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Police shootings spur workers' compensation awards

Psychological stress of deadly police shootings in Baltimore costs public an average of $30,000

Ever since her bipolar, unarmed son was shot and killed during a struggle with Baltimore police, Marcella Holloman has felt a sense of soul-crushing loss. She breaks out into shakes and feels angry all the time. She sees other happy families — and resents them.

"My whole life is gone. I just don't like people the way I used to," says Holloman, 53, whose son, Maurice Johnson, was shot three times in 2012 in her living room in Northeast Baltimore. Holloman had called police because her son was having an angry 'episode,' she said.

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The pain worsened this year when she found out that the officer who killed her son will receive about $30,000 in workers' compensation due to the psychological stress of the shooting — a type of payment that has sparked debate across the nation.

Twelve Baltimore police officers have sought workers' compensation for psychological stress in fatal shootings and similar deadly encounters in the 2011 to 2013 fiscal years, the most recent data available. The average award from a fatal incident was about $30,000, according to records The Baltimore Sun obtained through a series of Maryland Public Information Act requests.

Although Maryland's highest court ruled more than a decade ago that such payments are proper, other states have rejected claims from police officers seeking workers' compensation for the psychological stress of a fatal shooting.

South Carolina's top court ruled in 2012 that such awards were not permitted under state law because police are trained in using deadly force and it is therefore not "unusual or extraordinary." Using the same logic, a New York appeals court this year denied an officer's claim after a fatal shooting.

Police supporters and law enforcement experts say that the claims, which can cover medical costs plus awards for an officer's pain and suffering, are needed to help officers who develop psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is generally associated with soldiers in war zones, but is gaining more widespread acceptance as a part of many police officers' lives. Advocacy groups say that as many as 19 percent of all police officers in the country suffer from PTSD, which can be brought on by the steady pressure of facing danger while enforcing the law.

"It's a terrible thing to go through when you take a human life," says Steve Tabeling, a retired Baltimore police officer who shot and killed a robbery suspect decades ago, and later was the department's top investigator for police-involved shootings. "It's stress on both sides. It's stressful for the family and it's stressful for the officers."

City taxpayers can also feel the impact. In addition to funding workers' compensation payouts made to officers, they may have to cover settlements or court judgments in lawsuits brought by the victims of police actions. For example, in one high-profile fatality from 2013, the city settled with the victim's family for $375,000.

That settlement, in which the officers and city did not admit wrongdoing, is part of a larger trend. A Baltimore Sun investigation found that since 2011 the city paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. Nearly all of the people involved in incidents leading to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

One of those receiving a workers' compensation payout was Officer Gregory Bragg, who reported psychological stress from the incident involving Holloman's son. As he watched Johnson, 31, struggle with fellow officer Paul Markowski on the living room floor, he said he saw Johnson straddle the officer and reach for Markowski's weapon. Bragg made a split-second decision and shot Johnson in the back — a shooting that was later ruled justified.

Bragg filed a workers' compensation claim for psychological stress, and payouts began in 2012. City officials expect to make payments to him for years, after finding that his psychological issues were directly related to the job.

Bragg, who left the police force in early 2013, did not respond to a request for comment. The Baltimore Police Department said in a statement that caring for the well-being of its officers is of the "utmost importance."

Holloman bristles at the thought of the payments.

"I feel highly upset. I feel that it's wrong," said Holloman, who has filed a federal lawsuit against city officials and the officers who shot her son. "If you feel so stressed that you took a life, then what'd you take it for?"

High-profile cases

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As nationwide attention has focused on the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo., local activists have been asking questions about Baltimore's history of police-involved shootings — and its impact on the city.

Baltimore has long been one of the most violent cities in a violent country. In the past eight years, there have been 212 police-involved shootings, leaving 88 people wounded and 56 dead — though the department notes that such shootings have decreased in recent years. Those statistics include 68 cases in which an officer fired at a suspect, but missed. There were 23 police-involved shootings last year, and 13 so far this year. Nearly all have been ruled justified.

Similarly sized American cities such as Boston and Oklahoma City each have, on average, fewer than half of Baltimore's police-involved shootings. By comparison, the countries of Japan and Britain reported no deadly police-involved shootings last year.

