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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on April 5th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 5 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 5

Bound by experience: Local law enforcement agencies aid the Lompoc Police Department after the loss of an officer to suicide

By JOE PAYNE

Deafening silence filled the parking lot of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Lompoc. Rows of law enforcement and military personnel in formal uniform stood at attention, all awaiting the removal of Miguel Grijalva’s casket from the hearse parked there. Only the occasional gust of wind or passing car dared break the somber calm at the March 17 memorial for Grijalva, a Lompoc Police Department (LPD) officer and U.S. Marine veteran who took his life earlier that month.

Sweat beaded on brows beneath peaked caps or tan campaign hats. The deep blue uniforms of LPD officers absorbed heat from the glaring noonday sun. Citizens and passersby kept a respectful distance as everyone waited. Grijalva’s family stood off to one side, clad in black, also awaiting the call of “Attention!” from Lompoc’s Sgt. Bryan Dillard.

The silence remained unbroken as the casket was carried into the sanctuary of the church, and members of just about every law enforcement agency in Santa Barbara County filed in. There were Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office deputies, Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) officers, U.S. Marines in their dress blues, and U.S. Air Force personnel there to give their respects.


BANDING TOGETHER
The Lompoc Police Department received support from Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office deputies as well as Santa Maria Police Department officers who patrolled the streets of Lompoc on March 17 while officer Miguel Grijalva was laid to rest.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Most of the LPD was able to attend the funeral, according to Police Chief Pat Walsh, thanks to Sheriff’s Office deputies, SMPD officers, and Santa Barbara Police Department officers who patrolled the streets and responded to calls in Lompoc that day.

That kind of support was also in ready supply on March 7, the day Grijalva was found with what a preliminary investigation by the Sheriff’s Office deemed was a self-inflicted and fatal gunshot wound. Lompoc’s officers went home that day, save for a few in the command staff, while sheriff’s deputies patrolled the streets of Lompoc to allow the city’s police department to grieve.

“The sheriff’s department took over the city’s policing, which was pretty commendable,” Walsh said. “That’s the kind of relationship that Santa Barbara County law enforcement has. We’re pretty tight knit as a whole, and that’s not the case everywhere, so I was really impressed.”

Walsh’s department includes a few more than 40 sworn officers, and is “like a family,” he said. The sudden loss of Grijalva was a serious blow to the small agency. But Walsh and his command staff, with the help of local law enforcement organizations, were able to mount a response to ensure that officer Grijalva was laid to rest with honor, and that the department’s staff received the psychological and emotional support they needed following the tragedy.

The loss of officer Grijalva is also a reminder of the ongoing epidemic of suicide among military veterans and first responders, which statistics show is well beyond the national average each year.

A day of pain

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown called Chief Walsh personally to relay the news on the morning of March 7, Brown told the Sun. Grijalva’s body was found outside of Lompoc’s jurisdiction, and Walsh and a captain drove to the scene immediately.

They were met with the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation, which was done thoroughly, but also with a particular sense of care, Walsh explained.

“The sheriff’s department had done a really good job of surrounding the truck so nobody could see what was happening, and they put up an awning, which they didn’t have to do,” Walsh said. “They just treated Miguel with an incredible amount of respect. They wouldn’t allow us near and just said, ‘You know what, we got this, and you don’t need to.’

“They weren’t saying it, but they were taking care of us at the scene,” he added. “They escorted the body to the morgue with six police cars that were there, and that was a show of respect, and that was meaningful for us to see them treating him with respect.”

It was also decided that Lompoc’s patrol officers and civilian staff would go home for the rest of the day while Sheriff’s Office deputies took over police functions in the city, Walsh said.

Sheriff’s Office Lt. Clayton Turner responded to the scene of Grijalva’s death, and later that day patrolled Lompoc along with sheriff’s deputies. Turner said that he’s been involved in hundreds of death investigations, and “none of them is ever easy,” especially when friends and family are at the scene.

