Norma Williams remembers the last time she saw her husband, Officer Tom Williams of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Headed to a Halloween parade where she worked in Simi Valley, she was dressed as the Tin Man. Her husband of 18 years was getting dressed and offered to take Ryan, their six-year-old son, to school, since his wife didn't want to embarrass their boy with a mom who thought she was a "Wizard of Oz" character.
"He said, 'I can't give you a kiss because of all the makeup.' And I said, 'No, I left a spot for you on my forehead.'"
He kissed Norma, and then called several times that day to see if she had won best costume yet.
The last phone call from her husband came at 4:15 that afternoon. "I said, 'I hope you're not telling me you can't pick up Ryan!" and he said, 'No. I just called to tell you, 'I love you.'"
Shortly after that conversation, Norma Williams, officer's wife and mother of two, became a widow. On Halloween 1985 their son watched as his dad was gunned down at his school. Tom Williams and his family never knew they were threatened and in danger.
Officer Williams was the target of a planned hit. He had just testified at the trial of Daniel Jenkins for a robbery he investigated. "Jenkins had a philosophy of 'no witness, no case.' He wanted to kill everybody, including myself and my children," Norma Williams says. Months later, during the preliminary court hearings, officers told Norma that one of the people they had arrested "had come down our street and showed detectives our home...Jenkins wanted myself and my children to be murdered as a way to get Tom to not testify.
"The lead detective told us that Jenkins was dating a senior at my daughter's school, who followed my daughter's activities and reported back to him. It comes out I had been followed to work in Simi Valley, and they [Jenkins' associates] had followed Tom taking Ryan," she adds.
Jenkins had hired men to kill Officer Williams, his son, and his wife. But the hit men reportedly balked at the last minute at killing a little boy, forcing Jenkins himself to assassinate the 13-year LAPD veteran.
Most threats against police officers are thankfully not like what the Williams family endured, but rather verbal threats used to control, harass, and intimidate the officer, says retired ATF Agent Bart McEntire, owner of Instinctual Survival, a threat-consulting business. The common threats officers hear—the ones uttered at the time of arrest like "you'll be sorry"—are often ignored. And rightfully so: "By responding, the officer allows the suspect to become the 'director' of the event, much like a three-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum," explains McEntire, author of "Not for Self But Others," a memoir of going undercover with a violent white supremacy group.
Other types of threats—threats mailed to an officer or left on voice mail—are "where we really begin to see the psychological warfare battles," says McEntire. Tack on threats to family members, which are delivered to make the officer fearful for the future, and stress really begins to escalate.
"Unless officers have been trained and understand the utterance of threats, they can quickly lose composure believing the suspects really intend to hurt their families," McEntire warns.
But situations involving threats at the next level—where violence is a grave possibility—are different. "That kind of threat is no longer being levied to control, harass, or intimidate," says McEntire. "It's a personal act to right a wrong, where the only action in the threatener's viewpoint is to injure or kill."
Some whole police departments and police units have been the target of this "intent to injure or kill," which former California Attorney General (now governor) Jerry Brown deemed "urban terrorism."
In late 2009 and early 2010, a chain of attacks plagued a Southern California anti-gang unit. Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force members grappled with booby traps. For example, a utility line was redirected to flood offices with gas. It only would've taken a spark for a deadly explosion. Suspects are now in custody.[PAGEBREAK]
During this onslaught "There was a higher degree of vigilance on the part of the officers. Many calls were handled almost as ambush situations because of the possibility they might be exploited as such," says Lt. Wiseheart of the Hemet Police Department.
And Hemet was not an isolated case.
Det. Dave Haller of the Thurston County (Wash.) Sheriff's Department arrested a suspect and charged him with 28 counts of burglary and stalking of a woman. In prison, the man hatched a plan to kill the detective through a hit man. Funds were
"If this guy would've gotten out on bail-which they don't tell you about-he would've come after me or my family...he had seven or eight plans to take out me and my family. One of them was to burn our house down as we slept," says Haller.
This wasn't the first time Haller had dealt with a personal threat. He served more than 13 years on the LAPD, working in the state prison system "learning the mindset of cons" for three years. He has been with Thurston County 21 years. In Los Angeles, the Diamond Street Gang and 18th Street Gang had contracts against him.
Though many officers refuse to talk about such threats, the news stories about them are plentiful. A sampling of recent articles shows police in Connecticut subdued a woman they were taking into custody after she threatened the arresting officer with a knife. Police in Pennsylvania confronted a man on a domestic call and were told by the suspect he would kill him. Calls in Pittsburgh lured officers back to a housing project where people threatened them. A professor allegedly stalked and made threats against a New Orleans police officer via Facebook.
