriefing session after John’s death?
Rick: That was left up to me and my team. It wasn’t anything formal. We talked a lot.
Maryanne: Did the police psychologist attend?
Rick: No – nor the Chief. We had the choice for either or both of them to. But it was up to me and the team. My Inspector was involved quite a bit and he was really good. He would ask me what I needed and he would make it happen.
Maryanne: As you know, shortly after John’s death, I was at your team’s Parade prior to a shift starting and I observed how you encouraged each team member to speak about John. Do you think this was helpful for the officers?
Rick: Yes, I do. I did then and I still do. I think the more you talk about something, the better – at least up until a certain point. It doesn’t do any good to keep things bottled up in your heart. You have to let it out/communicate it. It’s not easy – especially for cops – to talk about their feelings. It’s not easy but I think it is very important.
Maryanne: In the days following John’s death, did you find his team mates were comfortable speaking about John and/or his death – or not?
Rick: It wasn’t easy getting anything out of them. I had a lot of coffees/one on ones – and that helped. Some guys didn’t want to talk about it, especially at first, and some did. But even if someone didn’t talk about it, they did still wish to listen to it. I don’t know if some of them dealt with it as well as others did. But come to think of it, I don’t remember there being anybody who said they don’t want to talk about it. They may have been hesitant at first but eventually it got dragged out of them.
Maryanne: In your opinion/experience, what worked in terms of helping officers get through the line of duty death of a colleague?
Rick: The one-on-one coffees – the informal chats – were vital. As soon as you throw someone into a structured formal environment (even if it’s just the officer and a psychologist), or team meeting or debriefing, many people may not be forthcoming with their feelings. For a long time afterwards, I met with all the officers and made sure they were okay. The informal meetings were probably the best thing. The more formal ones weren’t as helpful.
On a personal note, hanging out with you and going for coffees really helped me because we talked about a ton of stuff.
I think it is vital to have those one-on-one, two-on-one, three-on-one conversations. The structured meetings aren’t a bad thing but I do think most people get more out of the informal ones. But everybody is different, I guess.
Maryanne: What didn’t work?
Rick: To be honest, the time we invited you to come to Parade and gave you the framed picture of District 6’s logo – with the wolf on it. We thought we were helping you. But when I read that part in your book and how upset you were that day, I realized it may have helped the team more than you. I felt like I’d let you down by putting you in that position. We were trying to show you how much we cared about you and John. But I got the feeling that giving you that wolf plaque was something you could have probably done without.
Maryanne: But that’s not how I felt at all. I loved the wolf plaque. As you know, wolves were very significant to both John and I. What upset me about coming to Parade that day was when the Detective showed us all the video of a laughing, breathing very-much-alive John. I know he didn’t intend to hurt me – but the reality was that I’d buried my 32-year-old husband the day before, so seeing him on a TV screen alive and well and goofing around was a bit hard to take.
Rick: I get that.
Maryanne: It was very important to me that I went to Parade that day because I felt I had been invited into John’s world – the world that he died for. I felt…included.
Rick: Good. Our intention was to invite you into our police family. In my view, Parade is an intimate and important time – especially after the death of a colleague. When we all went around the table, sharing stories about John, it was like the family dinner table at Thanksgiving. Everybody says something – just like a family.
But I do think the way police officers heal and the way other people deal with things is very different. When a police officer dies, it is a huge deal for the police because it is one of them. I guess what I’m saying is that when a police officer dies, we deal with it a certain way. And it is different than the average person…I can’t quite explain how. It’s just different.
For example, when we go to a fatal, we don’t get emotional because we have a job to do.
But when it’s one of our own, it hits really deep – to the core…it’s like your brother. But police officers won’t be emotional for long. So a police officer is going to deal with the death of another police officer in a completely different way than someone who hasn’t dealt with death on an everyday basis.
A couple of years after John died, I dealt with a fatal and I had to do the next of kin notification. The father of the victim was an ex-RCMP and he apologized to me that I had to deliver the news. I gave him my cell number and then the sister called me at 2:30 a.m. to find out how her brother died. The family communicated with me a few more times and then that was it. Fast forward 5 years and I was in a small town with some of my Sheriff’s and this man came up to say hello. He was the ex-RCMP officer and just wanted to thank me for all my help after his son died. Then his wife comes up and gives me a hug.
As a police officer, you have NO idea of the impact you have on others – but there is often a very strong connection within the police community.
Maryanne: Is there anything you would have done differently after John’s death?
Rick: Well, as far as dealing with you goes, I don’t think I would have done much different. I tried to be there emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually for you. I wanted to help as much as I could.
As far as the team goes, I don’t know that I would do much different there either. You can’t have a cookie cutter reaction to an officer’s death because every situation is different and every officer is different. The reaction has to come from the heart and you have to know your people. Some people you give space to and some you don’t. As a supervisor, you have to know your people very well. I think it is really important for your officers to know that you, or the Chief or a psychologist or a Chaplain, are there for them if they need you.
In my supervisory role with the Sheriff’s, now I have to know my managers – other people’s supervisors – well, versus the individual Sheriff’s.
Maryanne: In 1992, you were partnered with Cst Rob Vanderwiel. Rob died in the line of duty on a night you had been working with him – but had left early. How did you deal with Rob’s death?
Rick: I think that was a difficult process. During the shift that Rob died, I had left about 4 or 5 hours early and Rob had gone to do radar. He was shot. I remember all of us being back at the office as a team and the Chief and psychologist had come in but we told them to leave. I don’t remember people saying much that first night but afterwards they did start to talk.
