In wake of Moszer's death, police officers help each other cope with stress, grief
FARGO — The morning after a Fargo police officer was fatally shot during a standoff, Sgt. Gail Wischmann could see right away that the Cass County sheriff's deputies who spent the night helping to end the conflict were physically exhausted.
But deciphering each officer's mental state took a bit more time.
"You try to meet with everybody before they go home," she said. "You don't want to send someone home off-shift when they're not doing well, when they're very emotional and processing what has happened."
Wischmann found herself in this role, checking on the emotional well-being of her co-workers, because she's a member of the sheriff's department's peer-assistance crisis team (PACT). Law enforcement agencies around the Fargo-Moorhead area have these teams, made up of officers trained to help other officers cope with traumatic experiences.
The night of Feb. 10, the north Fargo standoff that led to the shooting death of Officer Jason Moszer drew a response from dozens of officers from multiple agencies. As part of the response, PACT members from the different agencies began reaching out to officers as time allowed.
The initial conversation between a PACT member and an officer is known as a defusing. It takes place right after a traumatic event, so officers know PACT members are there if they need to talk, said Lt. Deric Swenson of the Moorhead Police Department's PACT team.
It's also a time when officers are reminded of the physical and mental effects that a traumatic experience can cause. Officers are often told, "Their body is having a normal response to a very abnormal situation," Swenson said.
To help keep officers' bodies in balance, Wischmann said, they're advised to avoid alcohol, caffeine and foods with lots of carbohydrates. Meanwhile, they're encouraged to maintain their usual routines and eat fruits, vegetables and protein-rich foods, she said.
'You never know'
Fargo police said they believe the shot that killed 33-year-old Moszer was fired by a man holed up in a house where a domestic disturbance had been reported. That man, 49-year-old Marcus Schumacher, was later found dead in the home, police said.
In talking with deputies after these events, Wischmann learned that most were faring OK. But the ones who were struggling she took aside for more in-depth conversations.
Wischmann would not disclose anything that was said during those talks.
Such secrecy is a key part of the process, said Lt. Bill Ahlfeldt of the Fargo Police Department's PACT team. "We keep that confidentiality so that officers will come and speak to the PACT team," he said.
In the days after a traumatic event, PACT members hold follow-up meetings with groups and individuals to see how they're doing. With officers sometimes reluctant to open up, Wischmann said, she will draw them out with simple questions: "How are you doing? Are you sleeping, eating? ... Anything bothering you?"
"Generally, they will just start from there, releasing what they need to, their thoughts," she said.
Swenson said the events that have a traumatic effect on officers are not always high-profile cases.
"It doesn't have to be something that hits the headlines. This could be an event that just struck a chord with the people involved," he said. "You never know what they actually saw or what they had to do or what they thought at the time."
Addressing emotional trauma with the help of PACT members, Ahlfeldt said, is an approach that many police departments around the country have adopted in the past 15 to 20 years. It's a change brought about by a shift in law enforcement culture, he said.
"The industry standard for many years was, you know, suck it up. And that, of course, led to all kinds of issues with substance abuse and depression," he said.
'A whole host of emotions'
Swenson said officers are never forced to meet with PACT members. Some officers find other ways to cope.
Sgt. Jim Kringlie, a 30-year veteran of the Fargo Police Department, wasn't on duty when Moszer was shot. He learned the news the next morning when he came to work.
"You always know in your back of mind it's a possibility. It's just kind of a shock when it does happen," he said. "Denial, anger, grief — you go through a whole host of emotions."
Kringlie said he's thankful the PACT team exists, but he hasn't discussed Moszer's death with any of its members. "Everybody's different," he said. "I talk to my wife, and I have family members I talk to."
Kringlie said many officers, including himself, have immersed themselves in the work of planning Moszer's funeral, which is set for Monday at Scheels Arena. Kringlie's role has been coordinating the procession from the arena to the funeral home.
"I've been busy in my part of the funeral preparations, so that's where my mind is focused. I haven't really had time to, I guess, let it sink in that Jason is gone," he said. "After a funeral, that's where a lot of emotions come out."