Is Officer PTSD Being Properly Addressed, Or Covered By Stigma?

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (Pontiac)— Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a highly complicated, stigmatized issue in law enforcement. As a result, little data exists to demonstrate how widespread this and other mental health issues are among officers. In Wauwatosa Wisconsin, one former detective experienced first hand how her department handled PTSD. According to her resignation letter, she was shamed and even sabotaged by colleagues and supervisors. Her pleas for assistance were ignored, and her medications were even taken.

The letter was obtained through a series of open records requests filed by Cop Block Network contributors, and freelancers. Initially, the Wauwatosa Police Department provided a two-sentence paper with ex-detective Robin Schumacher’s electronic signature. At the time, there was reason to believe WPD hadn’t provided the full document.

After WPD delayed and bounced around a second request, a 25-page resignation letter was finally released. However, large swaths of the letter–including officer names, and all references to PTSD–were redacted. Department officials stated this was done to protect the officers’ reputations and personal health information of employees. An unredacted copy was eventually obtained via Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD), which investigated Schumacher’s claims and found them credible.

 

Robin Schumacher’s 2013 resignation was covered to varied degrees by local media between 2013 and 2015. Most reported on her alleged stealing of prescription pills from the evidence room, WPD’s reason for removing her. To the city, Schumacher was simply an “junkie” who was being expelled from the ranks. One article, however, covered the $77,000 settlement She left in the wake of her resignation.

Schumacher detailed her subjection to years of sexual harassment, intimidation, and LGBTQ-focused discrimination. Mounting stress eventually punctuated mental health issues, including PTSD, she’d struggled with. Here’s why, after four years, this isn’t old news.

 

  1. When Schumacher’s resignation was first reported, most local outlets focused on the claim that she stole drugs. Just one article, written two years later, covered the harassment she’d detailed in her resignation letter. It doesn’t show a high share count, if any at all. It also focused on the harassment, not the repeated sabotage and stigma related to PTSD and mental illness.
  2. Since her leaving, WPD hired one officer in 2015–Joseph Mensah–who then killed twice in an 11 month period. The second killing, of 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr., brought deep controversy to the suburb. To this day, some feel the case was covered up, and worry of Mensah’s psychological stability. His first shoot occurred  while he was still in the probationary period. He was cleared of both killings, facing no public consequences.
  3. What happened in Schumacher’s case begs the question of how WPD views mental health, and other issues among its officers. How are these things handled, and is there an environment for officers to comfortably report problems? If not, then could a petrie dish of systemic issues be internally wracking this department? Are it’s officers then liabilities to the community if they’re not being screened?

For these reasons, it’s necessary to further explore key bits of Schumacher’s letter. As an aside, affiliates of Pontiac and The Fifth Column News have filed a lawsuit involving the Schumacher files. The details of the suit and its circumstances are quite sensitive, and that’s all affiliates will currently share. As such, consider Schumacher’s experiences with mental illness at WPD info the department prefers contained.

  A Career Broken By Stigma, And Pressure To Keep Quiet

   

Robin Schumacher began her WPD career in 1999, and stayed for 14 years later. By 2000, she’d been harassed by fellow officers based around her sexual orientation. According to her resignation letter, besides Schumacher, there were no openly gay officers at the mostly white male department. Reporting the harassment didn’t help, and sometimes supervisors would either turn blind eyes or join in.

These events eventually escalated to more disturbing incidents, including one supervisor grabbing his crotch asking Schumacher if she “wanted that”. She’d also claimed supervisors punished her by routinely denying her backup.

“This was a common practice by veteran officers on our department”, she wrote, “to silence newer officers when problems would arise.” Schumacher even recalled one planned drug sting which depended on several officers and squads converging on a target vehicle at once. When she gave the word, as the operation’s leader, only her and another female officer jumped the car while their backup watched.

As the years went on, stress from continued harassment and traumatic cases she’d worked mounted. Schumacher began experiencing anxiety, night terrors, and other symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This peaked following a case involving ”horrific” child abuse, and then the murder of a female WPD officer by her own husband. “I fought hard for these victims”, she wrote, “and protected their rights but mine were taken away from me when I came to work”.

Schumacher was prescribed several medications and was undergoing talk therapy and desensitization treatment. Expenses mounted, however, forcing her to reach out to her supervisors. Schumacher hoped the department would cover some of her expenses to continue treatment.

According to her, a lieutenant answered “with his honest opinion”, saying “I’ll cover those third shift guys but not for any other pussy”. She ultimately wasn’t given treatment assistance.The same individual, in fact, was noted as having been central to Schumacher’s harassment.

Later, while experiencing physical illness resulting from stress and medication side-effects, Schumacher requested time off. According to her letter, she’d obtained doctor’s notes proving she was sick and needed rest. Her Lieutenant granted one day, then gave a direct order to return to work despite her doctor’s recommendations.  She was similarly denied recuperation time after being accidentally electrocuted and thrown across a room. Despite this happening inside the department–with responding medical personnel–she was accused of faking the injury.

Department officials then took Schumacher’s medications from her in a separate matter during an internal investigation. Although she was cleared, supervisors seized her prescribed medications at work during a search warrant. After trying to take them back due to intensified PTSD symptoms, she was arrested and removed.

