The murder-suicide that claimed the lives of a mother and her two young children on May 14 devastated the block of Treme where she lived. But it also hit hard for the police officers who responded to the scene, men usually better known for wearing guns on their belts than hearts on their sleeves.
Cylie McCullum, 3, and Caden McCullum, 5, were shot dead by their mother Michelle in the rear of an SUV on Old Gentilly Road in New Orleans East. Then McCullum killed herself with a single bullet to her head.
The scene inside the car was shocking. After responding to the call, 7th District Commander Lawrence Dupree said at a department commanders’ meeting Wednesday, “My officers weren’t themselves.”
One locked keys inside his car. Another cut himself accidentally. All were shaken.
“That was the most tragic scene I’d ever seen in my life,” Dupree said.
The commander then took a step the NOPD is still learning to do, haltingly, in the wake of such so-called “critical incidents.” When he finished the next roll call, he asked the department’s chaplain, Faith Berthey, to speak to the officers. At the next roll call after that, psychologist Dr. Bill McDermott spoke to the officers about what had happened.
“And again,” Dupree said, “officers opened up.”
Although police officers may try to project a tough image of themselves, coping with the memories of such traumatic incidents can be a major work hazard. More police officers die every year from suicide than at the hands of felons, according to the suicide prevention group Badge of Life.
Support services for officers are stipulated under a 2012 consent decree agreement the NOPD signed with the U.S. Department of Justice. So far, though, progress on offering officers assistance has been slow, according to the most recent quarterly report from the consent decree monitors.
The report said the department had yet to create a mental and physical health and wellness program it was supposed to have in place by February 2014. No full evaluation of progress has been made, the monitors said, but “preliminarily at least, (we) have not been impressed.”
But the NOPD says it has taken some steps on officer assistance.
“In addition to what has been done at the district level in regards to the recent incident, we are moving forward toward the implementation of the Officer Assistance Program,” department spokesman Tyler Gamble said Wednesday. He said the department recently hired a medical and social services coordinator who will oversee the program, which the department anticipates having up and running before the end of the year.
At the commanders’ meeting earlier Wednesday, district commanders gave state troopers making a presentation on peer support services their full attention.
Police officers can pile on memories of traumatic incidents like “emotional lasagna,” never dealing with the fallout until they cannot work properly, Trooper Chris McClelland said.
McClelland said the State Police offer peer support to officers who have been involved in shootings or responded to the scene of a suicide as a kind of “emotional first aid.”
Dupree, who leads the district where the McCullums’ bodies were found, seemed keen to share with his fellow district commanders the value such services can provide. In the masculine environment of the district stations, he added, a little prodding might be necessary.
“Just do it,” Dupree recommended to his fellow commanders. “You’ll see how much (officers) have to say.”
Separately at the weekly meeting, State Police Sgt. Stacey Pearson defended her decision not to issue an Amber Alert when McCullum went missing with her children. She noted that a less-pressing “Level II” alert was issued and was widely disseminated by the media in the New Orleans area.
Amber Alerts are automatically issued statewide, which could have forced the NOPD to waste time following false leads from far corners of the state, Pearson said.
“It was a difficult decision that I still think about,” she said. “But that’s the decision I made, and I made it based on my experience and what I felt would be best for the investigation.”