He was an unintended target, but a target nonetheless.
The 10-year-old boy, shot in the head, dropped to the ground on his walk home from school Wednesday, still wearing his backpack as bystanders rushed to staunch the blood flowing from his neck and onto his school uniform.
Police in an SUV scooped Semaj O’Branty up, racing the boy to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, where officials say he is in stable condition.
It was the sixth time in 23 days that Philadelphia officers tended to a young child who had been shot. Before Semaj was gunned down, there was 7-year-old Leslie, shot and killed alongside his family in West Philadelphia. Before that, 2-year-old Nikolette was fatally shot in her mother’s arms inside her Kensington living room. Before that, bullets struck 11-month-old Yazeem four times while he sat in a car with his stepmother. Before that, Damaya and Maxilla, a baby and a toddler, were allegedly shot to death by their mother in the Northeast.
“Kids rarely get shot like this,” said Capt. John Walker, whose 15th District included the 10-year-old shot this week. “In 30 years of my career, I haven’t seen it like this before.”
Philadelphia police and other first responders are used to seeing things the rest of us can avoid. But it can be harder for first responders to emotionally detach themselves when kids are involved. And for cops, long expected to remain steeled in the face of tragedy, it’s another step entirely to ask for help.
So, as Philadelphia’s homicide rate climbs and the violence has reached the city’s youngest residents over the last three weeks, police leadership has encouraged first responders to take advantage of what they say is some of the nation’s strongest infrastructure for supporting officer mental health.
While the stigma of self-care and mental-health treatment has improved in society writ large, the trend is just beginning to reach first responders with a calloused “police attitude,” said Capt. John Moroney, who oversees the department’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which supports officer mental-health initiatives.
“You put that wall up that nothing bothers you,” he said. “But it’s the human part of you that feels it.”
And these days, he said, “I think they’re realizing more and more that they’re human."
‘Mental health first aid’
The number of Philadelphia children caught in the crosshairs of gun violence has spiked in the last two or three years, Walker said, as a new generation of young men in the drug game disregard what was long a given: You don’t shoot when kids are around.
“It seems recently that scenes are getting worse, that things have gotten more and more horrific, especially when kids are involved,” said Tracy Brooks, the lead counselor of the EAP. Since 2015, 28 children age 10 and under have been shot in Philadelphia, according to police data.
Brooks, who has been at the EAP for 15 years, said that while the unit’s cases used to center around stressors in officers’ lives outside the uniform, over the last couple of years, cops have reached out more about trauma on the job. This is a good thing, Walker said.
“You put that wall up that nothing bothers you. But it’s the human part of you that feels it.”
“In my day, you were seen as weak if you showed emotion,” the captain said, crediting acting Police Commissioner Christine M. Coulter for championing mental-health resources since she was deputy commissioner.
When it comes to talking to a counselor at the EAP, there can be an inherent trust issue because it’s run by the department and there’s a fear that word would get around that someone asked for help, said Andy Callaghan, a 30-year police veteran and a sergeant in the narcotics division.
That’s why the program’s internal counselors have a strict confidentiality policy. The unit also partners with Penn Behavioral Health to offer external counseling options away from the Police Department to cops and their families. There are also programs through the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 for police suicide prevention, critical incident stress management, and “mental health first aid.” The idea, Callaghan said, is to provide officers a variety of options to normalize the need for help.
Mental wellness is also a priority at the Fire Department, which is piloting a program that provides employees mental-health help via NeuroFlow, said Crystal Yates, the Philadelphia Fire Department’s assistant deputy commissioner for EMS. The app aims to improve mental wellness for first responders through breathing exercises, stress relief interactives, and a crisis button.
This type of wellness programming is not theoretical, Callaghan said. It can be life-or-death.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is more likely to occur in first responders who don’t have an outlet or someone to talk to, said Govan Martin, a former Pennsylvania state trooper and current chair of the board of directors for Prevent Suicide PA. And people with a diagnosis of PTSD are at a greater risk to attempt suicide, research shows.
Over the last four years, the number of police officer suicides has steadily increased nationally. In 2019 alone, 195 officers have died by suicide, according to Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that aims to reduce mental-health stigma in law enforcement.
