Police Violence and PTSD

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Uncle Sam image: I want you to care about PTSD.

In May 2009, I was a victim of police violence.  Initially, my encounter with two officers seemed to be one of a failure to communicate.  Unfortunately, this issue escalated quickly and as more officers arrived I experienced nearly every stage of the “use of force continuum.”  Even after being handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a police car, I continued to be assaulted with fists, pepper spray and a TASER.  The next morning at the county jail, a pretrial officer informed me that I had been charged with 3 misdemeanors: alcohol intoxication, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest and 1 felony: assaulting a police officer.  Having committed none of these crimes, I “lawyered up” and fought the charges.  The grand jury chose to indict me on only two of the charges, which were then subsequently dismissed by a District Judge with prejudice.

After the criminal case was over, I brought my own charges against the officers, their supervisor, and the City that gave them authority.  The confidentiality agreement I signed mandates that all I can really say about how that turned out is that “the matter was resolved.”

Legally speaking, I suppose that is the case.  However to say that “the matter was resolved” still stings a bit to this day.  After the beating, and during both the criminal and civil parts of the case, I was treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  All of the major symptoms were present — fear, bad dreams, flashbacks, hyperarousal, anxiety, anger, the whole bit.  By extension, my family and friends were vicariously traumatized, none more so than my wife who witnessed the whole event all while trying, in vain, to utilize conflict resolution skills learned through her career as a nurse.

Still, after a few years had passed I was able to look back reflexively on my experience and to think about how it might be similar to, and different from, others’ violent encounters with police.  Drs. Jeff Ferrell of Texas Christian University and Wilson Palacios at the University of South Florida helped me turn this exercise into an autoethnography that became my first peer-reviewed publication.  We called it an exercise in cathartic criminology and cultural victimology and titled it “Brutal Serendipity.”  Part of the article dealt with negotiating the victim identity, and the way many victims of violence find strength by instead claiming a survivor identity.

It was earlier today while reading Twitter posts associated with the #crimingwhilewhite hashtag that the extent of my serendipitous survival became most evident. I hesitate to call it a privilege because shouldn’t it be a human right to expect not to be beaten, or worse, by those sworn to serve and protect us? Still, when seeing the news surrounding Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and others, I must admit that I feel quite fortunate to be alive.

And today, on the anniversary of the murder of Fred Hampton by Chicago Police and in the wake of the non-indictment in the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Panteleo of the NYPD I think about Dr. King’s statement about how “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  Likewise, I wonder where the social psychologists are with regard to translating this language and interpreting its meaning as it pertains to police legitimacy, or the lack thereof, in communities repeatedly oppressed, silenced, and traumatized by police violence.  I think about the anger, the fear, and the anxiety I felt after a severe beating and for months, even years, afterward and I can relate to Michael Brown’s stepfather’s blurting out “burn this bitch down” and Esaw Garner’s “Hell, no.”

What I cannot wrap my mind around, no matter how hard I might try, is how much more exponentially traumatic such experiences must be when compounded by generations of systemic and systematic brutality and oppression.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “reliving the trauma over and over” is a major symptom of PTSD. “Some people get PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or is harmed” and “The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause PTSD.” Also, “Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma” and “Sometimes large numbers of people are affected by the same event.”

While I would like to believe that current events and their associated protests and proposed reforms will lead to the kind of social change that could give whole populations the possibility of becoming survivors, rather than victims, of state violence…I am hardly optimistic.

Instead, I think of my own privilege.  My attorney said more than once “if anyone has a chance to win a case like this, it’s you.  You’re not the usual suspects.”

In America, “the usual suspects” is a phrase chock full of racial and class-based bias.

In America, “the usual suspects” are 21 times more likely to be killed by police.

In America, a camera documenting excessive force by departmental standards leading to homicide as declared by a coroner is not sufficient to indict.

Not when the victim is one of “the usual suspects.”

Apparently, “the usual suspects” category even includes 12 year olds.  Hell, even 2 year olds.

I would go on, but I’m feeling that old familiar fear, and like so many others in this traumatized nation right now, #icantbreathe.

Carl Root
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

8 Comments

  1. Wow Carl, I am truly sorry that you had to endure this……I don’t know what to call it. Seems like that no matter what when it comes to the police, they have the right to beat, kill and destroy the people who are paying their salary. What happened to constitutional rights, freedom of speech, etc. When are they going to answer to the atrocities that they are doing to citizens. A few crooked cops makes it bad on those who are good cops. When I think about the Zack McDaniels, Willie Jo Covington, good cops, it is shameful the way some cops represent themselves. Of course we still have Jeff Simmons and Little Zach and others who’s names I don’t know that are good and decent cops. THey all need much prayer!!!

