By Steve Pomper
You don’t know what you don’t know. This isn’t to conjure some esoteric conundrum. But some people refuse to acknowledge there are things they don’t know, like how their job negatively affects them. This is indisputably true for cops. And that’s what writer/director Jason Harney explores in his latest film: Is There Something Going on at Home?
- Director: Jason Harney
- Writer: Jason Harney
- Producer: Jason Harney, Deborah Louise Ortiz
- Released: December 2023
- Country: United States
- Language: English
- Cast: Dr. Olivia Johnson, Deborah Louise Ortiz, Michael Ortiz, Rachel Medlin,
Scott Medlin, and Glen Williams
- Genre: Documentary
As in his previous films, like Wrist Lock, Harney provides life-saving information for cops and their families struggling with the unaddressed negative impacts of a law enforcement career. But, where Wrist Lock primarily dealt with surviving physical threats, this new documentary confronts surviving psychological, emotional, and spiritual threats.
Sometimes, cops refrain from talking to someone because they think they know it won’t help. But if they go, even reluctantly, and talk to someone, they often learn they were wrong—sometimes life-savingly wrong.
Cops always say, “I’m fine” (That’s a big one) and dismiss talking as effective. And when they finally talk to someone, they feel better.
The First Law of Holes warns, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” I got that overarching message. To handle the singular stresses cops face, doing something often means to stop digging and get help.
Talking allows you also to listen—not only to other people but to yourself. You might be surprised at what you have to say, like put down the shovel.
The film tells the stories of three cops with guidance from Dr. Olivia Johnson, founder of the Blue Wall Institute, a U.S. Air Force veteran, and former police officer. She also has a master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice and a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership Management.
Cops handles stress in diverse ways because people are different, and they don’t always know what might trigger stress or how that stress manifests.
Some cops are good at healthy compartmentalization, which worked well for my wife, a retired firefighter, and me. That she was raised by a police officer didn’t hurt. I never wondered if she knew what I meant when we talked about incidents.
While most cops don’t share their lives with a fellow public safety professional, notice I still said we talked. And talking (getting help) is at the heart of Harney’s documentary. The most intense of the vignettes is about NY State Police Trooper Michael Ortiz. An undercover assignment to drug cartel enforcement with a DEA taskforce nearly devastated him and his family—even after he left the job.
His undercover assignments savaged both his psyche and his family relationships. The criminal organization he “worked” for assigned him duties, expecting him to do the unthinkable. Astute, he worked it out without raising suspicion, but he paid an emotional price.
Being that deep under caused two things: paranoia and radical mood swings. His then girlfriend and eventual wife, Deborah, says Mike’s dark moods and erratic behavior were tough to deal with. She said he was paranoid they’d learn his identity and where he lived. He left the job, but the job wouldn’t leave him.
Mike says it was difficult going from flashing lights and sirens to flashbacks. He felt overwhelmed, having dealt with violent drug dealers and users for so long, he made the worst decision in his life. He started using drugs, maybe trying to reclaim that sense of being back “on the job.”
Deborah said Mike’s paranoia (now fueled by drugs) got worse. She told him, “Mike, I’m not the freakin enemy. Don’t be on guard all the time.”
After Mike retired, she felt “The man she had met was gone.” She got a glimpse of him at times but said, “He was gone.” She eventually discovered Mike was using illegal drugs and saw him losing control. He was in a hole but kept digging. By 2004, he was addicted to cocaine. She still loved him but finally escaped the toxic environment with the kids.
Police finally arrested Mike. In court, Deborah was shocked when the judge called her into chambers. The judge asked her what was going on at home. Then the judge said, “I think your husband is suffering from PTSD.”
Everything changed once they learned this critical nugget (Mike stopped digging). Deborah felt responsible for him, but by getting help she learned she wasn’t. Deborah says she was “proud of us for prioritizing us.”
Their daughter, Angela, also gives her heartrending account of how a cop-parent held hostage by demons even after they leave the job affects their children. Her dad’s erratic behavior impacted her. She said he seemed fine and then he’d disappear for days. She was unable to relate to her friends and often wondered if her father was dead.
Angela says getting help, talking to someone, will “change your life.” To other cops or former cops in similar circumstances, she urges, “If you don’t feel you can do it for yourself—getting help—do it for your family.”
Dr. Johnson says police agencies must provide oversight, monitor officers for this kind of stress, and make resources available to them. She said we’re not doing enough to educate cops about what they are going through and how it affects them. And one of those effects can be suicide.
She says each officer brings baggage into the job, which can be suddenly triggered. Dr. Johnson mentions “The Fatal 10:” The Fatal 10 Factors of Law Enforcement Suicide. It’s critical to predict suicidal police officers. Sadly, many officers know cops who’ve taken their lives, leaving their comrades and families kicking themselves for not realizing the signs until too late.
Dr. Johnson says young cops don’t ask for help because they think they’re supposed to have their “shit together,” but they don’t. If cops can address the issues early, they can help inoculate themselves against bad outcomes by recognizing behavioral shifts—in themselves.