Types of Threats
Retired ATF agent McEntire advises, "Law enforcement officers must recognize the two different types of individuals who make threats along with understanding why a threat is being
"Is the threat being made to cause a mental reaction from the officer? Or is the threat being delivered because the individual truly intends to move forward with potential violence against that officer?"
When a suspect blurts out threats as the cuffs are slapped on, that's one thing. It's entirely another when an officer puts a guy in prison who's a member of the Nazi Low Riders and soon there's a green light in the prison system to have the officer harmed. Still other threats might be more overt: the Hells Angels staring down an officer in court. While not a spoken threat, the message is there.
"The guys who are arrested are playing a game," explains McEntire. They're issuing family threats to ratchet up the emotion. "They can say anything they want to about your wife, but nothing is really happening to your wife."
One Cleveland patrolman says he's encountered this type of threat often. "[A suspect] was arrested for assault, bit me, then when she was in my car she started making threats. She said she was going to find the biggest [expletive] to [expletive] my wife and hurt my kids, and that she knows [expletive]. I grabbed the tape recorder, let her go off. I just said, 'OK,' and let her keep talking." She pleaded.
"I've had plenty of people threaten me, [saying things like] I know where you guys park your cars." He said he hasn't heard any threats that have made him lose sleep, but knows other officers who have. "What I deal with is some knucklehead talking smack."
He believes "lots of criminals talk and threaten you, but it depends on how hard you work and if you're arresting people. If you're arresting those with lots of drugs and guns, you're dealing with something they have to protect. If you take their drugs, you take their money, and if they're out money, their ass is on the line. They owe someone. Dope dealers might actually follow through on their threats."
Damage and Anguish
Officers must realize, though, all types of threats-even ones with no intention of carry through-will cause stress and fatigue, and this is where mental burnout comes into play.
McEntire consults on threats because of personal experience: He was targeted several times, the first by an outlaw motorcycle gang. "It's one thing to have an individual voice a threat in person to you, but to sit outside in an unmarked car and listen to a conversation intercepted by a body-wire between two people discussing killing you, is totally different," he says.
After hearing that he was the target of a planned hit, the agent spent weeks changing cars and running counter-security measures. "I also made one big mistake. I never told my wife for weeks. I finally broke down in my supervisor's office. I had reached the point of mental exhaustion and was ready for it to end," he says. The gang members were sent to prison; McEntire was relocated.
Later McEntire was targeted by a militia group. "Being an ATF special agent was enough to be hated by the militia movement in the 1990s," he says. "I was targeted not on a personal level but strictly because of my chosen career path overseeing a field office."
The militia videotaped McEntire's home and advertised his address. Since he had already gone through the experience of being threatened, he went through the counter-surveillance measures, but shared his concerns with his wife this time. "I knew there was nothing she could do to prevent any attack, but it was comforting just to talk."
McEntire admits he was on "red alert 24/7" the first time he was threatened, and not sleeping. "If my dog's tail wagged, I scanned the bedroom and listened for an intruder."
Hypervigilance is common among police officers who have been targeted by serious threats, according to Dr. Ellen Kirschman, a Redwood City, Calif.- based public safety psychologist and author of "I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know." She gives this example of hypervigilance: "You may be out buying school clothes for your kids, but you're thinking about the gang in the mall, so you're not fully present because you're scanning the room."
The problem with hypervigilance, says Kirschman, is that it narrows your attention only to safety issues and you tend to ignore your loved ones' other needs. One DEA agent told her, "You have no idea what I'm dealing with. My family's with me, and I'm going to do everything to protect them."
Kirschman, a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) expert, says many cops identify with trauma and carry so much responsibility that their lives are crumbling. "The question is, what do you want on your tombstone? Do you want-as one officer admitted-the kids running the other way when you get home?"[PAGEBREAK]
She says one undercover narcotics detective told her, 'I don't want my kids to say what I thought should go on my dad's grave: 'This dad was a jackass.'" He wanted to learn how to be there for his kids, despite his fears.
Some of the other manifestations of the stress of serious long-term threats include: an inability to concentrate, a big startle response, short temper, irritability, being overly restrictive of family's movement, feeling like you are not getting sufficient support from your family, trouble sleeping, anxious dreams, overeating, inability to complete tasks, overreaction, being overly aggressive, and self-medicating with alcohol or prescription drugs.
