EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
CEDAR PARK — Those around Austin police officer Jason Jewett saw it: He wasn’t the same man he had been before the shooting. Jason knew it, too, but as an officer with more than 20 years on the job, admitting he needed help didn’t come easily.
Law enforcement and other first responders are more focused on helping others over themselves.
“Us cops, we have a good habit of stuffing things away and not dealing with it,” said Jewett as he sat in an office in Cedar Park.
The problem with that method is it often leads to more issues, compounding one on top of another. Police, Jewett noted, will self-medicate with alcohol or prescription drugs to deal with mental health problems.
Police officers have some of the highest divorce rates in the country, and it’s not just because of the long, varied hours they work. It’s also because of the things they see and deal with on a daily basis while on the job and how it grinds away at a person.
The worst, Jewett said, is when officers take their own lives.
“That’s something that people don’t hear about, that doesn’t make the headlines.” he said. “We all have baggage with us, and it’s kind of considered normal, but I’ve had friends drink themselves to death because they didn’t get help or didn’t want others to think they’re weak. I can think of, over the years, the number of officers who have lost their job or their life because of what they’ve seen and what it’s done to them.”
Suicides by police and first responders are not all that uncommon. According to a Ruderman Family Foundation paper in April, 103 firefighters and/or EMS took their own lives in 2017 compared to 93 who died in the line of duty.
During that same period, 140 police and law enforcement officers committed suicide compared to 129 lives lost in the line of duty. Of the 129 officers who died while on the job, according to statistics from the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund, 46 were fatally shot, six were beaten to death, and one was stabbed. The other officer-related deaths were from accidents, vehicle crashes, or job-related illnesses.
Even though the Austin Police Department has a strong peer-support group for those involved in a traumatic event, such as a shooting, officers still just try to “suck it up.”
Jewett’s wife, Michelle, noticed the change in him. He wasn’t laughing like he used to. He was grumpy and enduring physical pain. His supervisor at APD also noted the officer’s change late last year.
“My boss said I’m not me, and I needed help,” Jewett recalled. “Do something.”
Jewett had reached a fork in the road. He needed to make a decision on which path to take. One led to probable despair and all the things that come with it. The other led to help, not something a police officer often wants to admit they need.
What got Jewett, who first pinned on the badge in 1992 with the Lago Vista Police Department, to this decision? He is no shrinking violent. As part of the Austin Police Department, he’s worked extremely complex cases and been a member of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task forces with numerous arrests within drug-trafficking networks.
On Nov. 30, 2017, Jewett was on his way home after turning in his DEA Task Force credentials. He stopped by a softball practice — he and his wife manage several select teams — then headed west to his home in Burnet County just outside of Marble Falls.
He was driving down RR 1431 just west of the FM 1174 intersection at about 10 p.m. when he came upon what looked like a two-vehicle accident. However, as he arrived on the scene, Jewett became engaged in a “road rage” incident in which a suspect reportedly rammed a family’s vehicle then pulled a gun on them.
Jewett can’t talk about what he did and saw during the incident because the case is still working its way through the court system. But, according to a Burnet County Sheriff’s Office statement following the incident, the suspect, later identified as 55-year-old David Meyer of Rockport, Illinois, rear-ended a vehicle occupied by three members of a Cottonwood Shores family. Then, according to a Burnet County grand jury indictment, the suspect threatened two of the family members with a firearm and shot at one of them.
The sheriff’s office report stated Jewett came upon the scene and exchanged gunfire with the suspect, striking the man. The suspect was transported to Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, where he remained until he was arrested in January 2018. The grand jury indicted Meyer in February of this year on one count of first-degree aggravated assault against a public servant and five counts of second-degree aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
On the surface, it sounds cut and dry: Officer arrives on scene, assesses situation, exchanges gunfire, secures suspect. And it’s a happy ending.
In reality, it’s a much more dynamic scenario with longterm implications.
As Jewett arrived on the scene, it was dark and he didn’t know exactly what was going on. When he became aware of the dangerous setting, his tactical training took over.
When it was over, there was almost a euphoric high due to the adrenaline. But as the realization of what happened set in, other emotions flooded his brain.
Initially after the shooting, Jewett found support through the APD’s peer network and other programs, but what he discovered was that it wasn’t just the shooting with which he was struggling.
“It kind of opened a door in reverse in my brain,” Jewett said. “And it started letting in all things from the past … When you have a traumatic event, it opens the door to all of them.”
This is something Tania Glenn, a counselor who works with law enforcement, first responders, and military service members, sees quite a bit.
First responders get over the initial trauma, maybe receive some support, but then they often try to bottle it up. Bubbling down inside them is not just the recent trauma but also every traumatic event they’ve experienced.
Bottling it up, Glenn said, is something that goes back to a tenet of their training.
“From day one of the academy or training, they’re taught to take control, maintain control,” she said. “It fuses into every part of their lives. They feel they need to be super(heroes).”
