Officer PTSD: Pulling the trigger takes more than just one life

PHOENIX - Officer-involved shootings in the Valley are reaching record breaking numbers. 

Some say criminals are becoming more brazen, while others wonder if officers are becoming too quick on the trigger.

Two officers, one from Mesa and one from Show Low are breaking their silence to give their side of the story.

Their stories reveal that while they made it out uninjured, they are far from unscathed.

Former Mesa Gang Detective Nathan Schlitz will never forget the call for help on May 28, 2009.

“We happened to be in the area of the emergency call of a fight, so we responded," recalls Schlitz. “As we pulled up to the scene, he (the suspect) tried to run one of the gang detectives over.”

As the suspect fled in a black Ford Mustang, Schlitz and his partner gave chase, not knowing who was inside, only that he tried to kill an officer.

It’s been five years, but Det. Schlitz’s voice still shakes and he recalls what happened when they cornered the suspect.

“He tried to run my partner over. In order to stop that, I decided to shoot. The Mustang had dark tinted windows. I just had to aim where I thought the driver was.”

It was a split decision that would change his life forever.

“I hit him and stopped his action. What I didn't know is that his 15-year-old girlfriend was in the back seat." Schlitz pauses to take a breath and then continues his story. "One of my rounds hit her in the head and killed her… it's still emotional to talk about.”

Schlitz was forced to shoot to save his brother officer, but that would be no comfort to the loss of life he felt responsible for.

“You immediately start feeling guilt. No matter what the situation is…taking a life is horrible," said Schlitz in a low voice.

It’s a feeling shared by former Show Low Lead Officer Nikolaus Arney.

“You don’t forget, you never forget," Arney says of the call that changed his life.

It was on October 27, 2011 when at about 11:30 p.m. a call came in of an armed robbery at a nearby Circle K on Highway 260 and US 60.

Officer Arney tells ABC15, the two suspects had held the customers at gunpoint as they ran through the store stealing beer, cigarettes and $200 dollars from the cash register.

The robbery turned into a manhunt after the getaway car was spotted driving into a nearby neighborhood.

Arney said he decided to head to the neighborhood to help corner the suspects.

"It had been raining. Most cars had dry spots under them, but one had wet pavement underneath and the engine was still warm," he recalls.

Arney’s two fellow officers knocked on the door and were invited in. They began questioning the suspects.

Then came chaos.

“I hear the other officer yell, my call sign is 54, and he says ‘54 get in here he's got a gun,' I draw my weapon, go in the front door. He's (other officer) yelling 'he's got my gun, he's got my gun.'”

Arney draws his weapon and rushes inside forced to instantly access what was happening. 

It felt like slow motion to the officer, but when he listened back at police tapes from the time he entered the door to the time he shot, it was only three seconds.

“He had a four to five inch blade knife on a sheath on his belt. I couldn’t see his other hand. It was terrifying. When I walked in the door and I saw him grab that knife, I was thinking I got to stop this guy, I can't let him pull this out and try to kill one of my brother officers or myself.”

Arney tells ABC15 he reached to grab the suspect's arm, but the suspect was still able to grab his knife. He still could not see the suspect’s other hand and whether he had his fellow officer’s gun or not.

He was not only forced to shoot, but had to quickly think how to shoot with his fellow officer also wrestling with the suspect from behind.

“I fired one round, I can still feel his arm go limp in my hand. He fell to the floor. It's hard to describe because it's like 'oh, it just got real, today's the day,'" recalls Arney.

The day both officers were physically prepared for, but no training could fully emotionally prepare them for taking a life.

Both officers agreed they joined the police force to make a difference, save lives not take lives.

For Mesa Detective Schlitz, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder set in almost immediately.

“I remember not wanting to show emotion, but at the same time, inside it was like repeated punches to the gut. I remember walking out in the desert, wanting to get away from everybody. Not wanting anyone to talk to me. I didn't want anyone to comfort me, I just wanted to be alone and that continued for the next six months.”

