After responding to the 2007 mass shooting at Von Maur, Omaha Police Officer Dave Staskiewicz was long haunted by that day: the faces of the victims; the vulnerability he felt as he ascended an escalator, knowing he was easy pickings for the armed gunman.
Sgt. Jeff Baker struggled, too, long harboring a sense of failure for not stopping the gunman, and anger toward him for taking his own life before officers arrived.
The officers weren’t prepared for their stressful experiences on Dec. 5, 2007, nor were Omaha Police Department policies regarding emotional support for officers who face trauma.
About 10 days after the mass shooting, the department held a single optional stress debriefing session for officers in a large group setting. The idea that officers would need emotional support after such an incident was still in its infancy.
“It was too late, and in a group setting that was too big,” Staskiewicz said.
Police officials say Omaha’s mass shooting, which happened 10 years ago Tuesday, ultimately served as a catalyst for overhauling programs to support officers involved in traumatic events.
Today, professional counselors and specially trained peer support officers are readily available. And depending on the seriousness of the incident, some officers are required to go through mandatory one-on-one stress debriefing sessions.
“Mandatory” is the key word, said Capt. Michele Bang, who helped establish the programs.
Requiring officers to attend takes away any personal stigma they might face for needing emotional help. Such reluctance to seek help is one reason law enforcement officers suffer from disproportionately high rates of depression, alcoholism, suicide, divorce and domestic problems.
“We didn’t share our feelings — we just didn’t,” Bang said. “The appearance of control is important to us.”
The mass shooting that claimed eight lives that day and left three other people seriously wounded before the shooter killed himself occurred at a time law enforcement agencies in Omaha and nationally were still waking up to the issue of emotional support of officers. The growing awareness was spurred in part by the large number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2000s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems.
In the wake of the Von Maur department store shootings, a number of Omaha officers had difficulty dealing with the emotional fallout. They included Staskiewicz and Baker, who were among the first to enter the store.
“There are two components to surviving an active-shooter event: It’s surviving the gunfight, and then surviving those images and thoughts and notions you have in your head afterward,” Baker said.
Today, Baker and Staskiewicz both describe how vulnerable they felt as they hunted for the gunman in a store in which shelves, racks and storerooms afforded seemingly limitless places for cover. Even as they feared for their own lives, cheery holiday music incongruously played throughout the store.
Staskiewicz recalled at one point ascending an escalator knowing that the shooter could be anywhere above, below or around him. He was completely powerless.
Baker agreed: “My mortality became about as transparent as at any time I’ve been in law enforcement.”
The officers would later learn that the 19-year-old gunman had taken his own life before officers even arrived. But as dozens of officers searched every nook and cranny of the store and Westroads Mall, they felt that they could come face-to-face with the deadly gunman or an accomplice at any moment.
Not all the feelings officers struggled with afterward were rational.
Baker said he harbored strong feelings of guilt for not stopping the bloodshed. He knew it made no sense, because there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. He did his job to the best of his ability, based on what was known at the time. But that’s not what was in his heart.
“It’s still hard for me to talk about it” even 10 years later, Baker said.
Also in Baker’s heart was much anger toward gunman Robert Hawkins — not only for what he did, but also for shooting himself before Baker could personally stop him. Baker said he spoke to many other officers who felt the same way.
“I thought it was a cowardly thing to engage unarmed people and then moments before we get there push the ‘game over’ button,” Baker said.
Others, from officers and detectives to crime lab technicians, struggled with visions of what they saw that day. It was the bloodiest crime scene Omaha police had ever faced. Detective Derek Mois, who worked the third-floor crime scene where most of the victims fell, would later say there was so much blood, you could taste it in the air.
Staskiewicz saw nearly all the victims as he searched the third floor to make sure there were no other gunmen. He also later struggled with the fact he wasn’t able to render aid to one victim who pleaded for help. Protocol called for Staskiewicz to finish searching the store to make sure it was safe for paramedics.
Staskiewicz said it helped when he later visited that victim, Fred Wilson, at the hospital. Still, Staskiewicz said he long struggled with visions from that day.
“Things just weren’t right,” he said of the weeks that followed. “Trouble sleeping. Things always going through your head.”
Bang said such stories were common, even for officers who did not play major roles in the incident. Police officials ultimately realized that the single group session they offered for responders was not adequate.
Over time, in part because of a 2010 change in state law and demands from the police union, the department completely overhauled its policies.
While stress debriefings previously were mandatory only after an officer killed someone in the line of duty, command staff now has the discretion to require an officer to sit down with a therapist after any traumatic situation. There are mandatory follow-up sessions at four months and one year, too.
“I’ve never had an officer tell me it was a complete waste of time,” Bang said of the required sessions.
In addition to professional counselors who regularly work with the department, dozens of officers have been specially trained to provide emotional support for their peers. Officers are also encouraged to let their superiors know if they think a co-worker is struggling in the aftermath of a stressful event.
Bang said the new programs served the department well two years ago, after gang unit Officer Kerrie Orozco was killed in the line of duty. Two mental health professionals were on hand that night to offer assistance.
The emotional-support overhaul came too late to help officers involved in the Von Maur shootings, many of whom dealt with the emotional fallout on their own.
Staskiewicz said he never did seek any help beyond the one session offered. He attributed it to the culture within his profession.
“In the law enforcement world, it’s hard to do that,” he said. “You are looked at as being weak.”
But he recognized that it was a serious matter. As Staskiewicz in months after the incident traveled the country, giving presentations to other law enforcement agencies on lessons Omaha learned from the mass shooting, he would always suggest that stress debriefings be required for all officers.
Baker said he made sure to speak up in the group debriefing session he attended after the shooting. He said he thought it would make it easier for others to express their own feelings.
But he said it took another event about a year later — finding his mother dead in her home — for him to seek the help he truly needed.
Over weeks of counseling, Baker said, he was able to let go of a lot of his feelings, including his anger toward the shooter.
“I wasn’t getting any healthier hating Robbie Hawkins,” Baker said. “I hate what he did. But I no longer hate the kid.”