WALKING WOUNDED

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 6, 2005

St. John lieutenant has personal mission to help officers traumatized by stress of the job

By KEVIN CHIRI

Publisher

LAPLACE — A pat on the back.

Some simple words.

“It’s OK, you’ll get over it,” the police officer was told.

It didn’t seem like much after he worked the fatality accident where the little boy had died.

“I just keep remembering his little T-shirt with the blood on it,” the officer said. “It’s been giving me trouble sleeping.”

The scenario may sound startling, like something that few people should ever experience in their life. But for thousands of law enforcement officers each year, there are hundreds of scenarios that are so similar.

Maybe it’s a child dying in an accident, or maybe it is attending to a murder scene where a mother is screaming for her dead teen-age boy.

If you talk to St. John Sheriff’s Office Lt. Michael Hoover, the number of traumatic situations police officers handle day-after-day is mind boggling, and something that is much more difficult to process and deal with than most people think.

Hoover now heads up the Stress Management Training department for the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office, and it is something he came to do simply because of his own personal tragedies, and watching fellow officers around him struggle with similar situations.

“We teach officers how to shoot a gun, handle prisoners, deal with dangerous situations and we spend billions of dollars on equipment every year. But how much do we spend to make sure officers can handle the trauma they deal with every day?” Hoover asked. “Officers carry a lot of emotional baggage, but usually after very traumatic situations, we’re just told to get back to work and we’ll be fine.”

Hoover has a dramatic presentation he now makes before groups of officers, which brings home his point.

He displays a large poster board with a Superman logo on the front, indicative of who officers feel they have to be to the public. Then he asks what issues they deal with each day.

One after one, he slaps magnetic name tags on the logo҆Rape, Stabbing, Teen Suicide, Elderly Abuse, Fatality Accident, Burn Victim, Dead Baby, Domestic Violence, Homicide҆and finally in big letters OFFICER KILLED.

Then to make his final point, he puts a small band-aid in the middle of

his poster.

“I just try to make the point that this is the way we handle all these traumatic things officers have to face each and every day. We just put a band-aid over them and tell them to go on. But more officers than you could imagine just can’t deal with it,” he said.

Hoover’s Own Tragedy

It was a surprise to Hoover when he ended up in law enforcement. After graduating from St. Charles Catholic High School and attending LSU, he went into the landscape business in St. John Parish and figured that was his career. But when he suddenly was losing work and needed a full-time job, a friend with the Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t quit asking him to try his hand at police work.

“At first I said no, but he persisted, and when my hours got cut, I started at the age of 25,” he said.

The first attention getter personally was in 1992 as he and a fellow officer were pulling up to his home in Belle Pointe Subdivision, looking up to see a tornado coming right at his house.

“We ran in the house and all got in the bathroom. I remember seeing the walls bend out, then explode in. My car ended up in my living room, and somehow we all lived. There was a three-year-old girl in a house behind us, and an elderly man next door who died,” he said.

But the real tragedy that began to affect him occurred in 1994 when his son was stillborn.

“It made me re-direct my life and I became a Christian,” he said. “I remember sitting in the rocking chair and holding my son, and with tears in my eyes, knowing I had to make a choice about how I was going to live.”

But the biggest problem for Hoover was in the way his police work was beginning to affect him.

“I was working 10 hour shifts and all the problem people I was putting in jail, I was becoming just like them. I was getting angry at the guy who beat his wife, and angry because a child had died in a wreck,” he said. “But looking back on it now, I believe the Lord allowed me to face those trials so I could become who I am now.”

The week after he went back to work following his son’s death, Hoover dealt with a situation where a mother had killed her baby since he wouldn’t stop crying.

“I could see all around me how much negativity officers faced each day, but since I had become a Christian I was at least trying to help the people in those bad situations, rather than become mad at those who perpetrated the acts,” he said.

However he could see the trauma was taking its toll on his fellow officers. Everything came to a head when St. John Officer Barton Granier was killed, and Officer Craig Gommel was shot and severely wounded in 1996 during a local incident.

“When I got the call my wife and kids lay across my front door after I got dressed and didn’t want me to leave. But I swore I would buy a vest and always wear it from then on. I did the eulogy at the funeral and I remember his child screaming that she wanted her daddy back. Two good officers were either dead or injured and I was angry,” he said.

The department brought in outside stress management help from Baton Rouge to meet with the officers the next day, and Hoover found himself asking a lot of questions.

“By the end of the meeting, they asked me if I wanted to train to help in this area since I seemed so interested,” he recalled.

Becoming the Local Expert

From that point on, he has attended numerous classes and seminars, been certified as a Stress Management Instructor, and has taken courses on many different topics about things officers face during their jobs that can lead to stress and trauma. And now he feels like it is more than just his job to help other officers in this area.

“I feel like this is my calling as a human, a Christian and an officer,” Hoover said. “My goal is to help officers be the best dad and husband they can be, not just the best cop. And if we don’t help them process trauma better, that won’t happen.”

The statistics are startling when you consider just how the difficulty of being a police officer affects them all.

Hoover said that police officers have a 2 to 7 times the national average for suicides, a divorce rate twice as high as normal, alcoholism rate 20 percent higher than the national average, and a much lower life expectancy than the average American. 20 percent of officers involved in a shooting are divorced within five years.

“This is not the old days of telling guys that if you’re emotional and weak you need to get out of the business,” he said. “We are human like everyone else. We have always known how to take care of the physical, but we’re using this information to help what I call the walking wounded-the guys who are traumatized by the violence and death they see almost every day-but still get up and go back to work.”

Hoover said that one misconception about what he does is that it is a counseling service for officers.

“That’s not it at all. We just try to help them process what they have experienced, so they can file it into their minds in a way that doesn’t build up and become a problem,” he said. “Of everything I’ve done in my years in law enforcement, this has brought me more satisfaction than anything else I’ve done.”

Hoover’s classes help teach officers how to go through a detailed processing method when they experience traumatic events, and he has presented his findings and information to departments around the country, including a 1997 event to former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno at a Sheriff’s Office Convention.

Today Hoover is married with four sons.