CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s a job balancing life and death and a position of power in our community. It’s a duty often costing more than a person can earn. But for so many police officers across the country, the call to serve overshadows the sacrifice.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sergeant Donnie Penix has blue blood running through his veins. He started in 1997 as a patrol officer and has since served on the SWAT team, as a detective, and is now a sergeant in the Airport Division. He even served alongside his wife and his father, who were fellow officers at CMPD for years themselves.
For Sgt. Penix, his career is something he’s proud of, but it has also brought him a lot of pain.
“There's been some moments across my career that, both physically, mentally and emotionally, impacted me, and I carry that with me to this day,” said Sgt. Penix.
The job became even tougher after an officer-involved shooting in 2016.
“It was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back,” said Sgt. Penix.
The sergeant and his officers were tracking a man wanted for murder in January of 2016. When that suspect shot at officers, Penix and his team responded with deadly force.
“It was the worst of the worst,” said Penix. “A night where one of mine was injured, we've taken a life, and it was the most traumatic experience I've ever been in as a police officer. It's not what you signed up to do. We signed up to help people.”
After that night, Penix went back to his usual shift feeling anything but normal.
“It unleashed a lot of emotion for me and sent me spiraling down a really, really dark place. Every day I relived that experience over and over again, and I became so reclusive and I just internalized everything,” he said of his emotional reaction.
The pain became so overwhelming he almost quit his job.
“I set my gun and badge on my table at home, and I said, ‘I'm done.’ But I made a commitment to this profession and commitment to the people that I work with and work for to see it out,” he said.
So, he did something he’d never done before. Sgt. Penix reached out for help.
“We have that armor up where we're supposed to be the ones that help people, but we rarely ask for help for ourselves,” he said. “Once I made that decision to do that, it was hands-on the best thing I've ever done in my life. And that's why I'm able to still function today and had a successful career.”
The help he got was unique to this department. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has an on-staff psychologist to help officers process what they experience and build up their mental health resiliency before negative experiences on the job.
Dr. David Robert Englert, the staff psychologist for CMPD, will begin helping recruits on the second day of the police academy. He said it’s about opening the door for tough conversations, so the officers will know it’s okay to ask for help anytime in their career.
“Why don't we come up with a program in which we try to make people more resilient before bad things happen?” asked Dr. Englert. “Bad things are going to happen. When they do, the person, the individual, and their family will be more resilient, more able to recover quickly from that event.”
Englert said this resource is critical for officers who can and will suffer physical and mental impacts from their work.
“When you kick into high gear, the blood flows to your arms and legs and it flows away from your digestive track, and so it messes up with your digestion, your body's not healing itself,” said Englert of high-intensity police work. “You're not feeling rested. It really does potentially take years off a person's life.”
But this is not just for officers. The 911 dispatchers, clerks and the entire staff of CMPD is exposed to trauma. Dr. Englert is there to assist them, too.
“From the moment they sit down to the moment they leave, it's high-impact all day every day. Some kind of tragedy,” said Englert of the 911 dispatchers. “My crime-scene technicians are going to go and see dead bodies almost every day, if not every day.
We want to make sure that everyone here is taken care of and has resources.”
Going on patrol and responding to calls is just a small part of the stress officers face every day and talking about those traumas is just the beginning of the resources this department offers.
“For 72% of police officers in the country, the number one stressor was finances, and so, one of the first things that we did here was brought in a financial counselor to meet one-on-one with people and their spouses to help them come up with a financial plan,” said Dr. Englert. “Whether they had thousands in the bank or they’re thousands in debt.”
To further assist officers and staff with finances, the department holds seminars for financial planning.
“We have small-group debt-reduction classes. Nine one-hour classes where they can sit together, work together as groups to get themselves out of debt,” he said.
The department also has peer support groups so officers know they can rely on each other for help.
“We also developed the officer-involved-shooting peer support, and so when an officer unfortunately has to take life or fire the weapon, they're assigned one of these folks who's been in this situation in the past,” said Englert.
Deputy Chief Cherie E. Pearsall said normalizing this focus on mental health is paving the way for a new kind of officer.
“You don't want to send broken people to handle broken situations,” she said. “We find funding for ammunition, we find funding for tactical vests to protect our officers, but we then have to do a good job of advocating for funding to protect their head and their heart.”
Pearsall believes this program could be a model for other departments across the country and hopes this will help mend the broken relationship between police officers and the public.
“They are human, and they may have had some of the same issues at home before they came to work ... And so, if there's a mutual respect and mutual understanding, then I think all of our situations will turn out ending with a human reaction in the positive direction that we wanted it to end in,” said the deputy chief.
Sgt. Penix hopes the work he’s done for his own mental health shows the community there are officers out there fighting to truly protect and serve.
“We're putting ourselves out there to say it's okay. It's okay to have those emotions, it's okay to hurt. It’s okay to ask for help. We're not invulnerable. We’re human, just like anyone else. We can't do our job to the best of our abilities if we're not well inside,” said Penix.