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Cop-veteran encounters take center stage at St. Croix County training event

U.S. Marine Corps gunnery Sgt. Dan Navrestad speaks March 31 with officers from different agencies from St. Croix County. He urged officers to consider differently how they approach veterans in crisis. Mike Longaecker/RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Amy Wood, a Department of Veterans Affairs social worker, speaks last month at the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office. She described the unique challenges veterans face, telling the group that responses to mental health crises require more than going through the motions. “We need to do a better job of showing people we care,” she said. Mike Longaecker/RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

HUDSON — Ask questions. Be patient. Diffuse.

That is how you approach a veteran in crisis, military servicemen told local law enforcement officers.

Two veterans, along with a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs social worker, explained the unique dynamics of such incidents during a training event last month at the St. Croix County Sheriff's Office.

The session, held March 31, gave officers a stark outline of what happens when a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder has an episode requiring law enforcement to respond.

Such encounters aren't unusual for officers from St. Croix and Pierce counties, but the Marines who presented at the meeting said it's important for cops to see it through a different perspective.

"It's such a serious subject," said Dan Navrestad, a U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and former drill instructor who trains reservists in Minneapolis. "It's important to me that young officers take it seriously."

St. Croix County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Tim Kufus was one of seven officers who attended the meeting, along with officers from Baldwin and Hammond.

Kufus, who serves as a negotiator on the department's Emergency Response Unit, said the training served as a good reminder.

"Anybody could have extremely traumatic crises that have happened to them in the past and no matter what, it might affect them forever," said Kufus, who successfully negotiated for three hours last year during an incident with a veteran armed with a gun. "You never know what someone has experienced in life and you should treat everyone with respect. And if they're in crisis, it might be for a very legitimate reason in their history."

Navrestad described an encounter that set him on edge:

He called police after a Twin Cities fender-bender in a grocery store parking lot. The responding officer approached Navrestad while he was on the phone with his insurance company.

The officer rushed him and commanded him to end his call. The order struck him as unnecessarily aggressive, as did the next command to produce his ID.

He did, instinctively fishing out his military ID card. The officer dismissed the military ID, telling him she "didn't care" about that and wanted his state-issued ID, Navrestad explained.

That set him into a rage he barely managed to contain.

"Right away, my military service and what I stand for meant nothing" to the officer, he told the assembled law enforcement members.

The lesson?

"Like my mom said, treat people the way you want to be treated," Navrestad said.

'What can I do to help you?'

He was joined by VA social worker Amy Wood and a Marine now serving in the U.S. Navy who identified himself to the group only as Shane.

Shane, who developed PTSD after serving 22 deployments, had a darker story to share.

He described memories from a night when he was feeling suicidal. He had contacted Navrestad, who called 911.

What happened afterward was an encounter that Shane said escalated faster than it needed to. And rather than being approached as someone who needed help, the aggressive interaction by law enforcement put him on the defensive and in combat mode.

Shane urged officers to take a non-threatening posture in those situations — at least when the veteran only represents a threat to himself.

"Tell me you got a call, ask, 'What can I do to help you?'" he told the group.

And Shane admitted it's not always so cut and dry.

Pierce County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jason Matthys knows that can be the case.

"In many of those cases, the veteran has been self-medicating with alcohol or medications to help mask the pain or emotions that they are encountering," he said. "That, coupled with the veteran's familiarity with weapons and tactics makes the response from law enforcement to these calls more challenging."

A tense situation

Matthys recalled an incident near Spring Valley involving a veteran who had recently returned from deployment and was in crisis.

"He had lost one of his good friends in combat, felt he had no place to turn with his emotional pain and his wife was not able to offer the support he was seeking," Matthys said, adding that the man began to self-medicate with alcohol.

Those circumstances came to a head one night when, while highly intoxicated, the man dressed himself in camouflage, armed himself with a long gun and began shooting it off in his neighborhood.

Deputies ultimately arrested the man before he was referred to the VA hospital for psychiatric help.

The incident required negotiators to adapt to the situation as they learned more about the man's background.

"In this case as well as many, the negotiation tactics changed when the root cause of the issue was made known to law enforcement," Matthys said.

His counterpart in St. Croix County, Chief Deputy Scott Knudson, said he hopes training on the issue helps officers in the field more prepared for the next time they handle a veteran in crisis.

"It's important that we educate ourselves in other areas that may require a different approach," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

(715) 426-1072
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