Military and Police

Cop Who Identified Bodies at Orlando Nightclub Massacre Suffers PTSD, Fears Return to Police HQ

“For police officers like Realin, Delgado, and other embattled cops and soldiers, PTSD is not something they claimed. Rather, through no fault of their own, it claimed them…”

I am easily intrigued by stories of human plight and how our species endures and overcomes the unspeakable, especially amongst law enforcement and military demographics. As a former policeman, I had my fair share of looking tragedy in the eyes (often lifeless), writing it all up, filing police reports, and moving on to the next incident. Some cops fare well enough, but others confront absolutely horrific scenes and walk away scarred. Such is the case for Orlando, Florida police Officer Gerry Realin, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is currently under threat of termination if he does not return to police duty.

Officer Realin was one of the first responders at the June 12, 2016 Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando that resulted in 49 murders and almost 70 injuries at the hands of gunman Omar Mateen. One of the first cops on-scene, Realin walked amongst the numerous dead bodies and now suffers from PTSD because of the graphic experience. Three separate physicians have diagnosed Realin with PTSD. He is now confronting an impasse with Orlando police executives who “ordered” him back to work.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” Essentially, flight-or-flight principles apply. It is fare to say Officer Realin did not flee, yet stood and fought, and continues his battle while seeking accord with his police family.

Albeit limited to light duty, a desk assignment is what Orlando police administration ordered for Realin; however, he and his three doctors do not feel that is appropriate because he must report to City Hall, which could cause relapse. Officer Realin concedes to light duty (processing the city’s red-light violations) but prefers working off-site, fearing working at a city-owned building will influence “re-experiencing symptoms” (flashbacks, nightmares, vicariously experiencing the ordeal again). Routinely, police officials often frequent city hall dwellings, the sightings of which may trigger Realin’s PTSD.

Another component of a PTSD diagnosis is “avoidance symptoms” (staying away from places, similar events, or items reminiscent of the PTSD-causing event). Logically, being in a police facility and/or around police uniforms and the mechanisms of law enforcement can be flames for the invisible PTSD fuse.

Here is a classic case of a double-edged sword cutting deeply no matter how one wields it. So what is the amicable answer? Can both factions reach an accord whereby Officer Realin can continue to serve the citizens of Orlando while abiding by police department policies? Can the OPD carve out a niche for all parties to abide?

Tailored Options

I battled similar circumstances as a cop with cancer. Multiple surgeries and recuperation periods negated my ability to report to police HQ for duty. Therefore, police executives and city governance authorized agency property be set up at my home so I could facilitate administrative tasks, equating to a win-win outcome. My responsibility was processing violations recorded by red-light cameras, exactly what Orlando PD execs assigned Realin to do at city hall. Perhaps a home-based agreement can alleviate the contentions between Officer Realin and OPD management.

With the evolution of interconnectivity, there is a host of admin tasks Orlando police managers can assign Officer Realin. These tasks can be performed at a place conducive to his mental well-being, while adhering to police responsibility and accountability. There is always an answer, even if new policy directives must be written.

I hope Orlando police executives are not taking the he looks fine to me approach. Similar to physically fit folks parking in ‘Disabled Parking’ spaces at shopping centers, the external shell cloaks potential internal strife and must be considered before passing judgment. Offering dignity is paramount and the choice ought to be unchallenging.

Among the statistics reported by the National Center for PTSD —a VA-affiliated study group— roughly 7 out of 100 individuals will suffer a horrifying event resulting in PTSD. It is a silent monster which can invade the human psyche and be triggered by a multitude of sensory aspects—fireworks, backfiring vehicles, breaking glass, stormy weather, sirens, etc. However, it can be treated by what psychoanalysts call “talk therapy.” Sessions of “walking and talking” through the sequence of event(s) which gave rise to PTSD is one treatment espoused by mental health clinicians. Talk therapy takes time and money.

Florida Legislation for First Responders

Presently, Florida law lacks workers’ compensation to fill in the lost wage gap stemming from work-related mental health afflictions like PTSD.

Florida State Senator Victor Torres introduced SB 1088 on February 21, 2017 – a bill to legislate amendments to “Workers’ Compensation for First Responders” to include mental health woes. This bill would afford Realin compensation while he deals with PTSD-related burdens. Officer Realin explains his resources have dwindled to the bottom of the barrel, which has impacted his entire family and hastened his pulse.

Hard Facts

As is the case in every police agency, a police officer’s refusal to comply with an order —whether outright or perceived — is deemed as “insubordination”. Orlando PD executives assert Realin is in violation of this agency clause and contend they have bent over backwards to recognize his needs and arrive at an amicable means to perform duty. Officer Realin doesn’t see it that way, nor do his attorney and three doctors. As reported by several media outlets, Realin speculated “When my [mental] health is on the line, who do you follow – doctors or a deputy chief and a city attorney? For me it’s a no-brainer: my doctors.”

Sometimes it’s not what you want to do, but what you have to do, which defines us. Perhaps Officer Realin is doing what is ultimately best for him, while the Orlando PD is doing what is best for the agency and its constituents. I can foresee mutual understanding from which a suitable doctrine prevails, even if that means parting company.

Many impasses can be successfully mediated. Most broken things are salvageable. Humans must be granted priority repair over discard. Officer Realin was not the only one affected by the Pulse Orlando nightclub killing spree. Eatonville, Florida police Officer Omar Delgado was right there with him and carries the same burden: PTSD. Like the shimmery glint of their badges, there is a silver lining whereby both sides can arbitrate and reach an amicable covenant. After all, solving problems is their profession.

Hope, Always Hope

For police officers like Realin, Delgado, and other embattled cops and soldiers, PTSD is not something they claimed. Rather, through no fault of their own, it claimed them. How as a society do we not adequately heed the haunting which bore a hole in their souls? At one time, each of these warriors jutted a hand and swore an oath; they fulfilled that allegiance. Raising our helping hands is the most humane act we can offer these freedom fighters.

As Pulse nightclub bartenders announced “Last call!” on June 12, 2016, the shots rang out, felling over 100 party-goers. For these, and other cops sorting through the Pulse debacle, it may have been their last call also. I hope I am dreadfully wrong.

Stephen Owsinski is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit.  He is currently a researcher and writer.

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Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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