Many local outlets circulated headlines labeling Schumacher a “junkie” upon her 2013 resignation. Only one article covered the settlement she won against WPD and the city, publishing two years later.

During the suit, documents obtained by Pontiac and Cop Block writers show, all WPD employees were ordered to silence for fear of losing their jobs. None were to aid Schumacher in her case, or present themselves as witnesses of any kind. Schumacher eventually left Wauwatosa, and hasn’t responded to media inquiries since her resignation. Pontiac, Fifth Column News, and Cop Block contributors attempted to contact her to no avail.

What Her Whistleblowing Means Today

 

Robin Schumacher’s whistleblowing spoke to many things, particularly mental health stigmatization in policing. By her account, Tosa PD’s leadership constantly downplayed the severity of her issues. Dismissing psychological distress causes it’s own harm, depending on the person. However, it’s clear what damage abruptly quitting prescription meds can cause. Withdrawals can not only be physically debilitating, but dangerous psychologically. By stripping Schumacher of her medication, WPD willfully compromised an officer.

Bringing this to the present, with Schumacher gone and her case settled. She stressed the systematic way WPD keeps internal issues from going public. Could officers still be facing pressure to keep quiet on issues? Perhaps the best possibility would be Officer Joseph Mensah, responsible for Wauwatosa’s last shooting.

Mensah is a younger officer, having moved around three departments in a  five-year career. Upon arrival at Wauwatosa in 2015, he was involved in the shooting of 29-year-old Antonio Gonzalez. Officers were called to Gonzolez’s home after calls that he was becoming violent. When Mensah and backup arrived, Gonzolez was reputedly exiting his home with a samurai sword. Mensah unloaded his service Glock after Gonzalez–who reputedly was bipolar and manic–didn’t drop the sword.

Within 11 months after that shooting, Mensah then shot 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr. several times in the head. Anderson was killed alone in his car at 3 am in a public park in the summer of 2016. Anderson’s family say he’d pulled over to avoid driving while intoxicated. Mensah approached Anderson’s car without waiting for backup and engaged in a brief dialogue. Officer Mensah said Anderson had a gun in the front seat and shot after claiming Anderson tried to grab it.

However, the gun wasn’t photographed on the scene and was removed by officers who arrived after Mensah fired. Additionally, close to no footage–particularly of key minutes before the shooting–exist. Mensah claimed his body cam wouldn’t work, and his squad car cam only captured 20 seconds.

WPD refused to identify Mensah, or hold a press conference for months. After he was cleared, WPD officials announced Mensah was going back to work without supervision. Anderson’s family, their lawyer, and numerous residents have expressed worries that he isn’t stable. Despite concerns that he should have been psychologically evaluated, WPD hasn’t been at all transparent.

If Officer Mensah did seek psychological help, could he have been denied by his superiors? Without Robin Schumacher’s letter, residents would be left to assume he’d be properly aided. However, that’s the exact opposite of what the ex-detective describes. Instead, Schumacher suggested WPD is willing to force officers to push through it. Get back on the horse while, in Schumacher’s case, being denied the ability to properly medicate or treat themselves.

Additionally, Mensah fits the kind of officer Schumacher said would be targeted. Newer personnel, specifically those that rock the boat or cause departmental issues. If problems arise, they’re quickly contained from public view and scrutiny. As a new officer, in one case while still probationary, Mensah killed two locals. Particularly in Anderson’s case, residents and loved ones condemned the act as overkill. Police shootings aren’t a common occurrence for Tosa to experience. As such, Mensah’s body count and WPD’s quick lip tightening disturbed many.

“I wouldn’t want him to be the one coming to my door”, said resident Loretta Lynch in a video interview. Lynch is part of a local group called Tosa Together, focused on increasing diversity and tolerance in the mostly white suburb. Her group became involved in the Jay Anderson shooting after his family launched protests throughout the city. These were launched precisely due to the lack of transparency on what happened, and who fired. In the interview, Lynch noted the implied trauma of killing twice in under a year.

“I would like to see them be really transparent about what happens”, she said to the author during the interview. “Did people leave him out to dry, and not give him enough back up? I think all that needs to be made public, and that their general practices need to be reviewed.”

Unfortunately, Mensah was cleared and is back out patrolling by himself. Due to the way WPD handling of both shootings, most residents don’t even know what Mensah looks like. No review has been conducted, and how widespread psych issues are among Wauwatosa officers is entirely unknown.

As police reform becomes increasingly vital, acknowledging mental health stigma must take the forefront. Police not only need more training in dealing with mentally ill people, but mechanisms to deal with their own issues. Creating an environment where it’s abundantly clear that issues are not to leave the station only breeds liabilities.

In Robin Schumacher’s experience, WPD went as far as to label her a junkie rather than allow her claims to go public. In the case of Joseph Mensah, nothing has been put forward to ensure he won’t kill again. At every turn, WPD has dodged citizen questions, letters, and media appearances. Wauwatosa’s mayor Kathleen Ehley won’t even take questions regarding Mensah or the Jay Anderson shooting.

At a certain point, stigma becomes systematic and self-serving. How many sacrifices must be made, officers broken, and lives taken before PTSD and mental health stigma is addressed? It’s a question which took Robin Schumacher’s career, and possibly Jay Anderson his life.