“Just imagine a hammer blow to you emotionally, losing a member of your team in such a sudden and unexpected way,” Turner said. “And Lompoc, being a small agency even by state standards, when you lose such a key piece, it impacts every other facet of an agency.”

Walsh and a few in his command staff stayed on call that day and began the process of notifying the family, notifying the public, planning the memorial service, and triangulating agencies and organizations for support.

But their work was interrupted by a call. California Highway Patrol (CHP) began a pursuit of a tan Toyota Camry in Buellton. The initial chase ended at Lompoc High School when the vehicle crashed into a green electrical box and the three underage suspects fled onto the campus.

“It was actually a welcome distraction from the morning,” Walsh said. “We just did police work, had to get in the mode.”

The remaining LPD staff arrived on scene, where sheriff’s deputies and the CHP had already arrested two of the three suspects. Lompoc’s officers helped contain the two, Walsh explained, while the last suspect was apprehended.

Turner with the Sheriff’s Office was on the scene as well, working with the officers of the three collaborating agencies.

“There were Lompoc PD officers there with this burden on their hearts, and you wouldn’t know it by the way they were carrying themselves,” Turner said. “They just went out there and did what the public expects them to do as uncompromised professionals.”

After the last suspect was arrested and the high school was taken out of lockdown, Walsh and his sergeants returned to the LPD offices and the task awaiting them there.

Shields of support

Back at the department, the din of planning and processing the loss consumed the LPD’s skeleton crew. The group was in “full planning mode,” Chief Walsh said, discussing, “What have we forgot?”

“There’s just so much to do,” he said.

That’s when a Sheriff’s Office sergeant approached Walsh with a request.

“He comes up and says, ‘Hey chief, sorry to bug you, but do you have a key to the flagpole?’” Walsh said. “I go, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I want to put the flag at half mast,’ and I didn’t even think of that, and it’s right there.

“That little gesture was just part of the healing,” Walsh added. “All the things that people have done and said have been pretty amazing.”


SAYING GOODBYE
The Lompoc Police Department has a little more than 40 sworn officers. The loss of officer Miguel Grijalva was felt by everyone in the department, which is “like a family,” Chief Pat Walsh said.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Once the LPD released the unfortunate news, the department was flooded with calls, emails, and eventually cards sent by mail, offering condolences.

But it was Santa Barbara County’s law enforcement agencies that called with not just condolences, but support.

“The DA called me. [SMPD Chief] Ralph Martin showed up at my doorstep. I heard from Guadalupe, Allan Hancock College’s police chief,” Walsh said.

The following day, March 8, with Lompoc’s police officers back at work, the department received a visit from some SMPD staff. They were members of the department’s peer support group, explained Chief Martin, including sworn and civilian staff trained to support first responders and other personnel.

“We don’t document anything; it’s just a service we offered them, and they took us up on it,” Martin said. “A lot of departments do not have that, and because we do, we would offer it to anybody.”

The support was appreciated in Lompoc, Walsh explained.

“They came down and just hung out all day,” Walsh said. “They did a lot of hallway mentoring and counseling. I just really appreciate those guys, I can’t say thank you enough.”

Peer support staff doesn’t counsel in a clinical sense, explained the SMPD’s Lt. Paul Van Meel. They sit down and talk with officers or non-sworn staff about issues they’re having either on the job or personally.

Van Meel helped start the peer support group in Santa Maria, which is designed to give peers a chance to open up and discuss difficult issues.

“It’s not about talking to people. We don’t need to be heard. It’s more about listening to people,” he said. “If someone wants to talk to us, it can be sitting down, over the phone, over a cup of coffee, off duty—it can be at a lot of different venues.”

But Walsh also reached out to professional psychologists with Langus Pike & Associates out of Orange County, who were in Lompoc on March 8 as well. Dr. Todd Langus was the lead; he also works through the Champion Center in Lompoc, which specializes in rehab and addiction treatment.