Stress on Families
Thurston County Det. Haller praises his other half and admits how stress takes its toll: "My wife is awesome...She has lived this life with me. It breaks my heart; she is subject to threats as much as me." He says he's been in law enforcement so long, he doesn't have as much anxiety, more so his family. "If I'm threatened, I go after the threat. I don't run away. I get the guy, put him in prison as long as possible, and hope he only comes out in a pine box."
But in the end, like the Cleveland officer, he doesn't "lose sleep over it."
McEntire believes families-as well as officers-deal with a loss of control, extreme fear, a distrust of people, and a loss of privacy.
"Your family is automatically swayed into believing evil is just around the corner," McEntire explains. He and his wife evaluated the threat together and devised a personal safety plan. They also tried to not let it disrupt their everyday habits.
Yet it did. McEntire says at one point his wife did not want to let their children out of her sight. Though they tried to keep the threats hidden from their children, their daughter even picked up on cues. He hadn't realized it until years later when, after a relocation, their daughter asked him, "Daddy, are the bad guys coming to get us?"
He warns the loss of privacy is unsettling. "When pictures of your home and face are suddenly published on the Internet, you and your family will experience outrage first, followed by fear. It is disturbing to know you are being watched...It will again raise the feeling of distrust toward others and build a wall of separation from others outside the family circle," McEntire says. "It will make you angry and you'll want to lash out at the SOBs who did it. You'll have that infamous idea cross your mind regarding driving over there, kicking his butt, and making him regret he ever knew you."
But don't. "Take time to breathe, put it into perspective, accept it, and learn to deal with it.... Remember to not let them win and do something crazy costing you your career," McEntire advises.
Handling the Stress
"Officers are exposed to more cruelty than most of us. Balance the negativity with positive things," advises Kirschman. Keep your job in perspective. Work is infinite, time is finite, she says.
"We had a rule in our home," says Norma Williams. "I told him, 'The minute you cross over that threshold, I outrank you.' So he left it at the door."
It's about managing anxiety in the face of threats, adds Dr. Suzanne Best, a Portland, Ore.-based psychologist specializing in trauma and duty-related stress. "I say to people, what are the odds this person will follow through with the threats? What percentage? Is it 10 percent, 15 percent, or 50 percent? They rarely say anything is more than 10 percent, so I say, there's a 90 percent chance that nothing bad is going to happen.
"And what's the chance you'll get in an accident someday?" Best adds. "They begin to see they've been anxious about the worst-case scenario. What purpose is it serving for you to ruminate about it? They say they're going through tactical maneuvers, and I say, 'How long have you been practicing them?' And it turns out they've done them daily for six months, which causes more stress."
In the midst of a drawn-out situation, self-care is important, Best reminds clients. "Relaxation, health care, getting the most sleep you can, exercise, and pay attention...Have someone to talk to." While she suggests talking to a therapist because of confidentiality, a pastoral counselor or a brother-in-law might help: anyone who can say, "You're having a reaction to an incredibly stressful situation." The officer needs validation.
Best appeals to logic and common sense, but threats often trump such rationality and the fear persists. The killer of Norma Williams' husband and his conspirators were convicted and remain incarcerated, but she remains vigilant.
Whenever in the Walmart parking lot, she still makes note of the cars next to and behind her car. "I give it a cursory check to make sure," she says. "I look under the car without bending down. Threats change your whole outlook," she adds.
Kristine Meldrum Denholm is a freelance journalist who covers psychology, family, and law enforcement. Her POLICE Magazine article "Chasing Ghosts" on the Civil Rights-era murder of an African-American deputy won Best Feature at the 2010 Western Publishing Awards.
Dos and Don'ts of Handling Threats
- Deal with the practical first: what are you doing to protect yourself, your home, and your family?
- Realize your emotions are valid; it's normal to have anxiety to a threat.
- Keep your job in perspective.
- Monitor how over involved you are in your job.
- Have two sets of interpersonal skills: one for home; one for work.
- Leave everything in the locker room.
- Discuss the threat with your partner. Couples should decide what they need to reveal to each other.
- Keep non-law enforcement friends. Involve yourself with other positive people.
- Think of something you're grateful for; then thank someone for it.
- Believe and understand that you can only do what you can do. You can't control everybody and everything.
- Talk to peer support teams; make use of chaplains.
- If it's a past threat you're still reliving and can't get off your mind, seek treatment for PTSD.
- Sacrifice your family for your job. If you can't slow down enough to be present for your family, you are creating more suffering.
- Let things eat up your whole life.
- Have a whole range of emotions on the job.
- Just associate with other law enforcement officers.
- Get into "I'm the cop, I'll decide what to do here," with your family. Hear your family's voices.
Source: Dr. Ellen Kirschman, psychologist who has worked with federal, state, and local officers for 30 years.