Post-tragedy, Santa Cruz cops are embracing a mental health culture shift, pushing PTSD understanding

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Part 1: This is your brain on trauma


It wasn’t long after Mike Pruger had migrated from the Santa Cruz Police Department to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, and accepted the role of coroner detective, that hell broke loose on the afternoon of Feb. 26, 2013.

Pruger studied the grisly scene on North Branciforte Ave. where his good friend, Sgt. Loran “Butch” Baker, lay in a pool of blood next to Detective Elizabeth Butler, victims of the county’s first cop killing since 1983. Only 10 days earlier, Baker, 51 and a 28-year veteran of the force, had confided in Pruger about his pending retirement plans.

Others on the scene soon wisely intervened and sent Pruger far away from the too-close-to-home sight of flashing red-and-blue lights and yellow crime-scene tape.

But, small town that Santa Cruz is, the intervention was short-lived and futile for Pruger, who ultimately pulled his coroner’s van up to Dominican Hospital and had to be the bearer of horrific news. He tried to provide comfort to Baker’s wife and son through breathless sobs and heartbroken bear hugs.

Pruger, now five years into retirement, considers himself one of the lucky ones in dealing with trauma — even the very worst kind a sworn officer can imagine like the events of that 2013 day. He reckons he is one whose brain wiring somehow has allowed his deepest, darkest emotions to be compartmentalized without the need for any special processing — even the one time he fired his gun with deadly force back in 1989.

But there is a growing understanding that no two brains handle duty-induced trauma the same way. And swift attention — particularly after a cop has been killed in a small, tight-knit community — is imperative to heading off collateral damage: mass resignations, families torn apart by post-traumatic stress, even suicide.

Local leaders now feel they have gotten ahead of that curve, spurred largely by forced learning through traumatic incidents that have had reverberations throughout their entire departments. They have utilized a local specialist who has dedicated her career to healing the brains of first responders and worked toward promoting a culture of watching out for one another.

If someone sees something, tell someone — it may save a life.

“If someone sees something, tell someone — it may save a life,” said retired police officer Donna Lind, now Scotts Valley mayor, president of the Fallen Officer Foundation and an outspoken advocate for heightened mental health awareness among first responders.

* * *

The brain of Alex Spencer, for instance, was in a far more vulnerable state after the visceral combat it had endured on June 6, 2020, in Ben Lomond. That’s where Spencer and his partner were ambushed by an active military member turned militia member, hell-bent on killing them. And he’s grateful he had a contemporary like Pruger to help steer him toward the right care.

Spencer had been shot in the chest (a protective vest saved his life), had an improvised explosive device (IED) thrown at him and explode in midair and was run over multiple times by Steven Carrillo after Spencer had just witnessed the murder of his good friend Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller.

Beyond a traumatic brain injury, Spencer left the hospital with a laundry list of physical ailments most can vaguely understand — fractures of his tibia, hip, ankle and ribs from being run over; a punctured lung and swollen heart from being shot in the chest.

The subconscious collateral damage to his brain, however, is a far more tangled web. It can be comprehended, even by him, only after the fact, with specialized therapy that helped him process everything that happened that day.

Sheriff's deputy Alex Spencer and his dog, Dries (pronounced dreese).

Sheriff’s deputy Alex Spencer and his dog, Dries (pronounced dreese).

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I hadn’t noticed any real effects bubbling forth until I was back in it, processing it,” Spencer told Lookout in his first interview since the incident. “There’s such sadness, first from the death of your friend. But then there’s also this visceral feeling when someone tries to kill you — and tries not once, not twice, but three times.”

Now back out in the field where he belongs, alongside his beloved police dog, Spencer is positive he wouldn’t still be in law enforcement without the specialized treatment he received to undo the damage inflicted to his brain that day.

He is grateful for the existence of a so-called “cop whisperer” named Karen Lansing, a licensed marriage and family therapist trained as an expert in traumatic stress, who helped fix him.

Lansing is based in Aptos, but has had an international career. She specializes in a healing technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), utilizing it on traumatized “warrior brains” of those whose job entails seeing too much.

Cops, firefighters, paramedics and military personnel. From Ben Lomond to Belfast to Kosovo to the Middle East.

Karen Lansing of Aptos has earned the moniker "cop whisperer."

Karen Lansing of Aptos has earned the moniker “cop whisperer.”

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It required 32 hours of Lansing’s care over nine months to fix Spencer.

That involved 22 hours of what she describes as “combined clinical and tactical range work, then another 10 hours of cross-checking, fine-tuning and the final assessment.” The result: Spencer’s mind is calm again, and has remained so since November 2020.

As he continues to mourn the loss of his good friend, Spencer is trying to pay his own second chance forward by educating other police forces across the state about the powerful healing techniques available.

Without it, I don’t think I would be doing law enforcement anymore — I’d probably have transitioned to another career.

