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Therapy program aims to help Tampa officers cope with trauma

TAMPA — The way the sunlight fell on an asphalt landscape was all it took to send Veronica Hamilton back to July 6, 2001, when she came upon Tampa police Officer Lois Marrero slumped over in a parking lot.

She still recalls the vivid memories — locking eyes with Marrero as they passed each other in search of two bank robbery suspects, calls coming over her police radio announcing "shots fired," running through the lot and finding Marrero, her friend, dead.

For more than a decade, Hamilton thought she had overcome the trauma of that day. Then Jane Castor called. Tampa's police chief asked Hamilton to participate in a new program to help officers cope with the stress of policing.

"A lot of the things I thought I had healed from, I hadn't," Hamilton said.

The unusual program at Tampa's Franciscan Center retreat puts small groups of officers through an intensive four-day psychotherapy regimen. The goal is to help them deal with the trauma that is an inherent part of their daily work. On Tuesday, for the first time, police officials detailed the program, which has been treating Tampa officers for a year.

For Hamilton, the program helped unearth stifled emotions at the root of the anxiety that had lingered since the day Marrero died.

"The retreat helped me in understanding that I'm responding normally to an abnormal event," she said. "I'm human. I was human before I took the oath to protect and serve and I'm human today."

Dubbed "Operation Restore," the voluntary program involves a form of psychotherapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The therapy was developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, a California psychologist who hypothesized that anxiety could be alleviated through frequent eye movements.

In practice, psychologists ask patients to describe a stressful experience while moving their eyes back and forth. Gradually, the therapist guides the patient toward replacing thoughts associated with traumatic experiences with positive images and sensations.

The therapy has been used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. Studies have shown that it does help alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress, though scientists disagree about whether it is any more effective than traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy.

The idea of bringing it to Tampa police came from Sister Anne Dougherty, the Franciscan Center president and a police chaplain. She discussed it with Castor and developed the four-day retreat in collaboration with forensic psychologists.

"When we ask our participants to give us feedback, many of them say that this retreat saved their life," Dougherty said.

During the four days, officers stay in a dormitory at the Franciscan Center, a Catholic facility. They are allowed limited access to cellphones and TV. Some initial sessions center on teaching the physiological effects of exposure to traumatic situations and how post-traumatic stress influences the human brain. Other sessions incorporate forms of group therapy, where officers relate their own experiences. All of it eases them into personal EMDR sessions.

Since it began, the program has treated 62 officers, including a handful from other police agencies. Many attended at the suggestion of Chief Castor. Many were reluctant to go.

Among them was Sgt. Paul Mumford. A 29-year TPD veteran, Mumford was skeptical of the program at first, but walked away thinking more officers should attend.

"What I found is it's not necessarily therapeutic, but educational," Mumford said. "It teaches you what happens when you have a traumatic experience in your life. They're not here to heal you. They're here to educate you."

Mumford was the first officer to respond to the 2009 shooting death of Cpl. Mike Roberts. For years, he carried unsettled feelings about the moments after he arrived to find the dying Roberts, and chasing, but not catching, the man who shot him.

But the traumas ran deeper than that. Mumford recalled working a child abuse case in which a man beat a child to death because the child wanted to play video games. And the hundreds of fatal car crashes he worked as a traffic cop.

"You carry that baggage around for life," he said. "Those are scars. This program is about making sure that they become scars and making sure they don't stay as wounds."

Some officers have balked at the program's ties to a religious facility. But police insist that it incorporates no spiritual message or proselytizing.

"Some people make fun of it," said Sgt. Colin McCoy, one of the first TPD officers to attend. "Some people call it a nunnery and say you're going there to be healed. But people make fun of what they don't understand."

For McCoy, sweating through his clothing in an EMDR session exorcised memories of broken bones and flying bullets and blood. But talking with and hearing from other officers also helped.

"What we see in a day is different from what most people see in a day," he said. "And the brain has a hard time processing it."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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