Veteran Midwest City police officers reveal emotional, psychological impact of shootings
MIDWEST CITY — Twenty-five years ago this month, Midwest City police Capt. Jerry Kennedy was sitting in his police cruiser working on an accident report when a couple alerted him to a driver who was reportedly drinking beer and running people off the road.
It was a chance encounter that would forever change Kennedy, who was then a four-year veteran police officer.
“I pull in several cars back and this guy turns south on Sooner (Road). He's going about 15 miles an hour, just all over the road. You can see him drinking beer, so I turn on my lights and I bump my siren and he continues and turns onto Damron [Drive] about two houses down and stops,” Kennedy said.
“He gets out of his car and he has a handgun hanging down to his side, so I get between my car door and my car like they teach us and I draw my gun and I just keep yelling at him to drop his gun.
“He starts to walk towards me, then he'd stop and then he'd say, ‘I'm not going to jail. You're going to have to shoot me,'” Kennedy said. “This went on for like a minute and 26 seconds if I remember right and finally, he just started to raise the gun and I shot once,” Kennedy said.
“At first, I thought, ‘Crap, did I miss him?' because he lowered the gun immediately once I fired. He just stood there and I'm thinking, surely I didn't miss, and then he just literally laid himself down on the ground.
“I just stood there. When another officer got there, they went up and were checking on him. I remember just going and sitting on my back bumper because I was literally about to pass out and throw up at the same time because all this adrenaline hit,” he said.
Kennedy later learned the man had scrawled a suicide note on the paper bag with the beer in it.
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“He'd planned on doing this, but he just didn't want to do it himself, I guess,” Kennedy said.
The shooting was cleared by the district attorney, and death threats made by the man's family toward Kennedy and his own kin subsided within months, he said.
Counseling for officers involved in shootings was not yet mandated by the department. Kennedy said he was confident in his actions that day and didn't feel like he needed it.
“I just kept shutting my emotions off whenever it would bother me or I'd see the funeral procession or I'd go to a funeral even, thinking, I caused somebody to be there. And it would bug me,” Kennedy said.
“Then I noticed I was getting short-tempered and things at home — I was arguing a lot. It was weird, one time I was going down 23rd Street and I remember seeing a funeral procession and it really bothered me and I started thinking about it over and over and over. Finally, I went to my captain and said, ‘Hey, I think I need to go to counseling,'” Kennedy said.
What the counselor told him during one of their three sessions has stayed with him.
“She said, ‘You dealt with it as a police officer, but you never dealt with it as Jerry.' She said, ‘It's OK to be upset. It's OK to cry about it. It's OK to feel bad about it as a human being and not as a police officer,'” Kennedy said.
“After that, it was like instant relief. I thought, ‘Okay, I'm normal for feeling like crap,'” he said.
“Emotionally, professionally, I was challenged. I shot somebody, took somebody's life and I didn't know how to deal with that until somebody helped me deal with that and then it put things in perspective,” Kennedy said.
“You start thinking, ‘Is there anything else I could have done? Why did it happen to me? You think, ‘Could this kid have just gotten the help at the right time?' All these things that you can't change, it happened, right? But you think about what if, you know?
“Then you realize, if it wasn't me, it would have been someone. I don't know who it would have been or he would have just ran into someone, maybe, and killed them. But it was going to be somebody that day, it sounds like, and it just happened to be me,” Kennedy said.
“I just didn't want it to consume me. You can either let it consume you or you can move on. I didn't dwell on it as much and then, of course, time heals all wounds kind of deal, so it got better as time went,” he said.
“When another officer is involved in a shooting, of course I think about it, and when the time's right, if they need someone to talk to or share something with, I try to be there. Captain Wipfli, he's one of my best friends, and his was more stressful than mine was by all means. He seemed fine with his, and I'm extremely proud of how he acted or reacted,” Kennedy said.
‘I did what I had to do'
Capt. Greg Wipfli was off duty working an extra security job when an armed bank robber walked into the Credit Union Service Center in May 2006.