  2. I am glad you were believed well enough to get help with PTSD. Some police do have issues where they think the best way to solve problems is by intimidation, control, breaking your spirit, etc., which can actually do much more than cause PTSD as I was forced to learn.

    My father Richard (Dick) Lake was famous in the efforts to legalize pot, got sent his large FBI file to review due to some legal situation, and I grew up around the drug culture, LSD, nudists, and events which clearly gave me symptoms of complex PTSD that were a time bomb to come out around violence and other triggers like excessive intimidation by police.

    What really set me off when I was picked up on a warrant in 2009 and the lawmen lied to my house companion claiming I had called threatening to kill a judge and kill the police. This and other threats by the lawmen caused her to be admitted by her family for her own mental breakdown worried that she had been living with a possible killer, etc. It bothered me more what they did to her than what happened to me, like failing to keep my safe during transport because I am significantly paralyzed and they threw me in the back of a police car like a piece of meat to be slammed around, the whole time the witch driving was talking on the radio claiming how nuts I was while she slammed me around. My home security system recorded the audio and video of what happened which I put on my WhyHope.com website.

    So not only do I have PTSD from what was forced on me as a child but I have additional PTSD due to cops who feel they must do everything in their power to control you and do not care if you are actually a victim or if they are causing you additional psychological harm.

    On the positive side their questioning why I did not act normal resulted in my finding out that I was likely a savant like Kim Peek who inspired the Rain Man movie. I was forced to learn how to pretend I was normal out of fear that I would be hurt or killed unless I did as I was told. But my coordination problems and other issues have remained.

    I had tried to avoid watching the news and other triggers but isolation has problems itself and not knowing what is going on in the world can also be dangerous, so it ends up learning to better deal with PTSD is the only workable solution.

    The legal system in Ohio where I believe I am a victim of crime appears designed to protect agents of the system from accountability so I believe most do not care what they do to hurt other people. A good example is the man caught with the tied up 14 year old nude girl, former famous Ohio attorney Scott W. Spencer who had lied about me in a 2001 Marion, Ohio, court case with fabricated evidence in order to look good, perhaps getting some service from women supporting his efforts to destroy me. I could get no one to believe me about his criminal conduct so it took his upsetting a VIP before he was disbarred, and still he got into trouble until his 14 year old victim. Yes, criminals in the legal system worry me more than the ones I know outside the system.

    I hope this was not too much of a rant. I guess since I was threatened and illegally blackmailed not to sue, at least nothing keeps me from venting details. That is where I feel for you Carl Root because I know that venting is one way to deal with PTSD and the fear in your brain does not care what legal agreements you may have made. In fact, I am not sure if some of these demands for silence may be considered illegal if they work to prevent reporting of crime.

  3. Not a rant at all, Michael. Thank you for reading and sharing! I am very sorry to hear that you have had to go through all of these things, but it certainly seems as though you have also been able to use your experience to critically examine some of the prevailing issues in our criminal justice system (specifically as it relates to mental illness). Have you read the book “Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” by David Morris? I highly recommend it and think you would find it of interest.

  4. Thank you Carl. I read your reply but got caught up in my own problems until I recalled (it seems random) that I did not reply. Then again, I am never certain when it is best to reply or not. I figure a reply is not likely to destroy the universe so I will reply. Is this a symptom of PTSD or just the chaos of our world?

    I will order the book once I get done with more pressing issues that get mixed with PTSD like physical health problems I am having first from a spinal cord tumor that screwed up the function of my lower body, and secondary issues like poor digestion, problems keeping my vitamins and minerals balanced, pain, etc., that go with this spinal cord problem. PTSD still can be more of a horror than some of the physical pain I had which I would rate at 7 to 9, that I would not want to live with if it had been constant. A few times a month is more than enough. Amazing what you can learn to live through.

    One thing I am learning is that my having exceptional memory is likely why it is easier for me to develop PTSD. But could fear of trauma also have pushed me to develop exceptional memory? Since my issues started with my being threatened not to tell on adults as a child, it is hard to know what really mattered in making me the way I am now. All I wish is that I could have had a more normal life like many other people claim or blamed me for not wanting, suggesting I had control over PTSD. I wish. Amazing how many people still are clueless.

    With the events in past weeks I am thinking PTSD is a bigger problem for both police and victims of police abuse than I had suspected. If I was made to feel that I could not talk about PTSD by lawmen and lawyers then they must also not be addressing the truth of what it is doing to themselves.

    Actually I would not have critically examined any of the issues if not for efforts to do the same to me and trying to blame me. Exceptional memory seems to have a self correcting factor that bugs the hell out of me when things do not add up. Many people report this feeling so I consider it part of a mind fixing itself after exposed to lies and BS, etc, which are not always obvious at first.

    I just wish PTSD did not seem to be the evil side of having exceptional memory. Also makes me wonder if many people with PTSD have ability for exceptional memory but get caught up in the emotions.

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