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Failing Those Who Serve: Police officers struggle to get treatment for PTSD

Police officers battling post-traumatic stress disorder after violent encounters and seeing horrible crime scenes are often unable to get the help they need in Arizona.

PHOENIX — According to several former Valley police officers, post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the biggest issues plaguing law enforcement—and they say Arizona’s laws are setting them up for failure.

In 2018, the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers was suicide.

“I was standing in my bathroom and I had my gun in my mouth because I had built up so much pressure in my head. I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get this pressure out of my face,’” said former police officer Mark Freimark. “In my irrational thinking, the only good way to do that was to put a hole in my face.”

It was the lowest point of Freimark’s life.

“I came to and it just scared me. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” he said.

Months before nearly taking his own life, this former Valley police officer was responding to a call for a possible suicidal man. Before he knew it, gunshots were coming his way.

“I tried to get my gun up on target. ‘BAM!’ He shoots, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I just took a headshot. I just took a headshot,’” Freimark said.

The shots missed, but his life forever changed.

“That night, I had just lain down to sleep, and as I’m laying there, ‘BOOM!’ That gun goes off in my face again,” he said.

Months of sleep deprivation, hallucinations, blackouts and depression led him to that horrific night where he was seconds away from ending it all.

He immediately went to get help, and that’s when he was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I didn’t know any of the symptoms of PTSD,” he said.

Freimark is not alone.

“I personally have watched my friends die, seen children that have been raped to death. It all started to come back,” said Jason Mow, a former Phoenix police officer.

“Every child death that I had been a part of, every major crime scene, they were all with me,” said Veronica Butler, a former Gilbert police officer. “Coming out and talking about it or reaching out to anybody is a huge sign of weakness.”

“Other officers would talk about these officers that were in the process [of reaching out], and they had a term for them. I mean, they would say, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s got the sads,’” Butler said.

But for many officers, gaining the courage to come forward and ask for help is only half the battle.

In Arizona, getting worker’s compensation benefits, which allows them to get the medical help they need to treat their PTSD, can be nearly impossible.

Attorney Larry Cohen has seen many of these cases play out.

“It’s an uphill battle, generally,” he said.

Cohen says when a police officer claims he or she has PTSD, their claim is almost always denied.

“There continues to be concern that people allege that they’re suffering from PTSD when in fact they may be feigning symptoms,” he said.

Officers must then hire a lawyer to fight the denied claim.

“It was a five-year legal battle,” Freimark said.

Due to state law, the burden of proof lies with the officers.

“It’s difficult when there’s not a corresponding physical condition to get the kind compensation that emotional injuries really deserve,” Cohen said.

This is why, believe it or not, some consider former Chandler police officer Josh Pueblo to be one of the lucky ones.

On April 23, 2016, Officer Pueblo was shot by a suspect inside a Walmart near Arizona Avenue and Pecos Road.

“I took the first shot through the face. It spun me. I caught the second one in my elbow,” he recalled.

Pueblo developed PTSD, but he says because of his severe physical injuries, he hasn’t experienced much pushback when it came to getting the mental help he needs.

“Some have called me ‘the unicorn’ because of the physical injury. Because of being shot, I get the help I need,” he said.

That’s an idea that is hard to swallow for long-time worker’s compensation attorney Brian Weekley.

“I just think we, as a society, can find better ways to take care of them,” he said.

Arizona’s law states that to be compensated for mental injuries, a person must experience “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress.”

But many cities’ insurance companies consider traumatic incidents as part of a police officer’s job.

“That statute has been in existence since about 1980,” Weekley said.

And he says it all comes down to money.

“Probably most of it is economic. They don’t want to pay worker’s comp claims for officers,” Weekley said.

Personal injury attorney Mark Ryan says during their legal fight, first responders must undergo what’s called an independent medical exam to confirm their PTSD diagnosis.

The process is supposed to be impartial.

“A lot of times you get providers that will do these medical exams, and they’re paid for by the insurance company. Who’s that benefitting? The insurance company,” Ryan said.

Shortly after our interviews, Weekley and Ryan teamed up to draft a bill to fix what they believe is broken.

“I’m looking at a system that we have here in the Valley that just doesn’t work for our first responders,” Ryan said.

The goal is to create a carve-out in the law that would make first responders an exception to the challenging burden of proof.

“Their jobs are unique, and that should be recognized,” Weekley said.

Their proposal is already receiving significant pushback from city and county leaders.

“The cities and towns and the counties are looking at this more as a bottom-line issue, more of a fiscal issue, instead of the right thing,” Ryan said.

Meanwhile, the four former officers we spoke to have bonded over their battle. They frequently meet up through an organization called PISTLE.  

“Our hope with PISTLE is to help educate people so that this conversation can continue and we can finally work through the legislature to provide the support that these officers need,” Mow said.

RELATED: Officer-led group aims to help police officers with PTSD

They hope that by bringing the problem to light, officers will no longer have to suffer in silence.

“They’re losing these officers left and right because of this issue that they won’t address,” Mow said.

The executive director of the County Supervisors Association of Arizona told 12 News in a statement that they take PTSD very seriously but believe making adjustments to current policy in place is premature.

“Arizona local governments take PTSD very seriously and have worked with state lawmakers to expand support for first responders. This has led to Arizona being the only state in the country that has implemented preventative treatment measures in response to traumatic events (ARS 38-673). In 2018, the legislature passed a law (HB2502) that substantially increased the availability of counseling and treatment for traumatic events. In that bill, the legislature also included a data collection process to better inform future conversations about PTSD-related policies. Since the 2018 law is still very much in the early stages of implementation, we believe that making adjustments to the policy this session is premature. That said, we do expect this to be an on-going conversation and we will continue to be engaged in how to best support first responders. We shared this with Representative Townsend and she offered to include us in future discussions.”

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