October 14, 2013

Trauma training for law enforcement raises oft silent issues

PLATTSBURGH — In 2009, Cattaraugus County Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb’s lost a friend, mentor and long-time coworker to suicide.

Dennis John was the former Cattaraugus County sheriff.

Whitcomb was one of three who found his body, he told participants at a recent Trauma Resources and Unified Management Assistance training program at South Plattsburgh Fire Department.

He shared his story as an example of a traumatic scenario that police officers may encounter during their careers.


Whitcomb’s presentation focused largely on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One of the most unnerving aspects about working in law enforcement is not knowing when a potentially dangerous or traumatic incident will occur — while knowing for sure that it will happen at some point in the future, he told the 50 or so area law enforcement administrators and supervisors in attendance. 

“You go from really routine matters to extremely volatile situations (quickly),” said Tony Perez, deputy commissioner of the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, which developed the training program.

Perez worked as a patrol officer in Rochester beginning in the 1980s and responded to hundreds of shootings and other disturbing incidents in his career, he said.

And even in areas where violent crimes aren’t as common, it’s almost inevitable that police will see things that most people can’t imagine.

“It’s important that they know there are other people that have been through these traumatic incidents,” Perez said.


Whitcomb said he had a difficult time making sense of what had happened in the weeks and months following the tragedy.

Looking back, he believes he was suffering from PTSD.

But he found solace in speaking with the two officers he was with when they found John. The three still occasionally talk about what happened and their memories of the former sheriff.

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