Mark Wright’s Story – Detective, Hamilton Police
Telling this story to people has never been an easy task. Sharing with a bunch of police officers is more difficult. We do this job and have our own experiences. I have been to calls that have really hit home for me and others without a second thought. It’s the human element. How each and every one of us is wired differently. Whether it’s a result of our work or life experiences, our beliefs or our expectations. I don’t have the answer to that. I wish I did.
My name is Mark Wright. I am a police officer in Hamilton, Ontario and have been so since 2007. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have opportunities in specialty units since I started. I’ve spent as much time in uniform as I have out of it. I have a wife who has been extremely patient with me and two amazing sons.
I became a police officer because I graduated with a university degree, proposed to a girl and thought I should try to find a proper job. I could not find a job, so I became a police officer. I wasn’t a saint growing up, as I’m sure a majority of us can relate to. I dealt with some truly amazing police officers as well as some who weren’t the most endearing people. Both the positive and negative experiences were the catalyst to apply. I knew the kind of police officer I wanted to be and I had an idea of whom I was not going to be.
In August 2007, I was hired and sent to OPC. I completed my pre-service training all while thinking ‘what had I gotten myself into?’ Upon my return from OPC, I was assigned two extremely patient coach officers over a three-month period. During that time, I found my way. This profession is hands down one of the coolest jobs out there. A front row seat to the greatest circus in town. Every day is different and no two calls are the same. We meet interesting characters and experience so many things that not many people are privy too. We go from one call to the next trying to fix everyone else’s problems. Applying a band-aid on one problem then racing to the next. In retrospect, I think I spent so much time trying solve everyone else problems that I didn’t take enough time to realize that I was developing my own. This job is death by a thousand cuts. We race from one call to the next. Seeing one traumatic event after another. I never actually took the time to process what exactly I was being exposed to. I never truly appreciated the affect that these incidents were having on me. I was indestructible… I’m the police. In retrospect, there were probably hundreds of events that eventually led to me breaking down. It’s taken years of seeing a psychologist to attempt to understand what happened to me. I don’t know if I’m any closer to knowing why it happened to me. I will more than likely never know why all these events had such a profound impact on me. But I am forever changed. I’ll talk about three significant incidents I feel had the most profound impact on me.
December 17th 2013 – Was a normal day. I was working in the street crime unit trying to finish a crown brief from the shift before. The HEAT (street crime) office was right beside the central parade room. I left the office to go and place the stockpile of batteries that I had accumulated throughout the week in the chargers. As I was there, S/Sgt Ian Matthews walked past and we spoke briefly. S/Sgt Ian Matthews was one of those people you stop and talk to. His background in undercover and detective work was well known throughout the province. At the time, he was assigned to uniform patrol.
We had a mindless conversation just about the weather or something else that was trivial. I returned to my office and continued typing for probably 5 minutes. The next thing I remember hearing is my friend yelling that we need an ambulance and that we need help. Matt is a co-worker on my squad who I knew well enough to know by the tone in his voice that he needed help. I ran to the men’s change room and entered. On the floor, as I ran in, was Ian Matthews. He was lying there in his police uniform. He had just shot himself and was fatally injured. I stood there for a second in shock, then I took a position at the bathroom door ensuring no one else entered. I was numb. The entire station was silent for the remainder of that day. Everyone was in shock and disbelief that this had just occurred. For the first time, I felt vulnerable inside of the police station. I was always able to let my guard down once I returned to the station but that sensation was suddenly gone. I stood there at the door for what felt like an eternity and eventually was relieved by a Halton officer, because they took carriage of the investigation. I left and drove home. I was defeated. From the moment I started, everyone said that Ian Matthews was a phenomenal police officer. If this job could break him, what chance did I have?
There were a few things that kept going through my head that day but the primary thought was this is so f***ed up. I woke up the next morning and got ready for work and went to leave and cried in my kitchen because I didn’t want to go back to headquarters. I knew enough to know that if a seasoned investigator was under that much stress, what hope did someone like me have? I made it to work that day. I wasn’t very productive. Thankfully, I was transferred out of headquarters. I started a new position in BEAR (Break & Enter and Robbery) in another division. This transfer was already in place and it was a much-welcomed retreat from returning to headquarters daily. I tried not to give the incident much more thought. It was easier to ignore it. It was still there. When I was not busy, thoughts of what I saw that day would creep back in. Thoughts of ‘what if I would have said something different to him during our brief conversation? Would that have changed anything?’ I ended up angry. Angry that I had to see that. Angry that I could not forget it. Just angry and sad.
