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Philly cops are used to tragedy. But 6 kids shot in a month can crack their 'emotional shell'

Oona Goodin-Smith and Anna Orso, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- He was an unintended target, but a target nonetheless.

The 10-year-old boy, shot in the head, dropped to the ground on his walk home from school Wednesday, still wearing his backpack as bystanders rushed to staunch the blood flowing from his neck and onto his school uniform.

Police in an SUV scooped Semaj O'Branty up, racing the boy to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, where officials say he is in stable condition.

It was the sixth time in 23 days that Philadelphia officers tended to a young child who had been shot. Before Semaj was gunned down, there was 7-year-old Leslie, shot and killed alongside his family in West Philadelphia. Before that, 2-year-old Nikolette was fatally shot in her mother's arms inside her Kensington living room. Before that, bullets struck 11-month-old Yazeem four times while he sat in a car with his father. Before that, Damaya and Maxilla, a baby and a toddler, were allegedly shot to death by their mother in the Northeast.

"Kids rarely get shot like this," said Capt. John Walker, whose 15th District included the 10-year-old shot this week. "In 30 years of my career, I haven't seen it like this before."

Philadelphia police and other first responders are used to seeing things the rest of us can avoid. But it can be harder for first responders to emotionally detach themselves when kids are involved. And for cops, long expected to remain steeled in the face of tragedy, it's another step entirely to ask for help.


So, as Philadelphia's homicide rate climbs and the violence has reached the city's youngest residents over the last three weeks, police leadership has encouraged first responders to take advantage of what they say is some of the nation's strongest infrastructure for supporting officer mental health.

While the stigma of self-care and mental-health treatment has improved in society writ large, the trend is just beginning to reach first responders with a calloused "police attitude," said Capt. John Moroney, who oversees the department's Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which supports officer mental-health initiatives.

"You put that wall up that nothing bothers you," he said. "But it's the human part of you that feels it."

And these days, he said, "I think they're realizing more and more that they're human."


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