Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 17

As cops with 70 years of service between them, Pete and Don know who they are. They can joke about needing to sit in the last row at the conference, with their backs to the wall, as they check out the other participants. They can express how hard it is to trust anyone who isn’t a cop.

I met Pete and Don at a conference on treating survivors after a sudden, violent death. The conference site was a Christian retreat center in Memphis.

Pete and Don know who they are in another way, a profound way. They know that repeated exposure in their careers to traumas of violence and death has been very damaging to them and to their fellow officers. They know that some of the values of their officer community, including stoic silence, have contributed to the hurt. Pete and Don want to help their brother and sister cops, and they know that as members of the police subculture they are in the best position to do that.

And another thing that Pete and Don know, and share, is that their own inability to process trauma brought them to terrible low points in their lives. To give me context, they talked about the fact that every 55 hours one cop is killed and three commit suicide. They talked about the fact that officer suicide rates are comparable to those of Marines. They said that police have twice the national average of divorce. They said that police officers suffer diseases of adaptation, such as diabetes, digestive illnesses, and skin disorders. They said that 30% of cops have diagnosable PTSD.

Pete and Don say that the need to contain feelings leaves cops frustrated and angry – an anger that masks sorrow, guilt, and vulnerability. Cops can become cold, “a talking uniform,” or hyper-vigilant. Naturally, there is a price that officers’ families pay. Pete tells a story of an officer’s wife who was overheard telling her son, “Now don’t make any sudden moves or loud noises when your father gets home.”

As survivors of this emotional pain, Pete and Don describe themselves as being among “the fortunate few.” And Pete says, “I fell in the sewer and came out a plumber.”

Pete told me the story of a cop who was called to the SIDS death of an infant – an infant that was the same age as the officer's own child. The officer tried unsuccessfully to revive the baby and later accompanied the ambulance with the body to the hospital. Then, immediately afterward, the officer had to contain his grief to deal with a false alarm and an irate homeowner.

Don, who was a federal marshal, could talk about responding to the shooting at Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and September 11. About Oklahoma City he says, “It damn near destroyed me.”

Pete and Don are cops with 70 years of service between them. They have learned to value emotions, including tears, to deal with traumatic death. They have the exceptional goal to share this knowledge with their brother and sister officers.

Peter Cove, formerly of South Boston, is training director at Tennessee Public Safety Network, which supports officers after a critical incident. Donald Benson is Assistant Chief of Internal Affairs and Training in the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in Maryville, Tennessee.