“We had a little glassed-in 10-by-10 office or so, so we could see out the front and also see the bank. I was at the desk, I had my laptop computer there. I was working on some reports when I heard someone say, ‘Oh my God' in the bank,” Wipfli said.
“I look outside at the sidewalk, and there's a guy walking down the sidewalk with a chrome handgun in his hand and a ski mask over his face, so when I saw him, I had time to stand up, draw my gun, and as he's walking in, he's got the gun pointed at the tellers. I started to shoot at him,” he said.
“Now you may ask why I just immediately started shooting. In those situations, the Supreme Court has ruled when applicable, we have to give some type of warning but in that situation, I felt this guy is pointing his gun at a teller. He could turn and shoot at me before I could process that and decide a course of action. It wasn't feasible for me to say, ‘Police officer. Drop the gun or I'll shoot you.' I could have been shot myself, he could have shot a teller. I remember my slide going off, and then I can remember seeing a muzzle flash coming at me,” Wipfli said.
“I hit the floor, crawled basically on my hands and knees up to the door, and I can remember thinking, ‘Don't get hit in the face because you've got to be able to see this guy to stop him.' I switch to my left hand, I'm right-handed. I grab the doorway, and I'm kind of on a knee and as I come out, I shoot three more times at him because he's still coming at me,” he said. “I shot three more times and he literally fell at my feet face-up. I grab his gun, stick it down the back of my waistband, roll him over and handcuff him. I start yelling out to the other people, ‘Hey, is everyone OK?' ”
“When I pulled the mask off, I noticed the blood start coming out of him. I hit him five times. I shot eight times. At that time, I got up, locked the door, I got on the radio and started calling for help,” Wipfli said.
“They determined he shot at me five times. If I wouldn't have moved, there was a bullet that skipped off the top of the desk and there was another bullet in the wall behind me.”
The robber lived, spending the better part of a month in a medically induced coma. He pleaded guilty to bank robbery and was sentenced to 168 months in federal prison. It was his third conviction for bank robbery.
Once federal time has been served, the robber will begin a 30-year state prison sentence on shooting with intent to kill.
“At the time, my son was about 3 months old. When I got home, my wife, she understands what I do and she's very supportive and she's very strong, and that night, I got home and just sat on the couch with everyone and ... ”
Wipfli's voice breaks and tears well in his eyes.
“I'm getting a little emotional right now, still, and it's been 10 years,” he said.
“I'm pretty laid back. I don't get bothered much. I did what I had to do to protect myself and everyone in that bank. I don't hold a grudge towards him or anything. Now, the next time I see him, I may not feel that way. But it's been 10 years, and I've worked through a lot of things over the past 10 years,” Wipfli said.
“It's actually helped me by telling that story over and over and over again. The first time I told it, I could barely get through it because I'd choke up. I didn't have a whole lot of problems with this incident as far as nightmares or anything like that, but just when I would talk about it or I would think about my family and how close I was, that would kind of get me,” he said.
“It's comforting to know you did the right thing and you're not going to go to jail because there's officers that make those bad decisions and there's pretty big consequences. It's not just you're suspended. You're looking at jail time. Those things run through your mind,” Wipfli said.
“I felt confident that day after the shooting. I knew what that guy was there for. He had a gun, a mask and a duffel bag,” he said.
“I knew my situation was good and there wasn't any problems with it, but watching the news every night and seeing the stories on TV and what everyone is saying is stressful and thinking about what could have happened is stressful. I'm telling you, no one wants to be in a shooting, but I'm glad that I was able to do what I did because that would have turned out really badly,” Wipfli said.
“One of the things I wanted to do to get closure and get back into the swing of things is I wanted to work security at that bank again. Well, I was working a shift there and this was several months later, and the front door broke. And when someone opened it, the door closer thing snapped and it went ‘pow,' and that got my heart racing and I was trying to be as cool as I could,” he said.