Maybe it was learning from our Sergeant, Max, where I formed some of my skills as a team-leader. In some ways, dealing with Rob’s death helped me deal with John’s death. But it was more of a personal thing than a team thing. You form bonds with people that often last a lifetime.
Rob was shot by a bad guy, so the team had anger and they were able to direct that towards someone. In the case of John’s death, you and some of John’s recruit classmates spearheaded the workplace safety campaign and I think that helped direct some of the anger towards the circumstances that led to John’s death…questions we all had, such as: “Why did you have that unsafe work environment? Why would you allow such a dangerous situation (no safety railing to warn the unsafe surface/false ceiling), knowing that someone/somewhere would be up there?”
Maryanne: So your experience with Rob’s death did help you cope with John’s death 8 years later?
Rick: Yes – definitely…but without me knowing it at the time. They were two completely different situations. Rob’s death didn’t even enter my head when John died. But I did think back to what Max, our Sergeant, had done – and I knew I had a responsibility. I knew I had to get these guys, who were a bit lost, focused and back on track. And that gave me direction on a day to day basis. If you are hurting and there is no clear direction, you just seem to float around. You have to just get back in the saddle and get things done…get back at it. As for me, it was when I was finally alone, after all the hullabaloo – that was the hardest part.
Maryanne: In January 2013, you gave a powerful presentation about John and Rob’s death at a PTSD seminar (along with Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire) in Edmonton that was sponsored by the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. Unfortunately, just prior to you delivering your presentation, you heard word that your Mom had passed away. How did that impact your presentation?
Rick: That was something. I went to Edmonton knowing that my Mom wasn’t doing very well. Her death wasn’t a surprise – but it was still my Mom. And it felt like she was there with me at the podium. My brother phoned me, about an hour or so before I was scheduled to speak, and I remember thinking, “Should I do this?” But then I realized: I can’t not do this. So when I stood at the podium, I told everyone what had happened.
And the weird thing is – I think my Mom’s death helped me. I was very clear and able to communicate my thoughts. I knew my Mom was there somehow.
Maryanne: Why do you think it is important to speak publicly, such as at the PTSD seminar or being interviewed for this blog, about the personal impacts of a line of duty death on a colleague?
Rick: Because, for example, at the end of my PTSD talk in Edmonton, I had officers from military, fire, EMS and police come up and say to me: “What you described up there, that’s exactly what I do…that’s how I deal with it. I have a vault in my head and I can open when it is safe for the memories to come out.”
I manage my memories. I haven’t thought about Rob’s death for a long time or going to suicides or fatalities, unless the vault opens. I think this is important because people need to know how to manage their memories. You’re allowed to have memories and feel bad. But when the memories come into play and cause PTSD is when they are uncontrolled and come out whenever. I am able to manage my memories – and some people in the audience that day heard what I had to say…because they do the same thing. I guess I was able to explain what others said they also experienced. So even if I connected with a few people out of 400 that day, it was still worth it.
But I don’t know HOW I manage my memories. So I certainly don’t know how to teach someone else to do that. I’ve just always automatically done it. And I guess I’m not alone because there were other people that heard my presentation that came up afterwards and told me that’s exactly what they do too.
But the thing is: this vault of memories is only opened when it’s safe to open. Tomorrow, I won’t think about Rob or John – unless I choose to.
I have a friend who has trouble with PTSD and it is basically trouble with managing memories.
You made an interesting comment earlier about how many cops are negative. I believe that if a person is positive, that goes a long way. If a person is negative, the impact of that negativity just builds. I am a positive person and I really try to focus on the positive. As Canadians in particular, we have so much.
Regarding PTSD, I really think a person has to be positive and focus on the good things. Cops see horrific scenes. After seeing tragedy on the job, I would go home and kiss my kids and it would wipe away all the bad.
I think a huge step to managing memories is to feel your head with positive things instead of negative shit.
Maryanne: During one of our many conversations over the years, I asked you how you were able to remain positive as a person when, as a police officer, you had seen so much sadness and injustice over the years. Your answer was that you were able to maintain a healthy perspective because in the big scheme of things, there are far more good people than bad in the world – as a police officer, you just happen to have to deal with the not-so-good ones on a daily basis. It sounds like you still have this perspective?
Rick: Absolutely. You just have to look for the good. I know cops and how easy it is to get stuck on the negative and focus on the bad people. But if you look around, we would be in so much trouble if 98% of the people weren’t decent. There is so much good out there…so much.
Maryanne: Would you say you have fully grieved John’s death?
Rick: Yes. I would say I have.
Maryanne: What did you learn from John’s death?
Rick: I learned the importance of human relationships. I also learned that life is fragile. We take for granted that we’re going to be around a long, long time. You have to do the best you can every day because you don’t necessarily know how long you’ll be around. I also learned that we should treat each other like we may not have another opportunity. And I learned to do the best you can with what you’ve got right now. I don’t always remember this but I try.
Maryanne: What did you learn from Rob’s death?
Rick: I was younger then but I learned similar things to John’s death. Rob was a good man but he was kind of quirky and got teased a bit, so I learned that maybe we all have things that are quirky and we can be teased about – so we shouldn’t be so critical of others. I still struggle with that because I feel a bit guilty.
Maryanne: Do you have any further insights you can offer to police officers who may be dealing with the on-duty death of a colleague – or any other situation that might be challenging them?
Rick: Yes. Talk to someone…anyone. Talk to your colleagues, your wife, your husband, your friend. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. I did. It’s not a weakness.
Maryanne is the Founder & CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. She is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the playwright of Saviour. To sign up to receive Maryanne’s e-zine, here is the link.