Jewett agreed. He and his wife were sitting in Glenn’s Cedar Park office.
“We tend to be the ones taking care of everyone — family, people on calls … ” he said.
But then what do first responders do when their own lives are spinning out of control?
Sometimes, it takes hitting a low spot to realize help is what they need.
Jewett sank pretty deep. Even after others told him he needed help, it was still up to him to ask for it.
“I wasn’t prioritizing my health until I was close to running everyone away from me,” he admitted.
His wife, Michelle, seated next to him, nodded in agreement.
It wasn’t just the November 2017 road rage incident with which Jewett was struggling. Glenn explained that sometimes a traumatic event triggers previous trauma — the backwards door as Jewett calls it.
Glenn pointed out that human minds process traumatic events after the actual event, not during it. Those events, even ones not considered significant, sometimes get stacked on top of each other.
Then, another traumatic experience comes along and throws open the door, letting all the previous ones rush back in. It can overwhelm a person or just gradually wear them down.
It is sometimes described as cumulative post-traumatic stress disorder.
All the years of police work, the human tragedy, rushed to the surface of Jewett’s mind.
It’s very real to them, Glenn said. They experience the events: some that were life-or-death situations for themselves; others in which another person was hurt or the first responder was trying to rescue someone.
Jewett had reached that fork in the road and he chose getting help.
He had heard about Glenn and the work she did with other first responders and military members. She provided a confidential setting. The last thing an officer wants is something they tell a counselor to make its way back to a supervisor and cost them their job. Glenn meets her clients where they’re at and builds from there.
Since he started counseling, Jewett’s former self is returning. He’s noticed it as have those close to him. He smiles a lot more now, and the physical pain doesn’t plague him as it once did.
It’s been a tough journey from where he was to where he is now, but it’s not over.
Though Jewett has experienced success through counseling, the stigma of getting help still exists among first responders and military members.
That has to change, Jewett and Glenn concurred.
Without help, the people others rely on for help in a crisis could continue in a downhill spiral and eventually crash — into a bottle or a bullet.
It doesn’t take major traumatic events to push first responders into a mental health corner. Jewett pointed out that the everyday experiences with which officers deal are enough to wear them down. It’s subtle but adds up over time.
Glenn said when an officer responds to, say, a domestic call, they find themselves in an elevated level of awareness. When they clear that call, they might get a few minutes to settle back into a regular level of awareness, but then they’re off on a traffic stop. It might seem routine, but an officer enters a higher level of vigilance again then falls back to a normal level once they clear that call as well.
The problem is, Glenn explained, as officers or other first responders continue this cycle of increased awareness or vigilance, followed by down time, they can get to a point where they never quite make it back to normal equilibrium.
Hence, an officer’s “normal” mental state is a heightened sense of vigilance. While that level of vigilance is necessary when responding to a police call, it’s not healthy for daily life.
Jewett thinks these mental health issues also manifest themselves in other ways, including when an officer uses too much force in an arrest.
“No officer comes into law enforcement to hurt anyone. Everyone I know joined to help people, to serve,” he said.
All those days and nights of hyper-vigilance can lead to more aggressive behavior, even abuse, from an officer.
The answer could be regular mental health care for all officers and first responders, not just after they’ve experienced a traumatic event. People schedule annual physical exams, why not mental health checkups as well?
It’s something Glenn believes could make a difference.
“We have this problem even talking about mental health, not just in police but in general,” she said. “Yet it’s such an important part of our lives. We don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to address it. Pushing it aside just makes things worse.”
Getting officers support before things start piling up could help them maintain a healthier mental equilibrium. That’s something that would not just benefit officers and first responders but the general public as well. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation report, first responders with mental health issues such as depression and thoughts of suicide often perform below their typical abilities. They don’t make decisions as well, especially in stressful situations, and even their physical abilities aren’t as high as they would be if their mental health was better addressed.
Some law enforcement departments are addressing mental health issues within their ranks, but Glenn said a lot don’t for several reasons.
“Part of it’s budget,” she said. “Smaller departments don’t always have the resources for mental health services. Others, I think, just the idea of mental health is thought of as a weakness or just isn’t talked about. The stigma, it still exists.”
Some of the stigma might be more perception than reality. In one study, shared in the Ruderman paper, 248 police officers reported they felt their colleagues were “unaccepting of mental illness.” But, the study revealed, “those same colleagues were less judgmental than their colleagues assumed them to be.”
Jewett hopes sharing his story can help break down that stigma, or at least put a big hole in it. If other first responders realize they aren’t going through it alone, maybe they’ll talk about it and seek help.
“We can’t just do nothing,” he said of dealing with the stress police, firefighters, EMS, and military personnel face.
Jewett also hopes the general public develops a better understanding of the level of commitment police have for the communities they serve.
“I don’t think they could ever fathom the level of sacrifice we put in,” he said. “It’s not always about giving our lives but giving everything of our life.”