‘We signed on to this to help people'
Wipfli came face-to-face with a man who attempted to kill him, but Lt. Roger Ross killed a man who didn't even know he was there. That shooting happened after a man barricaded himself inside his home with his son in October 2003.
“We got a call-out about a man who'd shot at an officer already and had his son in the house as a hostage. I think he'd buried his mom that day and had a lot of issues. Bad divorce, all that. I was deployed as one of the snipers,” he said.
“He'd called our dispatch and talked about how his ex-family members were harassing him and wanted to make a report or was going to shoot somebody if they showed up. The officer responds, and she's walking up there with her notepad, going to take a report, and she opens the doors and here's this kid, and then I guess the man is sitting kind of Indian-style inside the apartment with a shotgun. She pushes the kid aside and backs out, and he fires and hits the screen door, and there's glass shards all over and she's returning fire. There's one way in and out, and it would be right in line with his fire, so she's kind of trapped there for a little while,” Ross said.
“We get snipers deployed, our rescue team moves up and gets her out of harm's way and another officer out of harm's way and then they started negotiations with this guy and he just wasn't having it,” he said.
A phone was thrown onto the porch in an attempt to establish communication.
“I'm across the street watching what's going on and he kind of holds the gun to his kid's head and tells him to go get it, and then you don't see him again. They try to negotiate for another two or three hours maybe.”
Communications break down and the man informs negotiators he is going to start killing people.
“When he steps out on the porch, he's got this rifle and he'd worked the action and taken aim at these officers down here and squeezed the trigger and it didn't go off. And he's working the action again and when he brought it up again, that's when I shot him,” Ross said.
“He dropped right there. I'm on the radio telling the rescue team to go in and get that kid. Well, they've got to go in and get him and then they've got to walk him back out and his dad is right there, you know? I'm thinking, ‘Holy cow. Take him out the side door.' But there wasn't a side door,” he said.
“When it's going on, it sounds strange, but everything kind of falls into slow motion. I didn't even feel the report of the rifle or feel the kick of the rifle. My voice wasn't shaking. Just calm and to the point because that's what we've trained on. It's the stuff that kind of catches up to you later on,” Ross said.
“The first night I didn't sleep very well at all, and we still have to be investigated any time we pull the trigger, so that kind of raises your stress a little bit. Even though you know you did everything by the book, you're still a suspect on what you present to the district attorney, so that's strange,” he said.
“I'd say a year or two down the road is when I was kind of having weird thoughts about, you know, the guy didn't even know I was there. Almost felt like a coward,” Ross said.
“I almost felt guilty for not feeling guilty because I knew I did my job. I did what I was trained to do. I'm a Baptist preacher's son, so I was raised in church and the Ten Commandments and ‘thou shalt not kill.' The more I looked into it, it's ‘thou shalt not murder' because there's a lot of people in the Bible that had to kill people. I was glad that I did my job, glad that nobody else got hurt, but you always wonder about this kid having to step over his dad,” Ross said.
“That one bit me quite a bit later on because I guess it was about two years after that, my dad was in the hospital and just had open-heart surgery, and I have two brothers and we'd take turns. Somebody would be at the hospital with him 24 hours because he had a few difficulties with it and during my watch, he basically died in my hands,” he said.
“I'm watching his eyes roll back, and I'm thinking, and it's silly to think this, but, ‘Is this payback for me taking this kid's dad in front of him? Now my dad's going to be taken? Luckily, my dad was in the hospital and they brought him back and he's alive and well today,” Ross said.
“If you're lucky, you never have to pull your gun at all during your entire career and there's been several people that haven't had to do that. You hope that if the time comes and you don't have a choice, you do what's right and if you save a life or take a life, just understand that's part of the job,” he said.
“My marriage at that time didn't make it through years down the road, and I attribute a little bit to the shooting, but most of all I think that was when I didn't have faith first and the two combined, I think kind of destroyed that marriage,” Ross said.
