LITTLETON, Colo. (AP) – The first SWAT team members to see the horror in the Columbine High School library had to step around bodies and ignore a wounded student’s plea for help as they searched for shooters they didn’t know had already died by their own hands.
As member Grant Whitus put it, officers carried something home with them that day, a level of trauma and a sense of futility that stayed with them for years and may have contributed to the team’s demise.
“It was just beyond anything I’d ever thought I’d see in my career,” he said of the rampage that killed 12 students and a teacher and was the nation’s worst school shooting at the time. “So many children were dead.”
Amid the emotional toll of the experience, the Jefferson County Regional SWAT team began to fall apart. By 2002, only three members of the 10-person team remained. The others were reassigned or left the department.
On the 20th anniversary of Columbine, the effects of trauma experienced by law enforcement authorities who respond to school shootings are still largely unknown. Experts say agencies are reluctant to let researchers interview officers and dredge up potentially painful memories.
Many officers also view seeking psychiatric help as a sign of weakness and see their own mental health care as secondary when civilians experience grave loss.
“That’s what they signed up for, right? To deal with this violence and see these violent outcomes,” said labor attorney Eric Brown, who handles cases for Newtown, Connecticut, police officers. “So there’s not a lot of empathy for them when they show the signs of PTSD or other mentally disabling side effects.”
But attitudes are changing.
A group of global law enforcement administrators recently started work on uniform guidelines for psychological care for officers who respond to the worst carnage. And state legislatures are taking note, with four states, including Colorado, recently passing laws to extend workers’ compensation for mental health to police officers and other first responders.