The gun battle raged in three different spots near the old Murphy Homes high-rise in West Baltimore, ending on a cold February day with the death of a 20-year-old man in a hail of gunfire from four city police officers.
Four years later, one of the officers claimed he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but says he never got the help he needed to cope with killing a man. Instead, Richard A. Willard says the department is trying to fire him.
The sergeant sued the Police Department this week, and is seeking an injunction in U.S. District Court court to delay his Feb. 22 termination hearing.
His legal action is drawing attention to a closely guarded concern in the law enforcement fraternity — how officers handle stress in a violent, gun-infested city, where officers have shot 115 people, killing 46, since 2006.
Union leaders say city police do a good job of providing counseling to officers in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, but fall short in recognizing long-term psychological effects. Psychiatrists and police officials interviewed all caution that each shooting is different, as is the reaction of each officer.
One active-duty officer, Andrew W. Gotwols Jr., said he was never offered help after he shot and killed two people nine months apart in 2006 and 2007. He still has nightmares that "guys are trying to shoot and kill me, and that I'm trying to shoot and kill them."
And a retired police commander who was one of the officers involved in the 2005 shooting with Willard said he suffers no ill effects from the incident, but added that after a time, "you start thinking, 'There's another close call, hopefully I can make it through my career without running out of luck.'"
The commander, retired Maj. Michael McDonald, said reaction "varies from officer to officer. Some may never ever think to ask for help and never need it, and some may need it, or need it long after the shooting."
Willard, who has been off the streets on medical leave since 2009 and now owns and operates a gourmet grilled-cheese food truck, says in his suit that he "felt regret for killing the young man, despite the justified and even necessary nature of his actions."
But, his suit says, the Police Department "did not … provide counseling" when symptoms surfaced in 2009, and denied his request for early disability retirement.
"We feel that the department is either taking a stand against the proposition of PTSD or against Mr. Willard," said the sergeant's attorney, Joshua G. Whitaker. "We think the termination proceeding is retaliatory."
Willard, who declined to be interviewed, filed a claim on Feb. 10 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and is awaiting a decision that could take up to 180 days. Whitaker said part of the reason for filing the suit now is to try postpone the termination hearing until after the EEOC rules.
Willard's union attorney, Michael Davey, would not comment on specifics of next week's disciplinary hearing, and would only say that his client faces administrative charges for alleged misconduct outside his job.
Attorneys would not say whether the 19-year veteran's problems were a result of PTSD, but the lawsuit says he has nightmares, has difficulty making decisions, has "issues with personal relationships" and can no longer handle a firearm.
Willard is to go on trial in April on an assault charge in Howard County, is involved in a contentious divorce in which his wife obtained a restraining order, and in February of 2011 started having his city wages garnished for a bank debt of more than $8,300, according to court records.
City Solicitor George Nilson declined to comment on the suit, as did the chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, Anthony Guglielmi, saying it is against policy to comment on pending litigation.
But Guglielmi denied that the department does not offer help. He said a Critical Incident Stress Team responds to police-involved shooting scenes and that before returning to duty, officers are required to see a counselor at Mercy Medical Center.
He said Gotwols, like all other officers involved in shootings, could not have been returned to duty without being declared fit by at least one group of doctors.
"There's no question that the emotional trauma of a police-involved shooting can impact an officer," Guglielmi said. "The department takes that extraordinarily seriously, which is why we have a built-in relationship with mental health providers, counselors and support services.
"We encourage members who have issues to take advantage of those services. The help is there."
If doctors at Mercy deem it necessary, officers are sent to Psychology Consultants Associated in Towson. Its head, Dr. Kenneth S. Sachs, said officers react differently to traumatic events but many typically exhibit anxiety, remorse and second-guessing.