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Franciscan Center earns first responders' praise for post-trauma program

TAMPA — Tampa police Chief Eric Ward said he did not realize how much he had internalized the deaths in 2010 of two officers in his squad, shot by a wanted man during a traffic stop in north Tampa.

Ward, the squad leader, said he had to keep emotions in check as a role model for his officers while working the case. Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, caught by surprise, died on the side of 50th Street. Their convicted killer, Dontae Morris, is on death row.

Ward said he did not realize how much he remained emotionally burdened by the tragedy until he attended a post-trauma class two years ago, held at the Franciscan Center in Tampa.

"It gave me an opportunity to, I guess, formally grieve," he said.

Ward endorsed the program before a room full of fellow police officers and firefighters from around the Tampa Bay area Thursday at the second annual appreciation luncheon for first responders. It's held at the time of the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of first responders.

Guests dined on wraps, chips and cookies as they listened to talks by Ward, Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Thomas Forward, Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter, Sarasota police Chief Bernadette DiPino and Tampa FBI special-agent-in-charge Paul Wysopal.

"It's just meant to give them a nice lunch in a peaceful setting for an hour, and then they go back to work," said Sister Anne Dougherty, director of the center.

For the post-trauma sessions, small groups gather and talk to each other about "critical incidents'' they've experienced, learning how to sort them out and process them.

The worst traumas, Daugherty said, are fellow police officers or firefighters killed on duty, and tragedies involving children.

The chiefs praised the work of Daugherty, the center and the post-trauma classes.

Sarasota's DiPino told of the time she and fellow officers in Maryland were ordered by a supervisor to attend a counseling session after they had witnessed a suicide. They said they were fine and didn't need a post-trauma session.

They decided they just had to stay a few minutes and then could leave. When the doctor started talking, she said, she and her colleagues, like typical police, were acting like, "We don't need this.

"Then all of a sudden, everybody started opening up. And I can tell you a huge burden was lifted off of my shoulders that I didn't even know that I had there."

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampbay.com.

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