“Without it, I don’t think I would be doing law enforcement anymore — I’d probably have transitioned to another career,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t be able to be the father and husband that I am today. I know that I would have been dealing with a lot more issues downstream.”

* * *

Much learning has occurred in the nine years since what most in the law enforcement world refer to as the “Butch & Liz” murders. The Gutzwiller murder served as a key reminder that such events can act both as triggers for unchecked trauma and catalysts for new PTSD symptoms.

Multiple law enforcement sources described the number of individuals, over the multiple police and fire agencies that responded that day, still suffering from various forms of mental duress in the wake of the Gutzwiller murder as “staggering.”

The number of Santa Cruz County officers who turned in their badges in 2021 — 16% of unionized officers in the SCPD moved on — would seem to be one indicator of a shakeup beyond the norm. But most point beyond the day of June 6, 2020.

A rally for George Floyd culminated at Lighthouse Field.

A rally for George Floyd culminated at Lighthouse Field.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The pandemic year of 2020 was a uniquely challenging time for all first responders beyond the Gutzwiller murder. How much career upheaval can be chalked up to the difficulties of COVID-19 or the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the “defund the police” rhetoric or the CZU Lightning Complex fires is debatable.

Pruger, a longtime police union leader, said traumatic events like cop killings are known to result in the loss of 10-15% of police staff. He recalls a significant loss of SCPD personnel after the 2013 murders.

SCPD Chief Bernie Escalante said an exact number couldn’t be pinpointed, but he knows for certain that two SCPD officers who fired upon and killed the assailant that day never returned to police work again.

Pruger said there is a feeling of relief and exhalation around Spencer and fellow sheriff’s deputy Emma Ramponi, who was with him as Carrillo inflicted his militia-style assault that day. Both are excelling in their personal and professional lives thanks to the recovery help they’ve received and feel invigorated about helping others like them.

We can’t afford to continually lose good people, good deputies, before their time because we don’t understand what they’re going through.

“I think our organization, and others, have become smart enough to recognize,” Pruger said, “that we can’t afford to continually lose good people, good deputies, before their time because we don’t understand what they’re going through.”

Though the life sentence he received Aug. 26 fell short of the death penalty many felt he deserved, closing the prison door on Carrillo was a key next step in the healing process for many in the Santa Cruz County law enforcement community.

Steven Carrillo is escorted into the courtroom Friday.

Steven Carrillo is escorted into the courtroom Friday.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Another step for some is speaking openly about their personal post-traumatic recovery processes and the help they believe many officers still aren’t receiving. In doing so, they hope to shed stigma and improve the culture that surrounds the profession they love.

* * *

When Pruger arrived at Dominican that day in 2013, Baker’s son knew right away.

“I had known Adam since he was born. He went to school with my son,” Pruger said. “When he saw me he started yelling at me to get the f—k out of there, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’ He knew what my job was. He knew why I was there.”

He knew what my job was. He knew why I was there.

But Pruger is a naturally empathetic person, the son of two social workers, raised in Berkeley. He had volunteered for coroner detective duty because “I figured I’m a pretty good guy to talk to on the absolute worst day of someone’s life.”

So the “Butch & Liz” day didn’t affect him in the same ways it affected the two SCPD officers who immediately quit after shooting cop killer Jeremy Goulet, who like Carrillo had extensive military training, as part of a gunfight.

Loran "Butch" Baker and Elizabeth Butler, Santa Cruz Police officers killed in the line of duty in 2013.

Loran “Butch” Baker and Elizabeth Butler, Santa Cruz Police officers killed in the line of duty in 2013.

(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

Those are the incidents — absorbed in high-definition Technicolor — that stick in the far recesses of the brain. Pruger never got the kind of help Lansing provides for his one similar incident in 1989, the first and only time he discharged his weapon, but realized in the years that followed that it would’ve helped.

“My kids joke about it now, but they had to wake me up very carefully by pulling on my toe, otherwise I’d wake up swinging,” he said.

The concept of carefully and constructively replaying such incidents so they don’t stay stuck in an officer’s head, processing them rather than tucking them far from sight, wasn’t yet a common practice. Pruger recalls a short debriefing with the officers involved that did very little to acknowledge any trauma incurred.

“That was well before anybody would consider there could be a problem after a situation like this,” he said. “It was nothing compared to what is offered now and how we’re better able to help officers.”

Mike Pruger (right) with his son Jacob, who followed him into law enforcement.

Mike Pruger (right) with his son Jacob, who followed him into law enforcement.

(Via Mike Pruger)

And, in fact, early efforts to feign understanding by those in post-traumatic counseling roles at places like the SCPD were a sign of trouble, Pruger says.

That is why, as part of police union leadership, he sought out the expertise of Lansing, who’d been “recruited” in 1995 by six seasoned Bay Area officers struggling with PTSD. They were her first generation of cop clients and christened Lansing their “cop whisperer.”

