Life of a Police Officer: Medically and Psychologically Ruinous

The intensely challenging job of law enforcement is linked to many health issues. I met a former officer who tried to protect my high school friend and learned the effect her death had on him.
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Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Police officer Brian Post recognized the 16-year-old girl lying face down in the grass at the Whispering Pines apartment complex in Lynnwood, Washington. He had gotten to know her in recent weeks, helping her obtain a restraining order against her abusive ex-boyfriend. Now, here was Sangeeta Lal, unconscious, with two bullets in her chest.

He knew she was a good kid. Brian had spoken to Sangeeta over the phone just a few hours earlier. He knew her mom worked the early shift, and she would be alone. He promised he would come immediately if anything went wrong.

The call came into 911 at 4:18 a.m. that someone was breaking into her apartment. James McCray, 21, had arrived dressed in dark clothes and a red and black stocking cap, according to police reports. He chased Sangeeta outside. “Please don’t,” neighbors heard Sangeeta scream, before he shot her.

Brian didn’t make it to the complex in time. He found her sprawled just beyond the sliding glass door of her neighbor’s apartment. He looked up and saw a little girl peering through a window at the teenager in the grass. He felt Sangeeta’s neck. It pulsed, and pulsed again. Then, no more. He touched her face.

“I know who the guy is, and I know where he went,” Brian told his partner. As the officers moved in on apartment 265 with weapons drawn, James looked out of the window and killed himself with a single bullet.

It was 1995, and for the next 19 years, Brian would blame himself for not being closer to Whispering Pines, for not saving Sangeeta. Brian was 31 when she was killed, and had been an officer for five years.

“She was in the worst environment, and she was trying,” said Brian, now 50. “You never know when you’ve saved a life, but you know when you’ve lost one.”

Sangeeta’s death marked the beginning of a downward spiral in Brian’s health, spurred on by a psychologically and physically challenging law enforcement career. Brian had been a healthy and fit ex-airborne infantry soldier when he began his policing career. But he eventually developed hypertension, anxiety, peripheral neuropathy, hearing loss, arthritis, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

When he was starting out, Brian says he wasn’t warned of how the career could do such damage. In 2012, an unprecedented study of 464 police officers, published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health linked officers’ stress with increased levels of sleep disorders, Hodgkin's lymphoma, brain cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and suicide.

Other studies have found that between 7 and 19 percent of active duty police have PTSD, while MRIs of police officers’ brains have found a connection between experiencing trauma and a reduction in areas that play roles in emotional and cognitive decision-making, memory, fear, and stress regulation.

In squad rooms full of cops, Brian would compare blood pressure meds with his colleagues. Most, if not all, of the police he knew with more than 10 years of service were dealing some kind of medical or psychological issue.

At night, Brian would hide his drinking from his wife. He went from sipping whiskey, to downing cheap 100-proof vodka.

 “You see nothing but bodies, I swear, dead people,” he said. “Car accidents, hangings, suicides, murders, SIDS deaths.” He remembered a diabetic who killed himself by overdosing on chocolate. And then there was the conversation with a tongue-pierced meth user with an enlarged heart who had told Brian, “I’m white trash until the day I die.” He assaulted people in a parking lot and died in custody after deputies restrained him. The next day, Brian found himself close to fainting after viewing the autopsy photos of the same kid’s esophagus, and pierced tongue.

“I was so angry at this one woman for dying, that I yelled at her,” he said. “I just didn’t want to see another dead body…I should have recognized at that point, it’s time for me to back up.”

Years passed, and every once in while, Brian would Google Sangeeta Lal’s name. He wondered who else remembered her. He wondered if anyone had memorialized her.

*  *  *

Every few years, I would Google Sangeeta’s name too.

She was my friend, and high school classmate. We were the same age. Like the rest of her friends, I had known about her abusive boyfriend, who was gang affiliated, and how she had broken it off, which only enraged him more.

Sangeeta had the face of a child, round and cheeky, with long wavy black hair that she smoothed down with coconut oil. She usually showed up to school in lipstick the same shade as her nails, and jeans four sizes too big for her 5-foot frame, cuffed at the bottoms and held up with a long belt. Her family had relocated from Fiji to our town 22 minutes north of Seattle.

Our campus sat between a grove of evergreen trees on one side, and a run-down mall on the other. It had all of the makings of a public school caught in the throes of a changing urban city. Gangs had begun infiltrating the area, and with them came the occasional drive-by shooting, drug deal, or murder. My freshman year, murders, robberies, rapes, and assaults jumped by 18.4 percent in our county from the previous year, according to The Seattle Times, and our 29,000-resident city of Lynnwood had the highest crime rate in the county per capita that year—about 110 crimes committed for every 1,000 residents.

Sangeeta’s apartment complex was about five minutes away from mine. Police referred to Whispering Pines as “Whispering Crimes,” Brian later said. On slow nights, officers would drive through the complex and inevitably find someone breaking the law. Sangeeta’s single mother worked an early shift at the Nintendo of America headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Sangeeta was killed on the same day that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168.

That afternoon, I waited for news of Sangeeta’s death to come over the television set. But all channels went back to firefighters and frantic parents in Oklahoma. When the newspaper mentioned the murder-suicide the next day, it printed her age wrong. It said she was in her late teens, or maybe 20. It didn’t mention her name at all. So I wrote a front-page story about Sangeeta for The Royal Gazette, our high school newspaper. She was the first person I had known and cared about who died violently, and the first death I ever covered as a journalist.

I would go on to become a national reporter, covering many more shootings, deaths, and high profile news events. Sixteen years after Sangeeta died, I ended up writing about a college class on death. It was in New Jersey, taught by Dr. Norma Bowe, a registered nurse who also held a master’s degree in health administration, a Ph.D. in community health policy. I also became a student in her class.

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Erika Hayasaki is an assistant professor of literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine, and a former national correspondent at the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life.

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