It has become a common story: Military veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder find themselves involved in shootouts or other violent confrontations with police or community members.
While it was the news headlines that first drew retired Olympia police sergeant and current Tenino Police Chief John Hutchings’ attention to the issue, it was when his own son returned from combat with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD that the problem became personal.
Hutchings’ son, Army Sgt. Michael Hutchings, returned from Iraq in 2011, and when John Hutchings saw how his son sometimes struggled to deal with everyday situations, including interactions with the police, Hutchings realized just how crucial law enforcement training could be in de-escalating a situation that had the potential to turn violent.
“Police officers are alpha dogs trained to take control,” Hutchings said. “As are military.”
If a veteran suffers from some type of mental injury, he or she can go from being relaxed to a rage in an instant, escalating a minor conflict – such as a simple traffic stop – to a fight for life, he said.
“We don’t want to get into a confrontation with a soldier and not realize what we are dealing with,” Hutchings said. “Because it can turn ugly really fast.”
Hutchings – along with his son, Seattle police officer Dan Nelson and Sherwin Cotler, a psychologist in Olympia – recently hosted the first Surviving Peace training seminar in Olympia, addressing 28 police, probation and corrections officers. While the attendees were from multiple agencies throughout the region, most were from Thurston County. The course, an eight-hour seminar, was funded by Behavior Health Resources.
“I believe there is a tremendous need for this,” Hutchings said.
“As soon as a soldier feels threatened, they will kick into fight mode,” he said. “You don’t want to put two gladiators in the same ring.”
If handled properly, most situations involving a veteran suffering from PTSD can be de-escalated, but because many suffer from mental injuries, the burden falls on the police officer, Hutchings said. If the police officer is trained to recognize that the individual is suffering from PTSD, that information can be helpful when interacting with him or her.
For people with brain injuries, sensory overload – which could be caused by flashing police car lights and sirens – can trigger a violent flashback and confuse the person.
“The bottom line is when we come into contact with anyone in the public, we have to do a quick assessment,” Hutchings said. “If we are blind going in, it is to our disadvantage.”
Hutchings said the key for officers is to slow down, assess who they are dealing with, then engage with certain communication tactics.