The gun battle raged in three different spots near the old Murphy Homes high-rise in West Baltimore, ending on a cold February day with the death of a 20-year-old man in a hail of gunfire from four city police officers.
Four years later, one of the officers claimed he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but says he never got the help he needed to cope with killing a man. Instead, Richard A. Willard says the department is trying to fire him.
The sergeant sued the Police Department this week, and is seeking an injunction in U.S. District Court court to delay his Feb. 22 termination hearing.
His legal action is drawing attention to a closely guarded concern in the law enforcement fraternity — how officers handle stress in a violent, gun-infested city, where officers have shot 115 people, killing 46, since 2006.
Union leaders say city police do a good job of providing counseling to officers in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, but fall short in recognizing long-term psychological effects. Psychiatrists and police officials interviewed all caution that each shooting is different, as is the reaction of each officer.
One active-duty officer, Andrew W. Gotwols Jr., said he was never offered help after he shot and killed two people nine months apart in 2006 and 2007. He still has nightmares that "guys are trying to shoot and kill me, and that I'm trying to shoot and kill them."
And a retired police commander who was one of the officers involved in the 2005 shooting with Willard said he suffers no ill effects from the incident, but added that after a time, "you start thinking, 'There's another close call, hopefully I can make it through my career without running out of luck.'"
The commander, retired Maj. Michael McDonald, said reaction "varies from officer to officer. Some may never ever think to ask for help and never need it, and some may need it, or need it long after the shooting."
Willard, who has been off the streets on medical leave since 2009 and now owns and operates a gourmet grilled-cheese food truck, says in his suit that he "felt regret for killing the young man, despite the justified and even necessary nature of his actions."
But, his suit says, the Police Department "did not … provide counseling" when symptoms surfaced in 2009, and denied his request for early disability retirement.
"We feel that the department is either taking a stand against the proposition of PTSD or against Mr. Willard," said the sergeant's attorney, Joshua G. Whitaker. "We think the termination proceeding is retaliatory."
Willard, who declined to be interviewed, filed a claim on Feb. 10 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and is awaiting a decision that could take up to 180 days. Whitaker said part of the reason for filing the suit now is to try postpone the termination hearing until after the EEOC rules.
Willard's union attorney, Michael Davey, would not comment on specifics of next week's disciplinary hearing, and would only say that his client faces administrative charges for alleged misconduct outside his job.
Attorneys would not say whether the 19-year veteran's problems were a result of PTSD, but the lawsuit says he has nightmares, has difficulty making decisions, has "issues with personal relationships" and can no longer handle a firearm.
Willard is to go on trial in April on an assault charge in Howard County, is involved in a contentious divorce in which his wife obtained a restraining order, and in February of 2011 started having his city wages garnished for a bank debt of more than $8,300, according to court records.
City Solicitor George Nilson declined to comment on the suit, as did the chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, Anthony Guglielmi, saying it is against policy to comment on pending litigation.
But Guglielmi denied that the department does not offer help. He said a Critical Incident Stress Team responds to police-involved shooting scenes and that before returning to duty, officers are required to see a counselor at Mercy Medical Center.
He said Gotwols, like all other officers involved in shootings, could not have been returned to duty without being declared fit by at least one group of doctors.
"There's no question that the emotional trauma of a police-involved shooting can impact an officer," Guglielmi said. "The department takes that extraordinarily seriously, which is why we have a built-in relationship with mental health providers, counselors and support services.
"We encourage members who have issues to take advantage of those services. The help is there."
If doctors at Mercy deem it necessary, officers are sent to Psychology Consultants Associated in Towson. Its head, Dr. Kenneth S. Sachs, said officers react differently to traumatic events but many typically exhibit anxiety, remorse and second-guessing.
"How they handle their emotional state is related to the support they get," Sachs said. "Their emotions are heightened. … Sometimes there's ambiguity. 'Was it right what I did? Was it wrong what I did? Could I have handled it differently?'"
Sachs said that some officers "run the sequence of events over and over in their heads. They can even get visual flashbacks." The doctor said officers can also "numb it out." He said "they may feel guilty, or lucky to be alive. No matter how much they're trained, shooting somebody is a profound event."