In New York City, it’s been called an “epidemic.” In August, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal introduced a first-in-the-nation statewide “law enforcement resiliency” program, calling for officers to receive training for coping with the mental and emotional stress of the job.
Over the last decade in Philadelphia, the number of police suicides per year has gone down. In 2010, five active city officers died by suicide. In 2016 and 2017, two officers took their lives each year. In 2018, the department reported no officer suicides. In July, one officer fatally shot himself and his wife in a murder-suicide in Juniata Park.
Still, Moroney said, one is one too many.
Generally though, cops are an unbreakable breed who avoid showing emotion on the job and often resort to dark humor as “a self-defense mechanism,” Callaghan said. There are two exceptions: when police are injured or killed and when a child is injured or killed.
The accumulation of trauma
For Cpl. Kevin Jardine, a 30-year veteran with the Philadelphia police, his walls came tumbling down in November 2013, when his father was suddenly placed in hospice with aggressive mesothelioma and given a month to live.
Yes, there was a stigma around talking to a counselor at the EAP, he said, but that day, he needed help.
“They say that cops don’t break down. But we all do eventually,” Jardine said. “As a cop, you spend your first 10 years seeing the worst things in the world, and you spend the last 10 trying to forget them. You’ve got to let out your insides to somebody.”
“We’re told from the moment we’re in the police academy that we fix people’s problems. Nobody told us that we would have them, too.”
Martin said dangerous levels of stress can come from the accumulation of trauma over the years.
“Everybody has their emotional backpack,” he said, “and what first responders tend to do is stuff that emotional backpack. So it might be the first [traumatic incident], it might be the 11th one.”
When children are involved in a situation, Yates said, the backpack fills that much quicker.
“Imagine a day where you experience a mother that lost her baby, and you’re working a pediatric cardiac arrest, you take that person to the hospital,” she said, “and you go back into service and your next call is a shooting victim. The accumulation of what you experience in one day — imagine what you can experience after years of doing that day, after day, after day.”
Callaghan said officers are able to play the role of protector in the moment — say, comforting a mother whose child was just shot or driving a bleeding preteen to the hospital — but eventually, “it’s going to catch up.”
“We’re told from the moment we’re in the police academy that we fix people’s problems,” Callaghan said. “Nobody told us that we would have them, too.”
Developing an ‘emotional shell’
It’s the feelings, the experiences of grief, of not wanting to talk about it, of crying uncontrollably, of feeling irritable or forgetful, the flashbacks and nightmares that the Philadelphia Police Department’s EAP tries to prepare its officers to experience before it happens, Brooks said.
Then, when cops are having trouble or a situation rises to a particularly jarring level — such as last month’s quadruple shooting in West Philadelphia that claimed the lives of two children — the EAP deploys its team, which includes a sergeant, a corporal, and four officers. At the crime scene, the counselor informs officers of trauma-related stress that may ensue, without breaking open their emotional shell while there’s still police work to do, Brooks said.
Later, when it’s safe for an officer to fully process the mental toll of the scene, the EAP unit debriefs supervisors and officers to talk through what happened, and offer the cops additional outside counseling with Penn, Brooks explained.
Developing an “emotional shell” is a functional part of coping with life as a police officer, said Vincent Henry, a 21-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, and author of Death Work: Police, Trauma and the Psychology of Survival.
But while deadening emotion may work to an officer’s advantage on the job, it’s hard to keep that shell from forming over other parts of the cop’s life, walling them off from family or friends.
"As a cop, you spend your first 10 years seeing the worst things in the world, and you spend the last 10 trying to forget them. You’ve got to let out your insides to somebody.”
Cops and EMS workers have a tendency to not want to talk to loved ones about what they’ve experienced or what they see in homes, whether because they don’t want to think about it themselves or they want to shield those close to them from the trauma, said Ed McCann, an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County who handles child abuse cases and a former Philadelphia homicide prosecutor.
But it’s the strong relationships outside the workplace that are critical, “even if you don’t talk about work,” McCann said, adding that having a sense of normalcy “can really take you through the roughest times.”
Over the last 23 days, those roughest times included six children shot. Working on their behalf, McCann said, is what ultimately gets officers through the day.
“You really feel,” he said, “like you’re advocating for the most vulnerable people.”