Schlitz began to hole up in his home, for three months he even had groceries delivered to avoid seeing people.

After months of counseling and an intensive therapy retreat in California, he returned to the police force in October 2009.

Officer Arney’s reaction was different.  He went into denial, convincing himself he was fine, not recognizing the signs of PTSD.

“I wasn’t aware of it, I was hunky dory. I was going to work, I was fine, and I was great.”

Arney wasn’t and everyone around him could see the bomb ticking.

He tells us his wife urged him several times to get help, finally calling him a name he didn’t dare say on camera.

“I was angry, resentful, hurtful, bitter, suicidal, and homicidal. I wanted somebody to hurt like I was hurting,” described Arney.

We asked, "Suicidal, homicidal? These are things you try to stop?"

The officer, watery eyed, quietly and painfully nodded in agreement.

Arney told ABC15 he eventually just "zoned out," so much so he can’t recall anything that happened in the months after the shooting, not even his daughter's first birthday.

Then came another traumatic event.

“I had another incident where I almost shot a 12-year-old kid coming after me with a rock the size of a bowling ball. I was like 'here it comes again, it's going to happen again,'” recalled Arney.

With his finger pressing against the trigger ready to fire, Arney tells ABC15 the 12-year-old boy's brother jumped in front of the gun to save his brother.

Another split second decision, this time he chose not to shoot.

Later when his commander asked him if he was okay, Arney finally confessed telling his commander, “No I’m not.”

“Hearing myself say that, I thought ‘holy crap, what’s wrong with me?'”  admitted Arney.

Within days, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder engulfed Arney.

“Every critical incident, every nasty thing I had ever seen, all those images came flooding over me all at once and I was a mess. My wife has only seen me cry maybe twice. I was just uncontrollably crying, shaking. I had no idea what was going on."

Officer Arney tells us doctors call what he experienced, "parade of faces."

“It just festers in you like an infection.”

A sometimes incurable infection for officers.

Mesa Detective Nathan Schlitz would also be challenged with another event.

In January of 2010, just four months after returning to work, Schlitz and his gang detective partners heard the distress call. A Gilbert lieutenant had been shot, and the two suspects, Damien Irizarry and Christopher Redondo were on the run.

The Gilbert lieutenant was Eric Shuhandler, who had pulled over a truck for an obstructed license plate when he was shot in the head instantly by Christopher Redondo. He did not survive.

Schlitz and his partners ran and began jumping in cars. In a crazy moment, Schlitz ended up in the back seat cage. He told his fellow officers not to forget to let him out.

Schlitz tells ABC15 the chase lasted for 45 minutes.

“It was the craziest pursuit I have ever been involved in," said Schlitz.

Along the way, officers said Redondo was shooting and throwing debris from the truck, disabling five police cars along the way.

In an unusual moment, officers had time to think, play out scenarios, knowing the two suspects would not go peacefully.

“You know it's going to be a violent ending," recalled Schlitz.

When Irizarry and Redondo’s truck ran out of gas, Schlitz and his partners were the first to pull up.

“Redondo pops out and starts shooting,” said Schlitz.

Schlitz's two partners immediately jumped out and began firing back, but remember, Schlitz is in the back seat cage, unable to get out.

“I remember seeing the muzzle pointed what seemed like right at me,” described Schlitz.

After the gunfight, Schlitz said his fellow detectives remembered he was in the back seat.

But his PTSD resurfaced.

“I’m still recovering, I will always be recovering,” explained Schlitz.

It wasn’t just the shootings but the treatment they faced afterwards.

They describe feeling that they were being treated like suspects, explaining that a criminal is innocent until proven guilty, but when an officer shoots they are guilty until proven innocent.

Some questioning their split moment decisions. "I had a family member ask ‘did you really have to shoot him?’ that hurt hard, it hurt deep,” said Arney.

Both officers tried several times to return to the force, but the PTSD forced them into medical retirement.

“We all paid a heavy, heavy price,” said Arney.

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