What connection could there be between a routine police traffic stop on a quiet Los Angeles street a half century ago and the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 50 years removed and 3000 miles away in Newtown, Connecticut?
The connection is real and tragic - police post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD, once associated primarily with soldiers, is now a well-recognized syndrome in police officers as well.
The aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting irrevocably altered the lives of the victims’ families. Now the first responders are also suffering profound repercussions. One Newtown police officer has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); other cases are anticipated. As a union lawyer for the police told the New York Times:
“Our concern from the beginning has been the effects of PTSD. We estimate it is probably going to be 12 to 15 Newtown officers who are going to be dealing with that, for the remainder of their careers, we imagine, from what we’ve been told by professionals who deal with PTSD.”
PTSD, once associated primarily with soldiers, is now a well-recognized syndrome in police officers as well. Years ago, before much was known about PTSD (not a recognized diagnosis until 1980), noted crime author Joseph Wambaugh vividly described a police officer suffering PTSD symptoms in The Onion Field, his superb 1973 book later made into a movie starring James Woods and Ted Danson.
During an uneventful patrol on a moonlit southern California night in 1963, two Los Angeles policemen, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, noticed a suspicious vehicle with two men in it. After pulling the car over, Campbell, the senior officer, approached and asked the driver to exit the car. Events then took a horrific turn. Campbell was unaware the driver, Gregory Powell, a career criminal, had a concealed gun under the driver’s seat. As Powell exited the car, he maneuvered the gun with his foot, emerged holding the weapon, and quickly subdued the unsuspecting Campbell.
Powell, his gun in Campbell’s back, then ordered Hettinger to surrender his service revolver. At first, Hettinger refused, but with his partner’s life at stake, he reluctantly gave up his gun. Powell and his accomplice then kidnapped the two disarmed officers and drove them to a secluded rural road in an onion field about 100 miles away. They shot and killed Campbell but just as they were about to kill Hettinger, a cloud obscured the moonlight and Hettinger escaped in the darkness and confusion.
The two criminals were soon captured, convicted, and received long prison sentences. Campbell, married and a father of two young daughters, had a police burial with full honors including a team of bagpipers playing Amazing Grace, an LAPD tradition since his death. Wambaugh, a fellow LA police officer, decided to write The Onion Field because of what happened to the surviving officer, Karl Hettinger.
After the incident, the Los Angeles Police Department was only vaguely aware of the overwhelming guilt Hettinger was experiencing. Police brass sent him to police roll calls across Los Angeles and ordered him to describe the events of that evening, how he surrendered his weapon, and the devastating consequences. Being forced to recount the details over and over simply reinforced his anguish and the feeling that he was somehow responsible for Campbell’s death.
Depressed and finding it difficult to function, Hettinger was transferred to a less stressful job, as a driver for the police chief, but he soon began shoplifting openly in front of people. He stole trivial items he did not need and his behavior became so brazen he was forced to resign from the police force. He became a gardener in Los Angeles, and before dying in 1994, he relocated to Bakersfield, close to the Onion Field murder site, an intriguing postscript.
Hettinger’s tragic circumstance inspired policeman-turned author Wambaugh, who was quoted as saying:
“There wasn’t anything said in those days about post-traumatic stress syndrome, let alone as it affects police officers. Nobody talked about that, but I was thinking about it, there has got to be a story here. This honest cop is running around stealing everything he can get his hands on. Sounds to me like guilt crying out for punishment. I thought if I ever become a writer, I’d sure like to look into this … Sending that guy to roll calls and making him describe how he ’screwed up’ that night by surrendering his weapon. That kind of thing was probably more destructive to his psyche than the killing in the onion field. And what nearly destroyed him was the way that he was treated by the police department, but with no ill will and no malice. They didn’t know what they were doing to the guy, it was just ignorance.”
The 50th anniversary of the Onion Field murders was earlier this month. A sign was dedicated near the intersection of the traffic stop in memory of Ian Campbell. The LAPD has revised their procedures, advising officers never to surrender their weapons. Some closure was reached last year after Gregory Powell died in prison (his accomplice died years ago).
Shakespeare cautioned us to remember that what’s past is prologue. Today, we understand PTSD far better but the pall it casts never completely disappears. Now that lingering pall is thousands of miles away in distant Newtown.
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