The BEAR office was busy, allowing me to focus on work, making it easy to ignore what was happening me. By the end of 2014, I found myself in a state of perpetual sadness. Just sad and miserable all the time. I was difficult to be around. I was quick to temper and was a s****y husband and father. I would pick fights with my wife and yell at my kids. Fly off the handle at work. I was depressed. I knew it; my friends at work knew it. This behavior was a marked departure from the fun loving, jokester I was. What did I do? Initially nothing. I kept working and being an a**hole. Until I reached my breaking point. I’m not sure what it was. When I think back to it, I was so detached from myself and was sad for what felt like so long I didn’t remember what it was to not feel like this. Sue, my wife, told me I needed to see someone. I went and spoke with a social worker. Initially, it helped and I think I saw her three or four sessions and felt somewhat better. My last session with her, she asked me a couple of questions that were faith based and she lost me. I never returned. I thought I felt good enough that I didn’t need anyone else.
Another six months passed where I felt ok. At my block training week, I was in the road to mental readiness presentation. The presenter talked about how our emotions were connected to a colour and how we felt. Every major indicator that they spoke about I could relate to. At the end of the session, they put phone numbers on the board of area psychologists. I remember leaving that training and getting into my car and thinking I am not ok. I called a Doctor from the list and made an appointment right then.
I began treatment with Dr. Triano in 2015. I was suffering from depression. I didn’t know why initially. It was all the things that I had been exposed to from this job. There were incidents that I had never dealt with that that would just start to bubble over and creep into my everyday life. I said this earlier. We don’t have the time to process our emotions as we are working; we just file them away. Eventually that filing system breaks.
I was not myself. I didn’t find joy in things I normally would. I avoided going out. I was sleeping more. I was quiet and withdrawn. I saw my psychologist every two weeks for a couple months and was able to work through my issues. Eventually, I returned to myself. I would have days that I was sad but those days grew fewer and fewer.
I had to work on myself. I know I need to continue to work on myself. I am committed to myself, for me and my family.
I focus on doing things to take care of myself. For me, that was getting enough sleep and taking the time to process events that I hadn’t thought about since they occurred. This was not an easy task and took a lot of work. After about 6 months, I was myself again. I decided to continue with treatment as a self-check measure. I made appointments every two months, then every three months. I kept going because it was important to have a safe place that I could talk about what was bothering me.
In January 2017, I returned to uniform. My stint was over in BEAR. I returned to general patrol duties. I had more tools in my toolbox to deal with the events that I knew I would be exposed to.
October 16, 2017 – It was a Sunday night shift. It was a typical Sunday night shift. There was a handful of calls after midnight. At 3:40 am, there was a call for a shooting. One call quickly turned to multiple calls. I arrived on scene and was the third person through the door. It was a person that I had dealt with numerous times. She was alive when I made it through the door. Two of my peers were attempting to stop the bleeding. There were not enough bandages in Hamilton to stop the bleeding that night. I had met the victim over the course of my 12 years of policing. Don’t get me wrong, she hurt many people in her life. She robbed and assaulted numerous people. On that night, I watched her lying on the floor. Bleeding from her face. Trying to talk. She was terrified and did not want to die. We were helpless to stop it. We attempted to stop the bleeding but we are not combat medics. She died in the hospital later that night. I was tasked with telling the victim’s mother that she was dead. It was first death notification that I had ever done. On the drive home that morning, all I was thinking was “that was f***ed up.”
I spent the next couple of weeks trying to digest everything that happened. I spoke with my co-workers about it. It bothered me. I freely admitted it. In conversations, people would ask how I was doing. I was honest and said that call bothered me. I was trying my best to process it. I had a psychologist appointment scheduled for a month later. I thought the time would help me process it and then I could talk about it. I had a few sleepless nights. I was coping. The thing that bothered me was the feeling of being helpless. There was nothing I could have done to change the outcome. I could not save her life. I had lots of support. People telling me to take care of myself. I felt I was doing the best I could, for me.
November 6, 2017 – 5:15pm, the address was 17 Lang St. Three weeks to the day. I was getting ready to finish a day shift. I was pulling into the station to brief the night shift Sgt. when this call came out. There were multiple calls reporting that a woman had just been shot multiple times.