“I think there's several officers that have been involved in critical incidents that for some reason down the road, the marriage didn't make it either. I won't blame that on any one thing, but I'd say it's kind of part of it. You wish they could understand what you go through every day, but if I don't communicate that to them, they're not going to understand,” he said.
“I've always been kind of quiet anyway and I'm not a public speaker by any stretch of the imagination. If someone asks me a direct question, I'll answer the question, but I usually don't offer anything extra. And I think it got worse after that because I didn't want to bring work to home, I guess, and I didn't want to put them through anything that they didn't need to be through and I guess I just kind of locked up,” Ross said.
“I, personally, I woke from a dead sleep thinking I just did this again. You're all tensed up and back in the moment. It doesn't happen often, but you still lose sleep over it,” he said.
“For a while there, it's something you couldn't get out of your head. Every day, I thought about something to do with it. I'd lay in bed for two or three hours and just couldn't shut my brain off. I never had that problem, really, before that,” Ross said.
“People that don't know anything about police work or what we do probably think that we do come to work hoping to get involved in a shooting or something like that and that's the farthest thing from it. We signed on to this to help people, and sometimes helping people is doing bad things.”
‘It's not a TV show'
Shootings also take a toll on the investigators and the officer's supervisors.
“The people that I work with on a daily basis are my second family. I actually spent more time with them than I do my family,” Police Chief Brandon Clabes said.
Clabes, as a major and later as police chief, released information to the media and public about all three shootings.
“I have a relationship with them, so when they're involved in a psychologically stressful situation, I feel like my number one role is to make sure the officer is physically and psychologically OK,” Clabes said. “Then we have to provide a process that is independent, based on fact and integrity to produce the most accurate picture of what happened.”
Clabes said one of the first things he does after a shooting is get a brief walk-through of what transpired, then he takes possession of the weapon that fired the shots. Then the officer is placed on paid leave.
“We have to conduct the investigation in the same way that we'd conduct an investigation on anyone else,” Clabes said.
“At that point, they've been sentenced to a life sentence without parole. What I mean is that they have to live with this situation the rest of their lives,” he said.
“We see divorces from people who have been involved in critical incidents. We've seen them resort to substances. Sometimes they deal with it day by day, sometimes it's hour by hour and sometimes it's minute by minute,” Clabes said.
“It takes a toll on administrators, not only myself but my executive staff. These people are very close to us, and we don't want to see them suffer just from doing their job as a police officer,” he said.
“It takes an internal toll on us and me because I don't ever want any of my officers to be in that situation. And when I go home and I say my prayers to my God, who is Jesus Christ, I know at any moment, at any second it could be one of my officers,” Clabes said.
“The public demands almost immediate news. Word gets out there and we don't have the opportunity to present the facts until we've collected the facts,” he said.
“With the age of social media and camera phones and in-car cameras and body cameras, there are no secrets anymore,” Clabes said. “We obviously want to protect our people, but we're not going to shade the investigation even though it's obviously more personal because it's someone we work with on a daily basis.
“The positive spin-off on these situations, is that we've evolved away from the stigma of these situations. We made it mandatory that they go see a psychologist. I've seen great strides in that area, but you've also got the officer's family who suffers through it too,” Clabes said.
Kennedy, the police captain, said: “It's not uncommon to go on an unattended death. It's not uncommon to go on violent domestics. Those things are routine. Sadly, they're routine. But we still go. We still have to take pictures and write the reports, and we put that in the back of our mind, and eventually, you've got to deal with it some way.”
“You have to kind of sit back sometimes and think about some of the fun things about your job that you enjoy because if you dwell on some of the bad things, that's all you'll start doing. Then you'll take it home and then your life just starts to kind of blow up,” he said.
“When it's over out there, that's where personally it starts. But not a lot of people ask about that. We're not robots. It's not a TV show. We lose officers to suicide every day for stuff they see, things they've been involved in and nobody ever talks about it. Agencies don't talk about it. Nobody wants to hear about it.”