The March 14, 1986, traffic stop just outside of Winnsboro on La. 15 was routine. But the driver exited his car firing a shotgun.
State Police Trooper Bobby Smith returned fire, killing his assailant but not before being shot in the face at point-blank range.
Lying face-down in a pool of blood, Smith, talking about the incident last week, recalled thinking, “This is bad. This is very bad.”
His sergeant ran up: “Bobby, are you OK?” meaning “Are you still alive?”
“I’m fine,” Smith answered.
“That’s our automatic response,” Smith said. “That’s part of our culture. We can take it. Big boys don’t cry. To talk about needing help is a sign of weakness.”
He’s now a counselor for the State Police, helping troopers come to grips with tragedies they see as part of their everyday work. Lately, Smith has been pretty busy.
“You can’t go home after having a child die in your arms and say everything is fine,” Smith said. “But you can tell (your spouse), ‘I had a rough day today. Give me a few minutes to unwind.’ ”
If a cop’s cup overflows, the suppressed emotions manifest themselves in other ways, he said: anxiousness, distraction and self-medication, for instance.
“Anger is our go-to communication,” Smith said. “That’s why 75 percent of cop first marriages end in divorce. That’s why the cop suicide rate outpaces the national average.”
Smith wants to take the counseling he does for state troopers to police officers and firefighters across the state. He’s raising about $500,000 to build a permanent facility where first responders would have a place to go and talk with professionals. Right now, he works mostly with a cellphone and out of offices at the State Police Training Academy.
Col. Michael D. Edmonson, who heads Louisiana State Police, said, “State troopers see an overwhelming amount of trauma through the investigation of fatality crashes, trooper-involved shootings, investigations involving murder and rape, and sexual abuse involving children.”
In 2008, he contracted with Smith, who was blinded in the shooting and became a psychologist. Troopers can call Smith any time, day or night, Edmonson said, adding that Smith can be uncomfortably honest, but has lived what the troopers are feeling.
Edmonson sent Smith to counsel first responders who worked the Lafayette movie theater shooting in July. He talked with troopers in Lake Charles after Trooper Steven Vincent was shot Aug. 23 by a driver on La. 14 near Bell City.
Vincent was the first of four officers murdered around the country in a short 10-day stretch. This count includes Vincent and Sunset Police Officer Henry Nelson, who was fatally shot on Aug. 26.
But the truncated count that caught the nation’s attention last week did not include Shreveport Officer Thomas LaValley, who was shot to death Aug. 5, or New Orleans Police Department Officer Darryle Holloway, who was shot to death in June, or New Orleans Housing Authority Officer James Bennett Jr., who was found shot to death in May, or Deputy U.S. Marshal Josie Wells, who was killed March 10 in north Baton Rouge.
Though it has been a tough season for Louisiana police, the number of shooting deaths of officers nationally is down 13 percent from the same January-through-August time period last year: 30 in 2014 to 26 this year, according to statistics kept by Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. (The average during the 1970s was 62.)
Added to the killings is the intense — and often angry — scrutiny the police profession has received since August 2014 when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests, sometimes riots, have broken out over police behavior in Baltimore; New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Prairie View; and in Ferguson again on the anniversary of the shooting.
Smith makes no excuses — police, like all professions, have some bad apples — but he also defends officers who find themselves accused before the facts are established.
More to the point, for Smith, at least, is that the Vincent shooting, as well as the one on Aug. 28 that killed a deputy in Houston and another Tuesday in a small town near Chicago, feel like assassinations — cops being killed just for being cops.
“It’s causing the greatest amount of anxiety I have ever seen. I’ve been involved in law enforcement for 40 years and I’ve never seen it like this before,” Smith said. Officers are feeling targeted. They’re mentally and emotionally drained. They also have become hyper-vigilant, perhaps even a little stand-offish.
“Yet, they have a split second to make a decision between life and death,” Smith said. “That part hasn’t changed.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.