Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Oct. 24, 2011)

I’m alright Sarge, really……

By Bob Cooper


I was raised in a home with typical 1950s conservative values and learned at a young age that you keep your troubles to yourself.   If you encountered someone on the street and they asked how you were it didn’t matter if your arm was hanging by a thread, you simply answered ‘I’m fine thank you, and you?’  When I came on the job in 1974 the culture of the VPD was similar and we were trained that no matter how horrible, repulsive, or dangerous a call was, you dealt with it.  Then you sucked it up and carried on.  It was all part of the job and if you couldn’t handle it you should look for other work.

The term Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) hadn’t yet been coined and even when it was you’d no sooner ask for help than stick your finger in a light socket.  In the VPD of that era the last thing you wanted to do was show weakness of any kind.  The best advice I ever got was ‘learn to laugh kid, because if you don’t, you’ll never last’.  In the early 80s I was back in the Skid Road with a very tight crew.  I’m still close to most of them to this day.   We worked hard and we played even harder.  We used a combination of black humor, each other’s companionship, and a table full of beer across the lane at the end of shift to dull ourselves to the horrors we saw every day.  Not the best coping mechanisms by today’s standards but they kept the demons at bay, for most of us, for a while.  Besides, we were all in our 20s and therefore indestructible.

One of the guys was PC#650 Mike Carr.  Good looking, 6’2” with the shoulders to go with it, Mike was the type of policeman you saw on recruiting posters.  Mike defined cool.  If anything ever frightened him, none of the rest of us saw it and he was the guy you most wanted to see when the chips were down.   When we went out after work the laughter flowed as freely as the beer and no one laughed or kept the rest of us laughing more than Mike.  Mike went on to become a Dog master, worked in Traffic Enforcement, made Detective and went to the Drug Squad.  He later went back to Patrol and when he made Sergeant his promotion party was one of this biggest I’ve ever been to.  The young PCs who worked for Mike would have followed him off a cliff.

Mike retired in 2003 and since then he has suffered two incredibly tragic personal losses.  On the most recent occasion I asked Mike if there was anything I could do.  One of those things you say when frankly, you really don’t know what to say.  Mike told me that he had been diagnosed with PTSD while he was still on the job and asked if I would tell his story.  While I was honored that a friend would trust me with something so personal, I worried about doing it justice.

In the process of getting the details from Mike and speaking to others on the subject, I got quite an education on PTSD, particularly on a couple of common misconceptions.  Always strong and confident, Mike was the last guy in the world I would associate with PTSD and it came as a shock when he told me of his diagnosis, but I’ve discovered that it often affects just that sort of person.  The guy that everyone respects and looks up to and always goes above and beyond.  Most of us associate PTSD with a single event, usually a shooting.  In fact, quite often it’s the result of a culmination of things but can be triggered by a single event.   As Mike said to me “That is why it is so damaging.  It lives in all of us as a potential time bomb.  It only takes a specific incident to make it manifest itself”.

There were no obvious symptoms.  On the surface everything was normal and he seemed just fine.  In 2001 Mike was driving to the hospital to deal with a serious family medical emergency when he suddenly found himself unable to cope with what was happening.  When he arrived at the hospital he contacted the VPD Duty Officer and told him he needed help.  Mike’s boss, Inspector Ken Davies, (an Academy classmate of mine) came out right away and brought members of the VPD Trauma Team with him.  Mike was put on Administrative Leave and within a week was speaking with a psychologist. 

Mike felt improvement after a couple of weeks but in his words “once the so called scabs have been ripped from your emotional bubble you just know life can never be the same. Kind of like being an alcoholic or substance abuser it is always a monkey on your back.”  Mike’s purpose in telling his story is to encourage younger members to get help if they need it.  “You have to be honest with yourself if you feel you have a problem deal with it at the time.   I feel lucky that I recognized what was happening to me and took steps to deal with it.”

As things progressed, Mike couldn’t say enough about how he was taken care of.   “The Department was fantastic. From diagnosis and on subsequent relapses they have been great. Even after retirement they continued to support me. I can’t say enough good things about the way in which they have treated me and my family.”  As I’ve said before, the police family at its finest.  Truly one of the great perks of the job.

As a responsible, compassionate employer the VPD takes a back seat to no one in looking after its people and help is available 24/7.  As evidence of how things have improved, over the space of a few years in the late 70s and early 80s, I knew 4 VPD members who committed suicide.  The VPD began taking a much more proactive approach and since then, timely intervention has prevented numerous tragedies, helped a lot of members deal with their problems and return to full duty, and the VPD did not experience another suicide for about 20 years.  But it only works if you ask.

In a couple of weeks a group of us who worked in Homicide will gather, as we do every year, to toast the memory of Detective Sean Trowski  who took his own life on November 11, 2006.  Sean was a really nice guy with one of the brightest smiles you’ve ever seen but the smile masked a stormy personal life that he just couldn’t cope with any more.  All of us, at one time or another, tried to help Sean but he would just flash that smile and assure us that he was fine.

Sean kept his troubles to himself.

Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.



Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2011