Officer Involved: A Story of PTSI and Recovery. An Interview with Sgt. Michael Sugrue

Michael tells his story of survival recovery and healing after a deadly force incident and wants others to know that they are not alone.

Share:

The impact of officer involved incidents goes beyond just the incident. Many times, it is what happens after the incident and the secondary trauma that intensifies the original trauma.  Community criticism, continually retelling of the incident, the family members in court, media, social media, and administrative betrayal are a few of the ways an officer can be continually triggered resulting in depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use, and suicidal ideation.

Michael Sugrue, a retired police Sergeant with the City of Walnut Creek CA with over 14 years of service encountered a situation that was not only tragic, but it was a call for duty that changed his life forever. He found himself in reckless abandon and on the verge of self-destruction until he mustered the courage to ask for help. Michael tells his story of survival recovery and healing after a deadly force incident and wants others to know that they are not alone.

Officer Involved Incident

On December 27th, 2012. at 3 am, after no calls for service for hours, the dispatcher came over the radio in a very panicked voice and started yelling that there was a woman inside a condo with a subject armed with a knife. Halfway there, the dispatcher gave an update that the couple was barricaded inside a bedroom and advised that there was a third party with a knife and a struggle. As Michael was getting out of the patrol vehicle, he could hear blood-curdling screams from a woman screaming for her life. Michael and other officers made entry, encountered the suspect with the knife who then eventually charged at, to attack, the officers; resulting in officers shooting the suspect.  [Listen to the podcast for Michael’s detailed account of the incident]

One of the officers checked on the couple upstairs and it turned out that the violent subject had been stabbing through the door with a butcher’s knife. The door was coming off the hinges. If Michael and his team had not arrived when they did, he believes, without a doubt, that the couple would have been killed. Officers saved their lives that night.

It was after the incident that Michael learned from the couple that the deceased subject was not a stranger, but the couple’s roommate.

Aftermath of Officer Involved Incident

Michael stated it was difficult for him to reconcile he had taken a life even though he knew it was necessary. What compounded the incident for him was the subject’s lack of criminal history, police contact, nor history of mental illness or mental disorders.

Per protocol, he was interviewed by the District Attorney and detectives, and was eventually driven home. “I remember seeing my wife and young daughter at the door and I just felt completely numb. I felt emotionally numb. I felt detached. All I wanted to do was go to sleep and hope this was a nightmare or bad dream that didn’t happen.”

The family of the attacker sued immediately.  Michael endured FOUR years of depositions and was eventually the defendant in federal and civil court. “I literally felt like a criminal on trial.” One of the constant triggers for Michael was having to share the story of the incident and defending his actions over and over.

Michael was forbidden to speak to anyone about the incident due to the District Attorney and Internal Affairs investigations.  Michael started to isolate and his desire to not be around other people continued to increase. He had no one he could trust to have protected communication with or to express what he was going through. He felt ashamed of the incident and could not understand why it was affecting him so much. “I was a former Air Force Captain. I’ve been a police officer for many years. I’m in a leadership position. This is what we do.”

The isolation and shame were a part of what started Michael started pushing people away. It started with his wife and lack of emotions and communication. He wanted to be alone. Then when he couldn’t sleep, he turned to alcohol to help aid his sleep cycle. Everything gradually got worse. The idea of not talking about it compounded the psychological impact of what was happening and breeds shame. When you can’t talk to people, the shame grows. It incubates and we isolate more and more.

Physical Reactions in Court

Seven or eight months after the shooting, during the coroner’s inquest, a hearing fully open to the public with a judge and a full jury, Michael was further triggered and traumatized when he was required to sit through the tapes of the call and then testify in front of his leadership and the family and twin brother of the assailant.

This was the first time Michael heard the tapes. He recalled how his body reacted to hearing the tapes 0f the incident, his body going back as if it was the night it happened, getting tunnel vision, hairs on his neck standing up, sweating, and his heart racing. He did not understand at the time but the biological reaction was based upon his body recalling the incident and struggling to stay fully in the present.

As Michael recounted the incident on the stand, he started to break down emotionally.  He had been in a court setting numerous times due to the nature of the job and not once had an emotional reaction. “I was so embarrassed and so ashamed that I showed emotion.” The judge excused Michael and he immediately went to the bathroom to get himself together. The proceeding concluded and a few weeks later the result was a justified shooting and officers being cleared.

Administrative Betrayal After an Officer Involved Incident

Michael was a brand-new Sergeant still on probation at the time of the incident. There had not been any shootings the entire time Michael was with his agency. Michael had the impression that his career would continue positively after the incident. He was called into a meeting with his administration and thought they were going to praise him for showing leadership and saving lives. “The first thing my administration did was question the genuineness of my emotions (on the stand).” They either said directly or interfered that he was putting on a show for the jury. Michael was already embarrassed and ashamed.  Now, his administration, who he thought would be there to support him, was questioning his integrity.

