Officers involved in shootings relay physical, emotional toll of incidents
The stress of shooting someone in the line of duty was enough to put Penn Hills police Officer Duane Yenchik in the hospital.
Yenchik, 61, fatally shot Anthony Watts, 32, of Penn Hills in 1996 when Watts approached him with a machete after Watts attacked his mother and sister with the weapon.
Yenchik, who has asthma and had bronchitis at the time, said he went into respiratory arrest in the moments that followed the shooting and woke up in the hospital.
“It's a very stressful thing,” said Yenchik, who had been a paramedic. “I had delivered three babies, and then all of a sudden, I had to take a life.”
The NAACP called for an investigation of the shooting. An inquest by then-Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht determined that Yenchik's actions were justified. Yenchik said he tried not to second-guess himself, but the end of the investigation was a relief.
“Even though you know in your heart you're right, you still have that worry, because it depends on people, and it depends on people's perceptions,” Yenchik said. “This thing going on in Missouri, I'm standing back and watching and listening. I wasn't there, I don't know what happened, and I want to hear everything. You don't form an opinion.”
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Monday ordered the National Guard to Ferguson, Mo., to restore order to the St. Louis suburb as it enters its second week of protests in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white officer.
Allegheny County police detectives interviewed Yenchik about his shooting while he was in the hospital and put him in touch with a Shaler officer who had been involved in a separate shooting so he would have someone to talk to. Another officer from Bethel Park contacted Yenchik to offer help.
“It was basically an irregular type of support group,” he said. “A lot of the departments had nothing in place for an officer-involved shooting.”
Penn Hills now has a policy for officer-involved shootings that ensures the officer goes to counseling, Yenchik said.
About eight years ago, he joined the Police Officer Support Team, a Western Pennsylvania nonprofit known as POST. Trained officers, active or retired, meet with colleagues as peer advisers. Yenchik said he has met with officers in 12 to 15 incidents.
POST director Pat Morgan said, “We want to give them a venue that's safe, that they can vent and validate their feelings.”
Morgan, a retired forensic nurse, said, “We don't go into what happened and who shot who when. That's tactical. What we need to be involved in is this officer's emotional welfare.”
Yenchik said he talks freely about his experience. When the shooting occurred, he took three days off because he could barely move.
“There's a massive release of adrenaline,” Yenchik said. “You're tired, you're drained, and you really don't feel like moving. And I didn't; I sat in my living room.”
He said police officers feel more comfortable talking to fellow officers, especially about the split-second decisions they make in the field.
“The second guessing occurs,” Yenchik said. “It's going to occur. The thing you have to remember is, ‘Don't second guess yourself.' You had to make a decision, you made the decision, and you're still here.”
Retired Pittsburgh police Detective Jeff Smith, 58, said he joined the POST team a few years after a suspected prostitute shot him once in the chest, ending his 22-year career.
“You had questions you didn't have answers for,” Smith said. “I went to the POST training, and all of a sudden, there were the answers to all my questions.”
He said being a Pittsburgh officer makes it easier for city officers to confide in him. What they say is confidential.
“You hear their story, and you reassure them,” Smith said.
Cmdr. Timothy O'Connor, who oversees the Zone 5 police district in the East End, said there was little in the way of official support for officers when he shot and wounded a suspect while responding to a burglary in the Hill District in 1981. O'Connor said he saw the suspect beat his partner with what he thought was a revolver and fired when the man momentarily stepped away. Police took the man into custody and found he had a small pry bar in his hand.
Post-incident review was minimal, he said.
“For me, it was pretty much, ‘OK kid, get back out there,' ” O'Connor said.
The suspect survived the shooting and was convicted, O'Connor said. He said because the man didn't shoot at him, he wasn't traumatized by the incident.
“When an officer fires their weapon, it's one of the most critical events they can engage in in their career,” O'Connor said. “It's not something that you take lightly.”
The Associated Press contributed. Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.