Being shot often changes life view, officers say

December 16, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Reporter

It was April 1979, and Officer Michael Dunn stopped the black van on South Hanover Street because the taillights were out. What he didn't know was that the driver was holding a loaded gun and several boxes of ammunition and had just raped two women.

Dunn asked for the man's driver's license, and as he was examining it, the man pulled out at .32-caliber gun and shot him three times - hitting him in the chest, arm and left leg. The shooter went to jail, and within a month Dunn was back on the street, on patrol for the Baltimore Police Department.

"There is the old saying about falling off the horse and getting right back on," Dunn said yesterday. "I didn't want this guy to change my life and my career."

Dunn - who is now assigned to the honor guard for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police and helps organize police funerals - said the experience only made him more eager to lock up bad guys. But others stress that police officers involved with shootings are almost always changed by the experience. The officers tend to become much more cautious and aware of their mortality.

It is too early to know what the three police officers who were shot in the Baltimore area this month will want to do next - or what they'll be able to do.

At least one of the officers, Tfc. Eric Workman, has already indicated that he wants to go back to work, according to his colleagues. He was hit by a car several years ago, and returned to the force.

Baltimore police officer Momodu Gondo left Maryland Shock Trauma Center on Thursday. Baltimore County officer David Garner was still in serious condition yesterday.

"These officers, when they get shot, I haven't met too many of them that are the same afterward," said Sgt. Don Helms, a 36-year veteran of the Baltimore police department and a police chaplain. "They'll tell you they are [the same]. But they aren't.

"When they come back to the street their personalities totally change," he added. "They realize that they could have died. They realize that the next moment is not theirs, that it is in hands of God."

If in the past the officer would confront a group of 10 to 12 men on a corner, after a shooting the officer will call for backup, Helms said. If an officer who's been shot is serving a warrant, Helms said, he will be even more careful about planning for the next one.

Helms recalled nearly getting killed early in his career when he tussled with an armed robbery suspect.

The gunman pushed him into a bin full of fish heads and guts - and then Helms heard a gunshot. He wondered if he'd been hit. Then he realized that the blast came from a gun that belonged to a citizen trying to protect him.

"When I came back to the field, I mentally was different," he said. "I knew I could do the job a lot differently. You should take the safety precautions. You should not go into situations without help."

Those who worked closely with officers who get shot in the line of duty are also affected by the violence.

The three police shootings have made the troopers in the Westminster barracks double- and triple-check their equipment and plans, said Detective Sgt. Chuck Moore. He supervises Workman, who was shot trying to arrest a man on a warrant.

Troopers might now take special precautions to ensure that all the flaps on their ballistic vests are extra tight, he said.

"It just makes you over-think things. ... That will probably go away after a while, but it's just a scary thing," he said.

Officers walk a fine line between thinking and reacting in a volatile situation.

It is possible for police to react by becoming too cautious, said Dr. James McGee, a former psychologist for the Baltimore County Police Department.

He added that officers have intense training on using their weapons. "These ideally should be automatic response. What starts happening, they start thinking about it.

"It's a reminder," he said, "one of thousands of reminders, that [officers] are in an extraordinarily dangerous business."

Sun reporters Nicholas Shields, Laura McCandlish, Mary Gail Hare and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.

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