His leadership ability was called into question due to how he had changed after the incident and his emotional response on the stand. His probationary status as a Sergeant was extended, which put his promotion in jeopardy. Instead of asking for help, Michael just nodded his head and said yes sir.

He left the meeting with the idea that he was never going to show emotion or weakness again to prove his administration wrong. From there, Michael became unapproachable and unsympathetic. He lost all sight of everything and anything just to prove them wrong when in fact he was just denying the person he is. The administrative betrayal that Michael experienced further contributed to him shutting down emotionally leading to increased struggles with the trauma and exacerbating the mental health situation Michael was experiencing from the incident.  Not feeling supported by the administration was another secondary trauma.

Psychological Impacts

Michael and his wife started having issues a couple of months after the shooting. As common when officers are struggling after a officer involved incident, Michael started pushing his wife away.  She in turn, not understanding what was happening, did the same.  They both were numb and didn’t care. In a time where the couple needed to pull together to support each other, she wasn’t able to be there for him. It left a feeling of further abandonment not only from his administration but now his wife. Michael invited his wife to the hearing hoping that having her there would lead her to having empathy for what he was going through. A few months later, they started the divorce proceedings which resulted in a very long contentious divorce.

This, on top of the trauma from the shooting, the ongoing lawsuits, and new health issues were all secondary traumas that Michael was trying to navigate. I asked Michael what his administration and wife would have seen if the emotional wound would have been physical wounds.  “They would have been absolutely devasting. My heart would be ripped open. My life would be flowing out of me. It would be as extreme as you could imagine.”

Physical and chemical changes happen to the brain as a result of trauma. “Just because the physical and chemical injuries to the brain aren’t seen, doesn’t mean they aren’t injuries.” Many times spouses, colleagues, and friends struggle to understand how to support someone who is struggling with a Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI)

Police Couples Need to Communicate

Michael stated one of the mistakes he made with his wife at the beginning of his career was believing he could leave work at work and home at home. In doing this, he never shared with his wife when he had a bad day at work. This accumulated into years of not talking about traumas he witnessed. Michael encourages all first responders to make a habit of talking about work at home when necessary, so the family doesn’t interpret the officer’s behaviors as a result of something the family did. “This isn’t you, it’s me. We need to normalize talking about the impacts law enforcement has on the officer and marriages.”

Michael went through years of not talking about trauma, so he didn’t want to talk about the trauma from the shooting with his wife either. He believes that communicating about the job from the start of their marriage would have made a difference in communication and their support for one another. We as couples have to create a safe space to communicate. Remember, heroes, don’t do this alone. It is a foundational aspect of relationships and mental health.

Courage to Speak

After Michael’s federal lawsuit ended in 2016, his best friend, who was a Vietnam Veteran as well as a 35-year reserve officer, attempted suicide. Michael felt guilty about not seeing the signs and blame himself.  It was because of his friend that Michael started recognizing he had been putting himself in dangerous situations at work hoping he died in the line of duty. He started thinking about his daughter and how he could not allow her to have any guilt or feelings regarding his own situation. This was his wake-up call.

“I made the phone call and asked for help. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but I know now, it’s the most courageous and bravest thing I’ve done.”

Michael started going to counseling and First Responders Support Meetings, where he saw his peers sharing experiences and opening up about their feelings, understanding that he was not alone. He connected and shared his own experience which was critical to his own recovery.  Five months into recovery he went to the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat, a weeklong residential retreat first responders. He continues to share his experience to support and let others know they are not alone.

Relentless Courage

Michael has co-authored a book with Dr. Shauna Springer called Relentless Courage: Winning the Battle Against Frontline Trauma. The book is a combination of Michael’s story and observations and insights of Dr. Springer. Michael that the book brings insight to the human side and the toll the job takes on all first responders and military members. It matches up Michael’s journey with the idea of psychological and mental insight.

The Message

Michael’s message is this: “You are not alone. Don’t’ suffer in silence. Get help. Raise your hand and ask for help. You and your family are much more important than any job or any position. That’s the bottom line. Do it for yourself and do it for your family.”

Facebook pages: Michael Sugrue and First Responders First

Instagram: Sgt. Michael Sugrue

LinkedIn: Sgt. Michael Sugrue

Podcasts

Self-Inflicted Wounds

After years of normalizing alcoholism, enabling behaviors from those around him, the lack of consequences, and poor decision-making, John was in a position to potentially lose his job and ultimately his marriage.

Read More »

Officer Involved: A Story of PTSI and Recovery. An Interview with Sgt. Michael Sugrue

Michael tells his story of survival recovery and healing after a deadly force incident and wants others to know that they are not alone.

Share:

Share:

Podcasts