Lakeville cops learn to spot troubled vets

Traffic Stop
Lakevillle Police Officer Shawn McMahon talks to a driver on a traffic stop. McMahon, a former Marine, looks for signs that help identify drivers who may be veterans - like special windshield decals or flags.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Since returning from Iraq a couple years ago, Ed Yurick, a veteran from Coon Rapids, has made a habit of taking risks.

"I went skydiving and then I've been cruising down the freeways, just not even paying attention to speed limit signs," he said.

Leaning on a stool in his freshly-painted dining room, Yurick, whose huge biceps sport tattoos, said he wasn't this reckless before his combat tour. Now, his fiancee has to remind him to wear a seat belt when he drives and a helmet when he rides his motorcycle.

Surviving multiple improvised explosive device attacks in Iraq changed Yurick's view of death and danger. Plus, his military training taught him to be extra vigilant on the road, even when he's driving 20 or 30 miles over the speed limit.

"I don't look at my speedometer, and I think that is due to the fact that when you are over there in Iraq you don't have rules to the road -- you are the rule of the road," Yurick said.

Insurgents in Iraq often plant bombs on the side of the road, so speeding or driving erratically can mean the difference between life and death. The habit can be hard to break after coming home.

TRAFFIC STOPS MAY BE SIGN OF UNDERLYING ISSUES

Officials say alcohol-related offenses and traffic stops are the most common contact between police and newly returned veterans.

Minnesota judges are planning to launch a special court this summer to help veterans who commit crimes, but advocates say it's better if they get help before they get in trouble with the law.

So now, many police departments are training cops to spot troubled veterans. The hope is to help them before they land in jail -- or worse.

Ed Yurick, Belinda Contreras
Ed Yurick and his fiance Belinda Contreras are learning to adapt to the realities of life after deployment. Yurick has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and physical disabilities as a result of his military service. He says he takes more risks since returning home from Iraq, including driving fast without a seatbelt.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Studies show that risky behavior like speeding or drinking and driving can be a sign of trouble to come.

The Pentagon estimates that as many as one in five of the more than 1.6 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious mental health problems as a result of their service.

"It's quite alarming if you look at the numbers," Lakeville Police Officer James Stevens told more than a dozen off-duty cops assembled for an early morning briefing. They listened as Stevens explained that cops are often the first contact for a person in crisis.

"You pull somebody over for a headlight out and he flips out on you, you might be like,'OK, this is kind of weird.' You might find out later what is going on," Stevens said.

Stevens tells officers to look for clues a veteran might be struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. He also provides pamphlets on where veterans can go for help.

But it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Stevens said if a veteran messes up, cops should still make an arrest or write a ticket, like they would for anyone else.

But he also encourages them to follow up with prosecutors if they see a veteran whose crime could be the result of underlying problems. The idea is to reach them on low-level offenses, before things get more serious.

VETS AREN'T YOUR AVERAGE JOES

The trainers also remind the cops to watch their backs. They say most military veterans are better trained than the average cop when it comes to shooting. Despite its placid looks, Lakeville has had its share of problems with troubled veterans.

Officer Shawn Fitzhenry is familiar with what can push someone to the breaking point. He's served multiple tours in Iraq with the Minnesota Air National Guard. Fitzhenry remembers one domestic call that almost came to a tragic end.

When he arrived, a veteran was outside his house pointing two guns at police while his young daughter stood by.

"He wanted to do suicide by cop. He had two weapons pointed at us. The reason why he didn't get shot immediately is his daughter was on the front steps," Fitzhenry said, clearly still shaken by the memory.

Cops didn't have a clear shot at the man. Eventually, he dropped his weapons and surrendered. Later, police discovered the guns weren't even loaded. Fitzhenry said it was a scenario he never wants to relive and he wants to help other cops avoid it, too.

PROGRAMS HELP VETS--AND SAVE MONEY, ADVOCATES SAY

The National Guard's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program helped develop training for police, which has so far been held in more than 90 agencies statewide.

The results of community policing efforts are hard to measure, but advocates say the program not only helps veterans, it also prevents future crime -- and saves money.

Keeping someone in jail or prison can cost cities and states hundreds or thousands of dollars a day. The costs continue to stack up as the person cycles through the court system and reoffends.

Former Robbinsdale Police Chief Wayne Shellum from the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute helped design the training.

"If we get them on the front end and we make a concerted effort to help them and not treat them like criminals ... maybe down the road we won't be dealing with them 20 years later," he said.

Police will have even more options once Hennepin County launches its planned Veterans Treatment Court this summer. The court, a pilot project, aims to divert veterans from jail by connecting them to services. The court hopes to expand statewide.

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