I arrived at the same time as another veteran officer. We were the first two officers on the scene. As I pulled up, I noticed a body lying face down in the garden in front of the house. I stopped in front of the address and turned off my siren, kept the lights on so everyone else could see where I was. I remember hearing this wailing, I thought the siren was still on. I took a breath and got out of my car. I realized that my siren was off. It was the victim’s 16-year-old daughter who was standing there screaming. I ran up to victim and pulled her out of the garden and put her on her back. She had been shot multiple times. She was already dead. We started CPR as units arrived. I distinctly remember seeing snowflakes and I thought it was snowing. The “snowflakes” was the stuffing out of the female’s jacket floating in the air as I was doing chest compressions. Ambulance transported the victim to the hospital without vital signs. Her daughter was brought to the station. The victim’s 9-year-old daughter was not home. I set out to locate her at the neighbour’s house. We found her and had her go with police. The little girl had lost her father 6 years prior when he was shot by police. Telling a child who does not trust the police that her mother was in the hospital is probably one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had.
The victim was dead. We had the scene and witnesses secured. It was a job well done by the squad. I went home that night and talked briefly about it with my wife. She was worried about me. I told her not to be. I said was fine and I fell right asleep.
For the next three weeks I was comfortable at work. It was almost as if I went to the Lang St. call, then went into fight or flight. I was on high alert all the time. Never letting my guard down. When I was at work, those feelings felt normal. At home, I wasn’t ok. I grew more and more irritable. I became hair trigger. Being set off by the slightest things. I would start waking up in the middle of the night to make sure the doors were locked and to ensure there was no one out front of my house. I would rarely go out. I didn’t drink. It was too much work to get drunk. When I would take the kids out, I would have panic attacks. My anxiety was not because I thought that I would be hurt. I was afraid that I’d stumble across another accident or shooting or something like that. I felt like I had a black cloud over me. Every time I left my house, my pulse would elevate, I would get a dry mouth and start sweating. I knew the fear was irrational but I couldn’t stop the feelings. I had flat affect. No joy from the things that make me happy. I was constantly tired.
With all these symptoms, I should have realized I was not ok. I didn’t. My friends did. My wife did. Just not me.
Three weeks after the incident, I returned to treatment. I was honest about how I had been feeling. Dr. Triano told me that I probably shouldn’t go to work that day. I told her that I had to. In my mind, I felt compelled to go. I didn’t want to let anyone down, leave the shift short. Lori’s verbal Judo broke me down. I drove to the east end station to apologize to everyone because I couldn’t be there. I don’t remember driving there. I just felt like I owed everyone an apology for not being able to do my job.
I went home and I slept. I think I slept for the better part of three days. I was a mess. Hyper emotional.
I was off work as a result of doing my job. I was angry and felt guilty for not going to work. I was embarrassed. I was diagnosed with PTSD and wasn’t really sure what that meant. I initially thought it was a life sentence. Something that would leave me broken and not myself for the remainder of my life.
For two months, I had treatment once a week. I started to feel better. Dr. Triano helped me work on the intrusive memories, my own guilt because I wasn’t at work. Tricks to help clear my mind and process the emotions. Talking about topics that are not comfortable to talk about.
I was a hermit for almost three months. A ghost on social media. I did not want to do anything. By February, I was ready to come back. Returning to work made me nervous, probably more nervous than I was before my first shift on the job. I was worried that people would judge me or think less of me. The reality is, no one cared. I mean that in the nicest way possible. It was evident, to the people that I worked with, that I wasn’t myself before I went off. I needed to get right. My squad mates knew that.
I returned to work. I overcame the fear of returning to the station and putting on my uniform. On my first shift back, I returned to the scene of both those shootings. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t emotional. I know that I will never forget all of these incidents that I have been involved in.
I started presenting to the recruit classes about my journey and on the importance of mental health and self-care. I like to think that I might be able help them prepare for the career that lies in front of them. I still have good days and bad days. The bad days are fewer and fewer.
This isn’t an easy story for me to tell. Telling a person, or a group of people, about the worst experience you’ve ever had isn’t enjoyable. I think I rewrote the ending seven or eight times trying to finish this piece. I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason I couldn’t find an ending to this story is because it’s not over. I know that, every day, I need to work on taking care of myself. There will be peaks and valleys with my mood and emotions and it will take work to manage that. I think most, if not all, first responders deal with the same emotions. It’s alright to ask for help. It’s ok to not be ok.