Counseling and Peer Support Help Police Grieve for Officer

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Almost immediately after the shooting started at 3:52 p.m. -- a time now permanently fixed in Fairfax County police history -- a "hospital liaison officer" was dispatched to Inova Fairfax Hospital to arrange for the arrival of family members.

Chief David M. Rohrer hurried there to officially notify the families of Detective Vicky O. Armel and Michael Garbarino of what had happened.

It was all part of a plan Fairfax police had practiced for 10 years.

They implemented the plan flawlessly. But this time it was real. For the first time in the 66-year history of the police department, an officer was shot dead by an assailant's bullets. All the practice in the world couldn't prepare one of the nation's largest suburban police departments for the grief that would follow Monday's ambush at the Sully District station.

The sorrow closed the police station, changed the way officers interact and brought the community together.

"I'd been holding myself together pretty good," Deputy Chief Steve Sellers said. Then, at the candlelight vigil outside the Sully station this week, he saw Shirley Gibson, whose son Brian had been shot and killed while working for the D.C. police in 1997. "The moment I saw her and she put her arms around me, I melted. I just lost it."

There have been plenty of those moments for Fairfax officers in the five days since Armel was killed. More are likely today, when Armel is memorialized in a full police ceremony at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, followed by her burial at a cemetery in Warrenton.

Fairfax police established a casualty assistance plan a decade ago for moments like this, with counseling and other help for the family and for the force itself after a police death. They launched the plan even as officers were still searching for what they feared was a second gunman, before they determined that 18-year-old Michael W. Kennedy of Centreville had acted on his own.

Shortly after 9 p.m. Monday, in front of television cameras at the hospital, Rohrer announced that Armel was gone. The Fairfax police honor guard began helping the Armel family deal with the horrible mundane rituals: notifications, funeral arrangements, transportation of relatives.

The plan was carried out through the week. Police commanders realized that "all the officers at the Sully station were victims in this," Deputy Chief Suzanne Devlin said. "We had to draw a larger circle around them." The decision was made Monday night to offer immediate leave to all 103 officers assigned to the station and to close the building for at least a week. Responsibility for covering southwestern Fairfax shifted to the Fair Oaks station.

A "peer support team," of officers who have been involved in police shootings or lost loved ones, was activated, Sellers said. The officers traveled to all eight district stations, ready to meet one-on-one with officers trying to understand the sudden killing of a colleague.

Police did not want to say how many officers had availed themselves of the peer support, but the team's members were present at every roll call in every district station this week.

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