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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

"Imagine a day where you experience a mother that lost her baby, and you're working a pediatric cardiac arrest, you take that person to the hospital," she said, "and you go back into service and your next call is a shooting victim. The accumulation of what you experience in one day -- imagine what you can experience after years of doing that day, after day, after day."

Callaghan said officers are able to play the role of protector in the moment -- say, comforting a mother whose child was just shot or driving a bleeding preteen to the hospital -- but eventually, "it's going to catch up."

"We're told from the moment we're in the police academy that we fix people's problems," Callaghan said. "Nobody told us that we would have them, too."

It's the feelings, the experiences of grief, of not wanting to talk about it, of crying uncontrollably, of feeling irritable or forgetful, the flashbacks and nightmares that the Philadelphia Police Department's EAP tries to prepare its officers to experience before it happens, Brooks said.

Then, when cops are having trouble or a situation rises to a particularly jarring level -- such as last month's quadruple shooting in West Philadelphia that claimed the lives of two children -- the EAP deploys its team, which includes a sergeant, a corporal, and four officers. At the crime scene, the counselor informs officers of trauma-related stress that may ensue, without breaking open their emotional shell while there's still police work to do, Brooks said.

Later, when it's safe for an officer to fully process the mental toll of the scene, the EAP unit debriefs supervisors and officers to talk through what happened, and offer the cops additional outside counseling with Penn, Brooks explained.

Developing an "emotional shell" is a functional part of coping with life as a police officer, said Vincent Henry, a 21-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, and author of Death Work: Police, Trauma and the Psychology of Survival.

But while deadening emotion may work to an officer's advantage on the job, it's hard to keep that shell from forming over other parts of the cop's life, walling them off from family or friends.


Cops and EMS workers have a tendency to not want to talk to loved ones about what they've experienced or what they see in homes, whether because they don't want to think about it themselves or they want to shield those close to them from the trauma, said Ed McCann, an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County who handles child abuse cases and a former Philadelphia homicide prosecutor.

But it's the strong relationships outside the workplace that are critical, "even if you don't talk about work," McCann said, adding that having a sense of normalcy "can really take you through the roughest times."

Over the last 23 days, those roughest times included six children shot. Working on their behalf, McCann said, is what ultimately gets officers through the day.

"You really feel," he said, "like you're advocating for the most vulnerable people."

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