Joseph Styles’ Story – Detective, York Regional Police
My name is Joe Styles. I am a Detective with the York Regional Police. I come from a family of people who support and are devoted to law enforcement and emergency services. Ever since I was a kid, I knew that I would devote my life toward service to my country and community. I looked upon Police, Fire, Paramedics and the Military as the most honorable career pursuits. I saw it as more than just a career, but rather a calling. My uncle was a Staff Sergeant with the York Regional Police, and my cousin was a Police Constable.
I was overjoyed and so proud when I was chosen to join the York Regional Police in April 2008. When I started my career on the road, I was fascinated by the police culture and was bought into the lifestyle very quickly. The first several years were like living a dream that had come true. I was engaged to be married to my beautiful wife. I bought a home and got a dog. I was, as they say, “living the dream.”
On June 28, 2011, I was woken up early before going into work by a friend and colleague. I was informed that my cousin, Garrett Styles, had stopped a vehicle for speeding in the early morning and attempted to arrest the driver who was driving his parent’s vehicle without consent. The male driver had sped away with my cousin Garrett in the car. The male crashed the vehicle and my cousin was seriously hurt.
My initial instinct was to attend his home, which was very close to my own, as we lived in the same subdivision. I had moved there following in his footsteps. I wanted to tell his wife what had happened so she would not have to be advised by a Uniform Officer. This is something I already understood all police spouses fear.
I drove Garrett’s wife to the hospital where we met with my uncle, Garrett’s father. We were notified by a doctor that morning that Garrett died as a result of his injuries. This moment will never leave my memory for the rest of my life. I felt the emotion and warmth leave my body. The sound of screams, and crying. The confusion, chaos and feeling of absolute helplessness. It was overwhelming.
My family was a very close family up to this point, and we still are for the most part. But that morning changed every one of our lives forever. Our smiles have not been as bright, our laughter not as loud, our family gatherings never feeling quite complete. Our family to this day struggles with the void that has been left behind as a result of our loss.
My initial response was to go into “police mode,” which I think was a way to protect myself from falling apart. I took it upon myself to notify my grandmother, the matriarch of our family. I took on any task I could, and created other ones to busy myself when there weren’t any. I did not want to feel what I was feeling. And I went numb. Instead of taking time to be with my family, I went to work to be with my police family. I felt connected and safe there. I didn’t have to feel the emotion at work the way I would at home.
On August 1, 2011, just over a month from my cousin’s murder, I was dispatched to attend to an unknown trouble with six of my friends and colleagues. When we got to the residence, it was quickly apparent that something very wrong was taking place. We encountered a male in the midst of a murder-suicide inside the residence. He had viciously attacked and stabbed his wife and was using a knife to stop me and my colleagues from rendering aid to his wife. The scene was terrifying and absolutely gut-wrenching to experience. I remember knowing the appropriate course of action to take but feeling the deepest level of dread and self-doubt. Myself and another officer ended the standoff using lethal force, fatally wounding the male. I was again plunged into that void. The warmth and emotion immediately drained from my body. This was later compounded by the news that the female victim died as a result of her injuries, and that our efforts were in vain. I got into policing because of a sense of moral duty and obligation to serve. I wanted to save and help people. But this felt so far from that.
Initially, I was given much of the usual reassurances and support from my colleagues that anyone would expect. People said things like “you did the right thing, Joe” and “good job,” not realizing that I did not feel that way in the slightest. What they did not realize was that moments before proceeding with my choice, I weighed out what felt like an infinite number of issues that would arise. Who will I be after this? Will my wife want to still marry me? Will my mom still see me as she always had? Could I be wrong? How will my colleagues view me? How will God view me? I was ashamed that even though for only a split second, I had weighed my own interest against the life of another.
SIU engaged and did its job. I completed my notes, my use of force was taken and I was officially the subject officer of an SIU investigation. On top of this, I was to get married only 18 days later. Again, when I should have been home with my family getting their support, and giving my own, I chose to come back to work immediately. It was where I was safe, and I could avoid feeling what I didn’t want to feel. I also didn’t want to burden my family who I felt were already overwhelmed with my problems. So, I turned to my police family.
I learned over the next little while that my friends and colleagues cared very much for me. However, I also experienced how callus and emotionally disconnected the culture I loved so much could be. I remember talking to a group of friends about how I was feeling, and having a colleague overhear our conversation. His response was cold and sharp. This signaled to me that I should not be sharing how I felt.
The next few weeks and months were shrouded by a dark cloud that seemed to follow me wherever I went. I kept this to myself mostly as I didn’t want people to see me as weak, and I definitely didn’t want to scare or burden my family. This began to change the normal ways I behaved, and shifted my habits. I saw myself as broken and deficient. The proverbial broken toy. I felt hopeless and lost. My world, that had once been filled with colour and life, now felt dim and empty of joy. This scared me beyond belief, but I knew I had to be very careful about who I spoke to about it.
One afternoon, I was standing outside my district station on break. I was struggling with my own thoughts when a Supervisor I respected very much approached me. respected him because I considered him as one of the “good ones.” He was ‘old school’ and had reversed more kilometres on a cruiser than I had driven forward. He was collected, a cool cop’s cop. Up until that day, that was the only way I had ever known him. He reluctantly pulled me aside and told me he noticed I wasn’t doing well. He asked how I was holding up, and I told him the truth. I was drinking more, sleeping less. My new marriage was in jeopardy and wasn’t doing well. He surprised me again and opened up to me about his own story. He drew parallels and comparisons I never would have believed could have existed. But then he really blew me away. He told me how he had corrected many of those issues, by talking to a mental health professional. He provided their phone number, and encouraged me to “try it out.” After all, what did I have to lose?
I waited initially. But then realized. This Supervisor had put himself out there…for me. He had exposed himself and made himself vulnerable because it was the right thing to do. He showed tremendous bravery by stepping outside the cultural norms that we lived with at that time, and I owed it to him and myself to at least try. I set the appointment and to be honest, I was gut sick about it. On the day of my appointment, I attended the office expecting some hippy, or that psychologist from the lethal weapon movies. I was completely wrong. What I experienced was a very professional, compassionate and understanding person. There was a clinical approach like going to the doctor, but with a great deal of good bedside manner. I can’t describe the feeling of absolute relief and validation I experienced. Over the next while, I learned to deal with and face my feelings, and developed strategies to assist me. I began to see that colour come back into my life. My relationships improved. The joy and happiness of life began to return. I knew from that point on I would be as strong an advocate as I possibly could. I would take the risk and vulnerability my Supervisor had shown me, and pay it forward to whoever I could, whenever I could.
Over the next couple of years, York Regional Police and many other agencies across Canada began to evaluate our culture and stance on good mental health. We started to see a collective shift in the mindset that to be the best police officers we could be, we had to be healthy not only in body but in mind and spirit. I became very vocal about my experience. Partially to help my friends and colleagues, and partially because it was extremely freeing and cathartic. York Regional Police created the Peer Support Unit, which is a unit of nominated volunteers whose sole objective is to support our members struggling with or facing the adversity of stress injuries and mental health issues, and promoting good mental health and wellbeing. One of the proudest honours I have ever experienced was when I was nominated, and became a member of the Peer Support Unit. The support grows steadily every day. We are getting better and better every day. I now dedicate myself to supporting my Brothers and Sisters in all areas of emergency services, and contributing to the incredible progress we continue to make.