Of similarly sized police departments, Baltimore's 42 police-involved shootings in 2012 and 2013 are much higher than in Las Vegas (24) and San Diego (18), but similar to the slightly larger departments of Phoenix (49) and Dallas (45).

Baltimore police also discharge their firearms at about twice the rate of the nation's largest department, New York City.

Records of workers' compensation claims and awards are available online. City documents from fiscal 2013 show that several fatal shootings resulted in payouts related to PTSD, which is considered a full-body injury. City employees who are too injured to work receive temporary disability payments equal to 100 percent of their salaries, without taxes deducted. That can mean payments ranging from $167 to $749 a week, for up to 500 weeks.

In that fiscal year, one Baltimore officer was awarded $31,000 for psychological stress after he reported shooting a suspect who pulled out a weapon. Three officers were awarded $18,000 each after a shoot-out with a suspect who had killed someone in a domestic violence incident. Another was awarded $31,000 after shooting a suspect and enduring repeated nightmares. And two officers were awarded a total of $85,000 after a nearly six-hour standoff in which an officer killed his fiancee.

Four officers involved in the 2011 shooting of fellow officer William H. Torbit Jr. also filed for workers' compensation claims due to injuries or the psychological stress of the shooting. Two received undisclosed awards, including an officer who ascribed her psychological trauma to the fact that the shooting was "accidental."

Torbit was one of 30 officers who responded to control a crowd outside the Select Lounge in downtown Baltimore on the night of Jan. 9, 2011. He was not wearing a uniform and was shot by fellow officers after he opened fire on a patron, killing him. Criminal charges were not filed against any officer, but an independent commission found that supervisors failed to take control of a chaotic scene.

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The more questionable a shooting, the more it can weigh on an officer's mind, said University of Buffalo professor John M. Violanti, a former New York state trooper who researches PTSD.

"You know the press is going to look at it," he said. "The grand jury might look at it. All of these things go through the officer's mind. The scary thing is, many officers can become hesitant to fire their weapons and we may have more officers get hurt."

No recent in-custody death has gained as much attention as Tyrone West's. Two officers involved in the case filed workers' compensation claims for physical, rather than psychological, injuries, city officials said; the outcome of those cases was not immediately available. Those claims have angered West's family.

West, 44, died on July 18, 2013. Police and witnesses said he fought with officers after being pulled over while driving through Northeast Baltimore. West's family has maintained that, based on witness accounts, he was beaten to death by the officers. The medical examiner's office ruled that he died because of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat.

One witness reported in a statement to investigators that police officers pulled West out of the car "by his dreads and started beating him and maced him, he got up and called for help and the cops knocked him over and beat him to death, then tried to bring him back."

In statements released by prosecutors, several officers described a wild scene. One officer described it as the "fight of my life." Another said West was shouting "Trayvon Martin!" and "Help!" as officers attempted to subdue him during a traffic stop.

Officers acknowledged punching West, striking him with batons and spraying him with pepper spray as he resisted arrest, but a review panel determined that officers did not use excessive force. While no officers were charged in West's death, the review panel said police made tactical errors that "potentially aggravated the situation" and did not follow basic policies.

For Diane Butler, the aunt who raised West, the pain of his death is unbearable. "The suffering we have endured at the hands of the police, I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."

Tawanda Jones, West's sister, was upset to learn that officers had filed for workers' compensation. West's family maintains in court filings that he was killed by police, and has sued the officers in state court.

"It's sad to say: It pays to kill," said Jones, who with her family has held weekly rallies against alleged police brutality for more than a year. "You brutally kill an unarmed man and you get paid with our taxpayer dollars."

In another highly publicized incident, an officer who was charged with manslaughter after a fatal shooting filed for workers' compensation payments.

Former Officer Tommy Sanders was accused of unnecessarily shooting and killing a 27-year-old man who was evading arrest in 2008. Sanders told the jury that Edward Lamont Hunt made a motion as though he was reaching for a weapon as he ran from the officer in the Hamilton Park Shopping Center.

A jury acquitted Sanders of the criminal charges, but city officials settled a lawsuit with Hunt's family for $375,000.