Langus is an expert in treating veterans and first responders. He was a police officer for 20 years before earning his doctorate in psychology.

When he got the call regarding officer Grijalva and the LPD, the information hit close to home, Langus told the Sun.

“What kicks in for me is my past memories,” he said. “I’ve had two very good friends and partners commit suicide who were law enforcement, so the first thing that kicks into my mind is that sinking feeling that I felt with my two partners and friends.”

Langus said that in situations like Lompoc’s, there’s nothing anyone can do to take away the pain that’s felt in the wake of such a loss. What he does focus on, Langus said, is what he can do “to keep them going.”

“Unfortunately, law enforcement, military, fire fighters, they’re still expected to go out there and do their job,” he said. “It’s about assessing them, where they’re at, and to try to minimize the pain and to also make sure that they’re able to go out there and do their job.

“The other thing you have to assess for is, is there anybody else who is in crisis?” he added. “Not just from this incident, which can set people into crisis, but other people that are going through crisis and it’s not known yet.” 

Cost of the job

Chief Walsh, Chief Martin, and Langus have all had colleagues who committed suicide.

Walsh said that after officer Grijalva’s death was announced, he received condolences from police departments across the country.

“It’s because they’ve dealt with this, too, you know,” he said. “It’s not an anomaly that this occurred.”

The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans and first responders is well documented, Langus said. And the statistics regarding PTSD and suicide among first responders and veterans haven’t improved in recent years, he added.

Suicide among law enforcement officers is greater than the national average in most years, according to a survey compiled by Badge of Courage from 2008 through 2016. A study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that about 20 U.S. veterans commit suicide every day nationwide, and that during 2014, veterans who took their own lives made up 18 percent of all suicides in the country.

More statistics suggest “most officers have a pre-disposition or a pre-diagnosis of depression, even before they get into law enforcement,” Langus said. This may be because some get into law enforcement after a previous trauma in early life, motivated to help those dealing with similar issues, he added.

The number of veterans in law enforcement may contribute to those stats as well. Lompoc and Santa Maria’s police departments, and the Sheriff’s Office, all have a considerable percentage of veterans serving on the force.

Officer Grijalva served four tours while in the Marines, stationed in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Walsh was unable to confirm whether Grijalva had PTSD, citing medical privacy. Walsh did describe him as a “war hero,” and expressed gratitude for the military presence and support at Grijalva’s memorial.

A former LPD narcotics investigator and Army veteran, Donnie Bumanglag, served in the military from 1999 to 2003, and was candid about his experiences overseas. Most of that time was spent as an Army Ranger paramedic, he told the Sun, serving in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq where he witnessed seriously traumatic events, accruing PTSD and a traumatic brain injury before joining Lompoc’s police force.

“For me, I already had PTSD. The police department hired me knowing that I had extensive combat history and all this other stuff,” he said. “You don’t just get the accolades of combat, you get the whole thing when you hire a vet.”

Bumanglag was no longer with the LPD by the time officer Grijalva was hired, he said. The PTSD that Bumanglag had accrued during his time in the military progressed while he served as a police officer, he explained.

“No matter how good you’re handling it, the stress physically, when you go to sleep, you don’t have a choice what you see when you close your eyes,” Bumanglag said. “My body got into a mode where I didn’t want to see that anymore, so I couldn’t sleep.

“Things that I was seeing on the streets, all the people who had been victimized, I was just seeing constant negativity,” he continued. “And that coupled with what I had seen in combat, it was just, for me, I had to take a time out, and that came in the form of a medical retirement.”

But PTSD and suicide among first responders isn’t limited to military veterans, Langus said. He was afflicted by PTSD himself while serving as a police officer.

First responders can acquire PTSD when they internalize fear and helplessness, Langus said. Fear is often internalized as weakness, but helplessness can be worse, he said.