Along with this “band of brothers,” as they called themselves, she developed a customized model of treatment for their PTSD so they could fully heal. With EMDR as the foundation, they built a protocol to cure what Lansing terms “duty-induced PTSD.”

Word spread quickly among Bay Area first responders, and many began crossing county lines to sign up for Lansing’s services. By 1999, when she was discovered in her home county of Santa Cruz, Lansing knew what she was doing.

Her research began in 2000 to validate the treatment model. By May 2003, she was invited to present the early findings at an international conference in Rome. Two years later, her research was published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

In 2012 her book, “The Rite of Return: Coming Back from Duty-Induced PTSD,” was published. It includes what she says was a first-of-its-kind study that produced visual evidence, via brain imaging technology, of the pre- and post-treatment brain.

Karen Lansing at her office in Aptos.

Karen Lansing at her office in Aptos.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“When there’s actual science behind it, and you can see the slides of what a brain experiencing PTSD looks like and what a brain looks like afterward, it makes it a lot easier to accept,” Pruger said. “There’s actual medical proof this is working.”

* * *

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart grew up in an era known for tough people getting into law enforcement, many former athletes reared in a “rub some dirt on it and get back out there” mentality.

What passed for mental health and PTSD awareness in the 1980s, when Hart entered the profession, has rapidly progressed in recent years thanks to the emerging science behind brain wiring — ramped up by the presence of experts like Lansing.

“The culture and mindset has shifted in a positive direction,” Hart said. “It wasn’t really an acknowledged or accepted thing to go get help when I started — or even 15, 20 years ago. Now we encourage people to get help.”

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart in the courtroom for Steven Carrillo's sentencing.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart in the courtroom for Steven Carrillo’s sentencing.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Local response to the events of June 6, 2020, proved that, observers say. Meetings about how to support not just the officers involved, but anyone in the sheriff’s organization, began immediately. Counselors were made available 24/7 for anyone, in addition to the specialized care Lansing provided to those who had been on the front lines.

Hart acknowledged officer recruitment and retention have become increasingly difficult: “All local agencies are fighting for the same small pool of people who really want to do this,” he said.

And while 2020 brought many cops to a career crossroads, Hart said he knows of only five to 10 people among the sheriff’s department’s full complement of 365 who vocally attributed their departure to the events of June 6.

You just never know how something like this will impact an individual.

“That’s a much smaller percentage of people lost to what is normal in these types of incidents,” he said. “You just never know how something like this will impact an individual.”

Also of increasing importance: Those individuals’ willingness to ask for help, which requires trust that it won’t jeopardize their career. It wasn’t long ago that vocalizing mental health concerns brought into question an officer’s fitness for duty.

“If you started saying that you had issues with PTSD, you may [have lost] your job,” Pruger said. “It was a matter of, ‘Do we want this guy walking around here who’s claiming he has PTSD to carry a gun?’ So it’s taken a lot to educate the (police) community as well.”

New Santa Cruz police chief Bernie Escalante

Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

SCPD’s Escalante, however, acknowledges that beyond those most major incidents, agency leaders don’t necessarily get the full picture when their officers are struggling.

“In a certain respect they don’t want me to know about it because they would never want me to question their fitness for duty,” he said. “There’s a confidentiality issue there so it definitely puts a wall between me truly knowing whether people are utilizing the resources that are there. I’m sure myself and Sheriff Hart are the last ones to know until it becomes a big deal.”

In a certain respect they don’t want me to know about it because they would never want me to question their fitness for duty.

But Pruger said there has been growing support from department leadership and that the evolution of local leaders has helped create a more progressive approach to mental health than other places across the state.

“It’s not an easy thing to teach old dogs new tricks,” Pruger said of Hart. “I can’t say enough about how he has learned and responded. What our organization has done to find somebody (in Lansing) that can make our people healthy again, and bring them back to 100% so that they can go out and be effective in the community and live long, happy lives as deputies and police officers, that’s a great message.”

A memorial to Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, who was murdered by Steven Carrillo on June 6, 2020.

A memorial to Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, who was murdered by Steven Carrillo on June 6, 2020.

(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

And, he says, one that has increasingly become common sense.

“If somebody twisted their ankle or broke their leg, nobody would question it. But the mind is a different thing,” he said. “ We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to train and get people to the point where they’re able to go out and into the world and work as patrol deputies.”

There’s a growing recognition, Pruger believes, that the hiring of a cop involves an immediate investment in their mental health.

“You can’t simply toss them aside because they’ve been involved in a critical incident that’s affecting them and they can no longer do their job until they become healthy,” he said. “We are finally starting to figure out that we cannot afford to lose good people.”

COMING THURSDAY

Part 2: How the ‘cop whisperer’ fixes brains