Later, in 2011, Sanders sought workers' compensation payments for post-traumatic stress symptoms, but voluntarily withdrew his claim, records show. Sanders' friends and relatives have said that he was "deeply hurt" by the shooting, but he did not respond to requests for comment.

Attorney A. Dwight Pettit, who has represented West's family, Hunt's family and a bystander shot in the Torbit case, said families should be notified of workers' compensation claims directly related to their cases. He believes the payments reward violent behavior and calls the practice "shocking to the conscience."

In the 2013 fiscal year, the most recent data available, Baltimore police officers filed 62 workers' compensation claims because of psychological stress — 29 of which were denied. Such cases are adjudicated by the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission. The city expects to pay a total of nearly $1 million for these claims — about 7 percent of the $13.6 million awarded to police officers overall.

The pain of PTSD

Police supporters say PTSD is a real and under-diagnosed problem for a force that frequently encounters violent situations.

Professor Violanti said police officers can suffer from intrusive memories and emotional detachment from their families — conditions that may last their entire lives.

"We're human," he said. "We have emotions and feelings like everyone else. Most of us have a religion that we believe in that tells us, 'Thou shall not kill.' The officers I talk to say, 'I'm not supposed to kill.' The answer is, 'You had no choice.'"

Tabeling, the retired city officer who has also served as Salisbury's police chief, had to develop a coping mechanism to handle the impact of killing someone.

"This person had shot two or three other people, but I had some bad feelings about it," Tabeling recalled. "I worked my way through it by thinking about who this guy was, what he did, and what he did to other people."

Tabeling believes it helps officers to talk about a shooting right away. He said Baltimore officers often wait up to 10 days to give a statement to investigators, as allowed by the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. Some Baltimore police officials have said that delay can hurt an investigation, and Tabeling thinks the wait adds to the stress for both families and officers.

"Policing is a very stressful job," said Tabeling. "You never know what's going to happen when you go to work. I know when someone loses a loved one, it's stressful. But I think if it doesn't take days and days for them to get answers, it could lessen the problem."

Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former Baltimore police officer, said nearly every officer in a city as violent as Baltimore will experience some form of PTSD, such as hyper-vigilance.

"Any cop worth a damn has some PTSD symptoms," he said. "I was only on the force for 20 months and it took me three of four years to be able to put on headphones and close my eyes on the subway. Some get messed up bad, and some can still do the job. But most cops manage to function just fine."

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Moskos, who was on the city police force from 1999 to 2001, doesn't recall any training sessions on PTSD at the agency at the time. But city officials now say they have "very good" treatment programs for officers who experience PTSD.

Baltimore Police Department Capt. Mark Mason said caring for the welfare of officers is important to the agency's leaders.

Recruits are provided classes on alcohol abuse, heath and stress management, he said. Veteran members are provided assistance programs, including marriage counseling, stress management and psychological services, at no cost.

"Employee assistance services are offered immediately after a shooting or other critical incident," Mason said. "We recognize that each officer's individual response to an incident is unique and it is treated that way. ... We recognize life is full of challenges and our goal is to provide comprehensive services when our members need them most."

While Baltimore officials say they take the issue seriously, Doug Kerr, who heads the office of risk management, cautioned that the city doesn't automatically award officers for psychological issues. He says his office sees a fair share of questionable claims.

"It's not like we roll over on every claim," he said. "You got yelled at by your supervisor and now you're stressed out? It might not be a compensable claim."

Experts said there are no easy answers to solve Baltimore's long-standing problems with violence — and the police-involved shootings that can leave many officers and family members scarred. They said officers must constantly remain vigilant, and noted that 36 police officers across the country have been shot and killed this year.

Moskos pointed to America's large societal problems — a proliferation of drugs, poverty and guns — that some European and Asian counties don't struggle with at the same level. Until those factors are reduced, police-involved shootings and PTSD claims are likely to continue, he said.

"It's a unique combination of guns, poverty and the war on drugs that creates violence," Moskos said. "You put those together and it's a bad combination."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the employment status of Baltimore Police Officer Tommy Sanders. He remains employed by the Baltimore Police Department, his lawyer said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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