When cops suffer from stress due to emotional trauma, their families suffer, too. For example, some cops descend into alcohol abuse. But this film shows that experiencing stress isn’t the only issue. How an officer deals with stress is what’s crucial and, sadly, alcohol abuse is a common crutch.
Substance abuse is a temporary and toxic substitute for proper care because people feel it’s effective and anonymous. Neither is true. Cops believe they are concealing their behavior, that the problem lies with others. It’s like, if they talk to someone, “everyone” will know, but, very often, everyone already knows.
Police departments hire some of the best of the best, but they’re not great about checking on their people. Something small can start a cascade, but soon, it’s too late. Not only suicide but murder/suicide can result. The film shows us, that’s why it’s okay if someone ultimately must walk away from the job entirely. Maybe they’ll stop digging long enough to get help.
Dr. Johnson says, “We don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors at home, and I can tell you, there’s a lot of shit happening behind closed doors at home. At some point, you have to do the work on yourself.”
Another couple’s story had fewer “action movie” elements than the Ortiz family, but it’s just as valuable, if not more so. More because while the Ortiz’s experience was explosive, far more officers struggle with what the Medlin’s experienced. An officer unaware of how much the job had affected him, his family, and his initial inability (unwillingness) to get help.
After Rachel and Scott got married, she says everything seemed fine. Eventually, Scott’s rotating shifts brought stress. And while Scott’s schedule was a problem, the job also affected his behavior, which, according to Rachel, even their friends noticed. She says Scott’s head was always on a swivel. That’s generally fine, but some cops carry it too far, like obsessing about running into people he’d arrested. He even told Rachel to go out with their friends while he stayed home.
Then, he worked hard to get assigned to the K-9 Unit, which had a considerable time commitment. He did this even with a new baby in the house. Rachel wanted Scott to better manage a work/life balance because of his demanding schedule. She felt stressed, keeping the baby quiet while Scott slept odd hours. Then, as bad as his schedule was, he’d also volunteer for extra shifts.
It got to the point where Scott wasn’t using vacation time because he felt he needed to be with the team. He was less interested in family life and just wanted to get back to work. He says, “Even on days off, I’d drop my son off at daycare.”
Rachel says his having a good day once a month is not normal. He’d come home irritable, and I’d say, “You’re not going to bring that home to me.” Scott eventually left the K-9 unit he loved and was assigned as a school resource officer with a normal schedule. He thought, now Rachel had no excuse to complain anymore.
From Scott’s perspective, what he brought with him to the job was service as a U.S. Marine Reserve combat veteran who’d survived a close-mortar incident. He didn’t think anyone understood his situation.
Rachel says being a wife started feeling like she was mom to both her baby and husband. She never considered divorce but still thought she could do it alone if she had to. This resolve must have seeped into Scott’s consciousness because after sleeping in separate beds one night, he realized he needed help.
Rachel says Scott only spoke of the negative and never about his job successes. His total focus was on the job. Rachel told him she felt as if she were already a single mother. Finally, Rachel gave him an ultimatum: essentially get help or else….
To Scott’s credit, he took her seriously—too many officers in his situation don’t. He told his boss about his family situation. His supervisor listened and asked if he had a plan. Scott answered by finally talking to someone. He began to think “outside the job.” He realized he had “friends outside law enforcement, in church…” and in other activities. The new perspective gave him hope, and he finally understood, “I’m not who I thought I was; this job has changed me.”
Rachel wants people to know, “If it’s not working, we are proof that you can change.” Things might not all fall into place perfectly at once. Just find what works. “It may not look like exactly what you thought. That’s all right,” Rachel says.
It’s okay to realize you’re not perfect and it’s a weird to think you should be. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help; it’s a sign of strength.
After Scott became a school resource officer, they had another child, and he took the full 12 weeks off. The first few years as a school officer were fine but still difficult because it wasn’t as satisfying as the K9 unit.
He allowed himself to wallow in the past, missing his dog. He couldn’t deal with returning to patrol even though he felt like police work was his calling. So, he thought it was best to leave police work after 14 years of service. Essentially, he recognized the signs, this time, and reprioritized his family over his job.
We also briefly meet Officer Glen Williams, a 26-year veteran cop who worked for the Sandy City Police and Utah Transit Police. He cut to the proverbial chase. He talked about how family-oriented cops are, which made him wonder, “Why so many divorces” among cops? So, he founded a program called, “Bridging the Gap: An inside Look at Communications and Relations to assist in reducing [cop] PTSD, divorce, and suicide.”
He talks about life for cops after they retire. The stresses don’t go away immediately; they often shift, as happened with Mike Ortiz. Cops miss the camaraderie, and that old “thrill of the chase is gone,” Williams said. Retired cops must find a purpose to replace what they had found in police work.
Hopefully, that purpose will include their families. The most well-adjusted cop retirees I know focus on their families, even if they have other passions.
Williams concludes, “Find someone to talk to…. If we don’t get it out, it will eat us alive. And if it eats us alive, it’ll destroy our family.”