“Helplessness—which, my gag reflex goes off every time I have to say this word because my post-traumatic stress—that’s what I had to deal with,” he said. “Helplessness is internalized, and the definition we put on it is that we’ve ‘lost or are losing control,’ which we’re trained never to do.”

The loss of control makes first responders feel like they’re failing, Langus said, and the internalization of that failure and shame can worsen PTSD, depression, and without the proper intervention, can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Langus even said that the training first responders receive “also aids in suicidal thinking.” He said that they’re trained to “win at all costs, because if they don’t, they die.” With a “win or lose mentality,” difficulties in a first responder’s personal life are often viewed through that paradigm as well.

He also said that first responders view themselves as “problem solvers, not problem havers,” so dealing with personal or professional issues can cause a serious internal crisis. And when someone in crisis doesn’t reach out for help, and their problems aren’t getting solved, that’s when suicide creeps into their thoughts as a possible—and eventually acceptable—solution.

“Suicide is not about selfishness. What it’s about is, all they really want to do is stop the pain,” Langus said. “And suicide is just, in the simplest terms, is just a crisis in problem solving, and they just want the pain to stop, and that’s what happens.” 

Moving forward

After suffering a loss like Lompoc’s, a department has no choice but to soldier on through the grieving process.

“We’ve got to do this 24/7,” Santa Maria’s Chief Martin said. “It’s a machine that never stops.”


OFFICER DOWN
On March 7, the Lompoc Police Department was informed of the loss of officer Miguel Grijalva, who died from what the county Sheriff’s Office’s preliminary investigation deemed to be a suicide.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

While Lompoc’s officers received aid from neighboring law enforcement agencies, there was also plenty of positivity and support that came from the community. A memorial appeared outside the department’s headquarters, which grew and had to be tended, Lompoc Police Chief Walsh said. People brought food, flowers, and left notes for Lompoc’s officers.

On the day of officer Grijalva’s memorial, residents lined the main drag of Lompoc, waving or standing in solidarity as the procession of squad cars, motorcycle officers, and black sedans followed the hearse down H Street in Lompoc.

“That was really powerful,” Walsh said. “For me, it was all part of the healing, and it was to allow the officers and the staff here to see that people really care. And we know that, but that was a really outward showing.”

But as time goes on and the months go by, it’s easy to fall back into the regular routine, Langus said. Staying vigilant and dedicated to addressing the ongoing problem of depression and suicide among first responders is going to take a lot of effort, he said.

Peer support officers are a step in the right direction, but not enough, he said. Trauma support, ongoing education, preventative maintenance, and family programs are a surefire way to help address the problem, Langus explained.

“There has yet to be an academy class on teaching people how to survive the career,” he said. “There’s no ongoing preventative programs within law enforcement organizations for the wellness of their officers or fire fighters or even the military.”

While those solutions will take institutional change and lots of funding, when an officer does take their life, police departments should use Lompoc as an example, Langus said.

“To actually send the staff home, call another organization to cover the city, is unheard of,” he said. “And I understand that larger organization’s don’t have that luxury, I get it, but they responded and acted exemplary. I’m just very proud of them, and I hope that other departments can look to them, see what they did, and respond in the way they did.”

For Walsh, what’s most important is being there for his officers and their families on every level, including Grijalva’s.

That’s why the memorial service was paramount for the department as well as the family, he said, from the procession down H Street to the 21-gun salute.

“We show that their family member was greatly loved, their service was honorable and appreciated,” Walsh said. “And it shows the rest of these police officers that we’re not just punching the clock here, we’re doing something that’s bigger than us. Our job is to honor and defend the Constitution. That’s big, that’s way bigger than all of us put together, so it’s important.

“It’s pomp and circumstance, but there is a reason for it,” he added. “It leaves an indelible mark on everyone who’s there. And I hope I never have to do it again.”

Contact Managing Editor Joe Payne at jpayne@santamariasun.com




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