ANNAPOLIS – Montgomery County Police say their officers are handling the stress of tracking an elusive gunman just fine, but experts on police anxiety said the frustration may be beginning to take a mental toll. “The standard problem for law enforcement people is that a lot of times you can’t fight. There’s no one to fight, said Gene Sanders, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement in California and Washington state and a psychologist who specializes in police stress and trauma recovery of officers. “You just have to sit there and take it and as a result, there is a lot of physical and mental strain,” he said.
The shooter who has killed nine and gravely wounded two in a dozen attacks, has eluded police for two weeks, leaving them with little evidence. Then Monday, a seemingly significant break in the case proved erroneous when a key witness was discredited.
Frustrations are evident at daily press conferences held at Montgomery Police headquarters, where the latest updates contain little good news. Apart from announcing the latest incident, spokesmen have squelched a rumor that a composite sketch of a suspect would be released and dispensed tips on how to be a good witness.
With the killer’s unpredictability, authorities have not been able to prevent the gunman from striking again. “The average officer takes this personally. `You killed people in my jurisdiction, so if I find you, you’re history,'” Sanders said is the common mentality. Pete Volkmann, a New York police officer, social worker and spokesman for the Ellicott City-based International Critical Incident Stress Foundation agreed. “As a police officer, this has become real personal and you become really angry. Innocent people are being killed and this is why you became a police officer, to protect the innocent,” Volkmann said.
Montgomery County Police and Maryland State Police would not let officers Comment, but police involved in the investigation remain optimistic according to Montgomery County Police spokeswoman, Lucille Baur.
“Police officers are trained to do this type of work and they are at their best in crisis situations,” Baur, a civilian, said. “The average person might just get annoyed and overburdened.”
Six jurisdictions in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are now involved in the hunt for the killer. The military is also providing sophisticated spy technology in support.
The longer the investigation continues, the more intense the impact will be on officers, Volkmann said.
Right now, however, officers are suppressing their feelings.
“You’re trained to think, don’t feel,” Volkmann said. “There is no emotions at this point.”
But the pressure to solve the crime is enormous. “If they sleep two hours a day, the investigators, I’d be surprised, he said. “Your life revolves around thinking about clues and going over it.”
Sanders, too, knows the frustrations of law enforcement. He was a police officer, police chief, special agent and supervising special agent on the West Coast. Now, he helps police officers and their families cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma diagnosis.
From his point of view as a former officer and doctorate in clinical psychology, he said the first reaction of police officers is to deny that they are under pressure or exhibiting the symptoms of stress. “You can only take so much trauma till the system breaks down,” Sanders said. “There is a type of behavior exhibited by law enforcement people, independent of the area, they universally start off by ignoring the trauma. This is part of the job, they are told,”
But, the stress is there, according to both Sanders and Volkmann.
Witholding of information between higher-ups and their officers, miscommunication between jurisdictions, scrutiny of the media, and calls from friends and family asking for the real story all contribute to the tension, according to Volkmann.
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose reminded the public that it took more than a decade to find Hadden Clark, the cross-dressing serial killer who killed Michele Dorr, a 6-year-old girl kidnapped in 1986 from her Silver Spring yard.
The police attitude, said Baur is: “Our people are committed for as long as it takes, so while we hope to put this case to rest as soon as possible, we’re in it for the long haul. We’ll do whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”