Documentary focuses on trauma, emotional toll faced by first responders

A new documentary, "Keeping the Peace," tells the story of law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first-responders and the harrowing scenes they witness


Gary Warth
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — They’ve lost colleagues to suicide, had people die in their arms, seen horrifying injuries and had to tell family members about a loved one’s death.

It takes a toll on law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first-responders, and a San Diego filmmaker is telling their stories in the new 30-minute documentary “Keeping the Peace,” which premiered at the University of San Diego last week before an audience that included police officers, sheriff’s deputies and paramedics.

“When I address the new troops I say, ‘I need a healthy you,’” San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said in the film. “I need a healthy you at home. I need a healthy you at work. It’s OK for you to go and talk.
“When I address the new troops I say, ‘I need a healthy you,’” San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said in the film. “I need a healthy you at home. I need a healthy you at work. It’s OK for you to go and talk.

Sara Gilman, president of the Encinitas counseling service Coherence Associates, Inc., discussed the importance of making mental health care available for first-responders in a keynote address before the screening.

“I have seen the look of fear and sadness in officers’ eyes when they have come upon the last and latest wreckage of the human condition,” she said. “Their reaction is not the problem. This is their humanity. Their compassionate hearts being exposed to human pain and suffering over and over and over for decades. And they say it’s just part of the job.”

Gilman, a mental health critical-incident responder who has worked with police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the field, said there has been significant progress over the past 30 years in making counselors, peer-support and chaplains available when they are needed.

Director James Ellis, owner of Legacy Productions, said he started work on the film about a year ago as a way of promoting mental health services among emergency workers while also helping the community understand the trauma often experienced by law enforcement officers.

Badge of Life has reported that law enforcement officers are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, although last year the organization stopped its annual reports after finding data on unreported suicides was not accurate.

El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis, who appeared in the film, addressed suicide in a panel discussion after the film.

“I think it’s ironic that we spend so many resources in our police academy and in service training recognizing potential threats and taking measures to mitigate them with policies, practices and procedures, but in 2018 more of us took our own lives than were killed in the line of duty,” he said. “So where’s the threat?”

The film featured San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, retired SDPD assistant Chief Sarah Creighton, SDPD Chaplain Erin Hubbard and officers from National City, La Mesa, the Border Patrol, Anaheim and Santa Barbara.

Interviews in the documentary included several gripping tales of the emotional trauma experienced by officers from various departments. Retired California Department of Justice Special Agent Victor Resendez recalled the time he broke the news of a son’s death to his parents and sister.

“I went to the house and told the mother, the father, and the 5-year-old sister, and she gave me a teddy bear and said, ‘My brother gave me this. Can you take it and put it with him?’” he said, barely able to speak through the tears brought on by the memory. “Wow, I remember that.”

In the documentary, Nisleit said the San Diego Police Department has a robust program to help officers deal with post traumatic stress.

“When I address the new troops I say, ‘I need a healthy you,’” he said in the film. “I need a healthy you at home. I need a healthy you at work. It’s OK for you to go and talk. In fact, I want you to go talk to those folks.”

San Diego Police Detective Heather Seddon appeared in the film and at the screening to talk about the day she was shot while on duty and the emotional support she received during her recovery.

It was May 17, 2015, and she was assisting another police unit that had pulled over a vehicle known to have been involved in a series of shootings, she said. After the vehicle pursuit turned to a foot chase, Seddon described seeing the man being chased run into a garage and dig into his backpack.

“I knew at that point there was going to be a shooting,” she said.

Seddon was struck in the neck by a shot that was determined to have come from another officer.

She was rushed to a nearby hospital, and her husband Brian Crilly is shown in the film recalling getting the call saying Seddon had been shot.

Her physical injury healed, but Seddon said there still are times when something can trigger memories of the shooting. She said she is grateful counseling was available.

“I was a little hesitant at first to use it, as I’m sure most people are,” she said. “As much as I fought it in the beginning, it was a very, very good thing for me to experience. I can’t tell you how many times I just felt better when I walked out.”

The documentary ends on a positive note, with Seddon saying she still believes she was born for the job, which has brought her many great and positive experiences.

Ellis said he has received a grant from the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to develop a mental health program based around his film over the next two years, and he has partnered with the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma to work with other police departments across the state.

For information on how to see the film, visit Ellis’ website, legacyproduction.org.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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