The doctor said counselors try to let officers know that their emotions are normal, and he's even accompanied police back to a shooting scene to help them adjust. Sachs said officers can "often exhibit symptoms of PTSD, [but] they typically get over it in two or three months."
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is generally diagnosed in combat soldiers, but studies have recognized the issue in police and firefighters who routinely deal with life-and-death situations and homicide scenes. The Department of Veterans Affairs says typical symptoms include increased jumpiness, trouble sleeping and upsetting memories.
Robert F. Cherry, who heads the city police union and investigated several police-involved shootings as a homicide detective, said more should be done for officers in such cases.
"The department says the officer acted in the scope of his duty," he said. "The department might even give him a ribbon for chasing down a bad guy. But what we forget is two or three years down the road, there might be something troubling this officer. We do a good job on how they're doing right now, but not on how are they doing a month from now, or a year from now.
The 2005 shooting that Willard was involved in began when McDonald, then a lieutenant in the tactical section, drove by four men on Bennett Place with their hands in the air, facing a man in front of them.
"I thought it was either a robbery or a cop had people at gunpoint," McDonald said. He said he got out of his cruiser and the four men bolted. "The bad guy never ran. ... All of a sudden, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting at me."
McDonald said he fired back three times but missed, and chased the man down an alley. "He comes up and fires again." McDonald said he fired back and thinks he hit the man, who ran behind a rowhouse and emerged back across George Street.
By that time, four backup officers, including Willard, were there. McDonald said he heard "a barrage of gunfire. I knew it was police shooting at him." Jermaine Jackson, 20, died at the scene.
"I wouldn't say it took a toll on me emotionally," said McDonald, who retired in 2008 after 21 years on the force. He said he shot and critically wounded a man in 1991, and was standing next to another officer who shot and killed a man in 1995.
Those shootings, he said, "were just part of doing the job." He said the shooting on George Street got him thinking because by then he had been married 11 years and had two young daughters. But he did not seek — nor was he offered — counseling.
"I was back to work the next morning," McDonald said.
Gotwols, who says he's struggling with frequent nightmares after two fatal shootings, got some money to pay for outside counseling through a workman's compensation claim.
"I was not required to go to see anybody to talk about it," said Gotwols, who has been on the force eight years and is assigned to the Central Booking and Intake Center. "I was not put through debriefings. I did not go to any critical incident team."
Gotwols, 36, was one of two officers who shot and killed a shotgun-wielding man in April 2007 after a robbery at Club Fantasies in Curtis Bay. The previous July, Gotwols said, he shot and killed a man who had run toward him with a gun in South Baltimore's Pigtown neighborhood.
The officer said he and other officers are "going through what soldiers experience," and that for him his condition became apparent during a police training exercise involving simulated gunfire. Now, he said, he's nervous in crowded stores and awakes from his nightmares in a cold sweat.
He describes one shooting this way: "The guy pulls his gun on me and goes to shoot me. I unload six times right in his chest. He died where he fell." He recalls the adrenaline rush, his colleagues racing toward him to see if he had been wounded, and how he advanced, gun drawn, on the lifeless body laying on a slab of concrete.
"I'm hyperventilating," Gotwols said. "I'm shouting, 'I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm not shot, I'm not shot.'"
He said that after the first shooting, "I was off for a week. After the second shooting, I took off two weeks."
As for counseling, Gotwols said, "They did not come to me at all. Nothing."
Shootings by Baltimore police officers
2006 – 15 shootings, 5 fatal, 10 nonfatal
2007 – 33 shootings, 13 fatal, 20 nonfatal
2008 – 21 shootings, 13 fatal, 8 nonfatal
2009 – 22 shootings, 8 fatal, 14 nonfatal
2010 – 10 shootings, 2 fatal, 8 nonfatal
2011 – 14 shootings,: 5 fatal, 9 nonfatal
2012 – 0 (A man killed by police in South Baltimore in January was shot by an officer from a suburban county )
SOURCE: Baltimore Police DepartmentCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun