CIT and Veterans: An Officer’s Perspective

A Q&A with Officer Bob Tutko, Memphis Police Department Crisis Intervention Team

1. Can you tell me about your experience as a veteran and a police officer?

I was actually considered for an appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in my senior year of high school, but declined. Instead I enlisted in the Army near the end of the Vietnam War, leaving active duty in 1975. My father was a decorated veteran of Korea, and although I had a high draft number, I wanted to join the Army. I reenlisted in the Army Reserve in 1978, and left when I finished college to become a radiology tech. I spent 20 years in medicine, coming to Memphis as the director of the School of Radiography at St. Joseph's Hospital. I was always a patient-centered professional, and naturally gravitated towards a people-centered profession. I had always wanted a career in law enforcement, and I volunteered in 1997 to attend the Shelby County Sheriff’s Academy to become a reserve deputy. When a full time opening came up at the Memphis Police Department, I jumped at the chance.

2. How did you get involved in the CIT program?

I immediately applied to the program in 2000 when I became eligible, and was Downtown Precinct CIT Officer of the Year in 2001. I have stayed with the Crisis Intervention Team for over 12 years now, actively assisting in training new CIT officers, and again garnering a CIT Officer of the Year in 2009 for the MPD North Precinct.

3. Did your CIT training specifically address how to respond to veterans in crisis?

Initially, no. Our response to veterans has evolved over the years, with the help of Major Sam Cochran (ret.) and Dr. Randy DuPont [of the University of Memphis CIT Center] and Dr. James and Dr. Kirchberg of the Memphis VA. Tom [Kirchberg] and I became good friends over the years, as he and I are both involved in critical incident debriefings with officers who have experienced traumatic events.

4. Can you tell me a little bit about the partnership between the Memphis Police Department and the Memphis VA?

Over the years, Tom and I have worked together a lot, and we’ve specialized in handling calls related to veterans. We’ve been advocates for a better response to veterans. We have evolved our curriculum and training to include scenarios with veterans, which opens a new window to police officers who may not have dealt with them in any capacity before.

5. What are the challenges to responding to veterans in crisis?
One of the challenges we face is the change in demographics of our veterans, such as age and gender. In the past, our combat vets were Vietnam vets from the ‘60s and ‘70s, who unfortunately, I could relate to in age and common experiences. They were easy to spot. Today's military, with the deployment of Reserve and National Guard units, have drastically changed the veteran persona. Today, you could have a job at Petco, go to drill once a month and then one day, the order comes to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq. You go from civilian soldier to combat soldier in a heartbeat. Then when the tour is up, voila! Back to Petco, where you no longer are a naive store clerk or manager, but a hardened combat veteran who has experienced horrors and violence you don't want to remember. We need to do a better job of identifying these people and addressing these issues. PTSD can be debilitating, and can lead to depression and suicide if left unrecognized and untreated. I like to say, "Cops have CTSD: Constant Traumatic Stress Disorder, so we're a natural fit to deal with soldiers!"

6. What specific skills and knowledge did CIT offer that helped you respond to veterans in your community? 

The CIT training program teaches officers to listen, listen and listen. This is a valuable skill in dealing with our veterans, who really want to open the floodgates of emotion sometimes. A uniform, be it military or police, is a common denominator. We are also taught to be patient. We are not restricted to a time frame, so we can listen for how ever long it takes.

7. What do you think is unique about the experience of a law enforcement officer who is also a veteran?

We both share many experiences, in law enforcement and military. Police officers are in a constant state of fight or flight, high stress. We see violent, unpredictable behavior in those around us, every day. Things change in a heartbeat. Veterans live that life every deployment to every combat zone, but get to leave when it's up. It is a common bond, and veteran police officers who are also veterans have the perspective of both worlds, their differences and their similarities.

8. Would you recommend that other communities that have CIT offer advanced training to their officers on how to respond to veterans? What do you think would be most important to include in the training?

Wholeheartedly, yes. There are veterans in every town, in every jurisdiction. "Rambo" was actually an unintentional wake-up call for communities with Vietnam veterans and the vets’ problems. I'd like to think we, the law enforcement community, has progressed over the years to a more compassionate, understanding and helping hand to veterans since then. Essentially, officers need training in recognizing post traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide. We also need to make sure officers know that there are no stereotypical veterans anymore. They are our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers and friends. They are family.

9. How do you think local NAMI members can help better support veterans in the community?

Raise awareness of veterans’ issues. Veterans are much like police in that we both don't like to show or relate our personal issues. We don't like to share our emotional issues, our sorrows, our "demons" and nightmares with anyone outside our perceived "inner circle." We sometimes see it as a perceived weakness, and don't want to open that door. NAMI members can recognize those "walls," lend an ear, a shoulder, let them know we appreciate their service and want to help them come home. Let them know that it's okay to feel.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers?

I have become passionate about helping people living with mental illness, and yes, especially veterans. I hope I've made a difference in someone's life. If I can be of any help, feel free to contact me at Thank you, NAMI for being out there and supporting our efforts in law enforcement. We appreciate you!

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