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Inside Criminal Justice

special report

When the Nightmares Don’t End

March 24, 2014 06:53:51 am

By Graham Kates

Photo by gfairchild, via Flickr

It happened so quickly that Ontario Constable Frank Kruger barely had time to think. An escaped Canadian convict named James William McGrath raised a sawed-off shotgun and aimed it at Kruger's rookie partner.

Kruger fired, killing McGrath.

His quick reaction that day in June, 1977 saved his partner’s life. But it also changed his own.

Almost 40 years later, the incident still haunts the former Ontario Provincial Police officer.

“I’m not proud of having to take a life,” he told The Crime Report. ”I was devastated.”

It wasn’t the only moment of pure anguish he experienced over the next 22 years in law enforcement. He discovered a murdered colleague; recovered the bodies of a boy and his father from a lake — having died on a trip Kruger’s own son was supposed to attend — and was run over by a peeping Tom he was pursuing.

The trail of trauma inevitably took a toll. After Kruger retired in 1999 he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

He endures nightmares, anxiety and hypervigilance. To this day, he says, he struggles to sit “any place where anybody is able to be behind me.”

And the struggle to obtain workers compensation for his suffering has compounded the problems. Since his retirement, Kruger routinely applied to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which oversees worker issues for all employees of the Ontario provincial government in Canada---and has routinely been turned down.

“They completely scuttled any assistance financially for me,” Kruger said.

It’s a grievance echoed by police throughout North America.

Legal Obstacles

Mazes of restrictions, typically embedded in state and provincial laws, often prevent officers from receiving workers compensation for PTSD.

The U.S. federal government has a robust mental health program, geared toward military personnel and State Department employees. But in most states, civil employees who are regularly exposed to violence can only claim PTSD if they have an accompanying physical injury.

It’s an issue that local police associations as far afield as Memphis, TN, Mesa, AZ and Newtown, CT have begun to take on.

In Connecticut — where more than 100 officers responded to the December 2012 elementary school massacre that left 26 students and teachers dead, as well as the shooter — union advocacy for a state bill to expand coverage has been particularly intense.

Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police, took his case to the state senate’s Labor and Public Employees Committee.

“Some first responders that suffer from PTSD may have nightmares or may even repeatedly relive the event in their mind,” Matthews testified last year.

“The results of these experiences are directly linked to the performance of our duties and any injury, either physical or mental, should be protected by state statute.”

The state’s legislature has yet to vote on the bill.

Nevertheless, lawsuits and legislation currently winding their way through courts and statehouses may force changes in several states.

On October 21, 2009, Spartanburg County, SC Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Bentley discharged his government-issued handgun once, shooting and killing a man who was charging at him.

Soon after the incident, a psychiatrist and psychologist treating Bentley determined that his anxiety and depression would likely prevent him from ever rejoining the force, according to court documents.

“This really wrecked his life for a while,” said Bentley’s lawyer, Jeremy Dantin, during a recent interview. “He was a lifelong resident of Clinton, SC. He had to move … he got divorced.”

Bentley went on disability retirement, but was denied workers compensation. A state commission found that Bentley’s injury was “not an unusual or extraordinary condition,” because he had been trained in the use of deadly force and knew that he might someday have to use it.

An appellate court and the state Supreme Court both upheld the decision, the latter noting in its opinion that “the use of deadly force is within the normal scope and duties of a Spartanburg County deputy sheriff.”

Dantin disagrees. Relatively few officers ever fire their weapons in the course of duty, he points out.

“I told the court, point blank, if you don’t agree with me that taking a person’s life is extraordinary, than I lose,” Dantin recounted.

The South Carolina House of Representatives agrees with Dantin.

On January 15, it voted 69-45 to approve legislation — proposed because of the Bentley shooting — that would expand workers compensation for police PTSD.

Opposition from Business

But the bill’s passage in the state’s Senate is not assured. All but one of the votes against it in the House came from Republican lawmakers who side with business associations in opposing the measure, and the Senate is divided along similar political lines.

Opponents worry that allowing coverage for mental injuries that are not associated with physical injuries will open up a floodgate of expensive, frivolous or even fraudulent claims.

“(If) we get saddled with this, the only ones who’ll benefit will be the lawyers,” said South Carolina State Rep. Ralph Norman before voting against the bill, according to the South Carolina Radio Network.

Even if passed, the law’s benefits won’t be retroactive, meaning Bentley is unlikely to ever receive workers compensation.

As states begin to acknowledge the prevalence of PTSD, officers whose suffering traces back several years or more often have difficulty getting coverage.

In Minnesota, the state’s Supreme Court ruled on March 5 that an officer who developed PTSD in 2005 couldn’t receive benefits because he did not also suffer a physical injury.

While working as a police officer in Hutchinson, MN, Scott Schuette responded to an accident at a local high school. A 12-year-old girl whom Schuette knew personally had fallen out of a pickup truck.

“The injuries from the accident Schuette responded to were horrific,” Justice David Lillehaug wrote in his opinion.

“While Schuette was administering CPR, the girl’s father put pressure on her ear to stop her spinal fluid from leaking. Schuette later noticed some of the girl’s brain matter on his uniform. The girl died from her injuries.”

Since the accident, Schuette has struggled with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares and other symptoms, attorney Mark Rodgers told The Crime Report.

Evidence of Physical Injury

In Minnesota, officers who suffered mental injuries without a physical counterpart before October 1, 2013 are not entitled to compensation under state law. To be covered, an officer has to have also suffered a physical injury.

Although a neurologist testified that MRI scans reveal physical changes in Schuette’s brain, caused by PTSD, the court ruled that his symptoms didn’t meet the standard for physical harm.

“We’re going to re-file his claim on a different theory of injury, that it culminated when he suffered back and shoulder injuries falling out of bed during a nightmare,” Rodgers said.

Court records show at least one doctor attributes the fall to PTSD.

Roadblocks and debates about what constitutes “physical” and “mental” injury often hamper first-responder access to treatment, said Michele Galietta, co-director of the forensic psychology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, during a recent interview.

“To me, there’s a little bit of bias against mental disability.” Galietta said. “People are wary, because whenever there’s not hard physical evidence, there are fears that it could be fraud.”

In New York City, dozens of police officers and firefighters were arrested in January and February on charges they fraudulently claimed to have suffered PTSD after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Despite that high-profile sting, Galietta said fraud is not any easier to pull off for mental injuries than it is for physical ones.

But she warned that the drive to root out false claims may intimidate those already afraid to admit they’re struggling.

To Kruger — whose efforts helped convince Ontario Police to host a monthly lecture on mental illness — that’s an unacceptable consequence.

“Many officers are terrified to reveal they suffer from PTSD,” Kruger said.

“They teach you all this stuff, but they don’t teach you how to act once you pull the trigger.”

Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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