Ed Jensen confronted death face to face early in his career as a Las Vegas police officer.
It was 1974, and he had just shot and killed a man who tried to rob a downtown gas station. Stunned, he watched the 23-year-old gurgle his last breath.
Then he confronted Southern Nevada's law enforcement culture face to face.
The first supervisor on the scene didn't ask if the young cop was OK.
"Where's your (expletive) hat?" the supervisor barked. Metropolitan Police Department rules said he had to wear it, not leave it in his car.
That night, fellow officers took the 28-year-old to a downtown hotel bar, got him drunk, and dropped him off at home. He went back to work the next day.
In those days, the force was dominated by battle-hardened veterans of World War II and the Korean War. A police shooting was usually greeted with a congratulatory back slap.
Jensen, four years on the job, went along. He acted tough. When his peers asked how he was, he told them he was fine.
That was a lie.
"It emotionally destroyed me," he said.
Jensen realized that what he was going through was not right. What he did about it would not only alter the course of his own life, but the lives of countless other officers as well.
KILLING SOMEONE TAKES A TOLL
Taking a life poses a unique problem for police officers, said Clarke Paris, who lectures police nationwide about depression and suicide prevention. The central mission of law enforcement is to protect life. Killing someone runs counter to that mission.
"You may take that life to protect others, but cops seem to hone in on the fact that they took a life," Paris said. "That's not normal to say, 'I took a life.' Who says that? Murderers, police and military."
Studies have shown that some officers experience memory loss, remorse, spikes in blood pressure and other effects during and after a shooting. Often, effects surface years later.
Jensen's reaction was delayed, and severe.
One night after the shooting, Jensen and his wife were asleep when their bedroom door opened and the man he had killed threw a bomb into the room. Jensen leapt from the bed, grabbed the bomb and tried to throw it out a window. When his wife turned on the lights, he saw their 13-inch TV smashed in a corner of the room.
Another time Jensen kicked his sleeping wife out of bed and threw himself on the floor as he saw the man come through the door, firing a shotgun.
A religious man from rural Minnesota, he struggled to reconcile his actions and the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."
He talked to his priest about the incident but received little solace.
" 'Well, Eddie, you shouldn't feel that way about killing someone. You're a police officer and you did your job,' " Jensen recalled the priest saying. "And I looked at him and said, 'Father so-and-so, have you ever killed someone?' Dead silence."
A few weeks after the shooting, at the urging of his wife, Jensen sought help for stress-related medical problems. Even with treatment, the emotional effects lingered.
"It is devastating," he said. "It takes years off your life."
CREATING A SUPPORT SYSTEM
Jensen's nightmares didn't keep him from police work. In the eight years after his first shooting, he shot at — but missed — two other people. Yet he still carried the weight of killing a man, and he continued to be bothered by the department's insensitivity toward officers following shootings.
"You'd have deputy chiefs, and you'd have captains and lieutenants saying ... all kinds of inappropriate things to the officer — 'Well, you sure killed that son of a bitch,' " Jensen said. "And I'm thinking, 'They just killed somebody.' But you're talking about some guy who sits behind a desk all day and I don't think he's even qualified (to carry a gun) in years, and here's this young officer who just shot and killed somebody and is trying not to cry and just trying to suck it up, and his Adam's apple is tight, and your throat's tight, and you just feel like crap."
He wanted to change things, and he realized that changing the culture was the way to do it. One day he told a friend he wanted to create a post-incident support system. The friend told him that Lt. Jerry Keller, who would go on to become Clark County sheriff, had the same idea.
First, Jensen and Keller had to win over Sheriff John Moran, who in many ways embodied the culture they were up against. A Marine who fought at Iwo Jima, Moran was "old-school" in every way, Jensen said.
But Moran let them do some research, and the two traveled to other cities to see how their departments handled the issue. They also studied their own department and discovered a startling statistic: Three in five officers involved in a fatal shooting quit within a year. They just couldn't handle it, Jensen said, and they had nowhere to turn for help.
Their work convinced Moran, and the Police Employees Assistance Program, or PEAP, was launched in 1984. Winning over other cops — particularly the top brass — took many more years.
"This is a waste of time," Jensen recalled senior officers saying. "We don't need this mamby-pamby, sitting by and holding their hand stuff."
The department also made counseling by a psychologist and time off with pay mandatory after a shooting. As a result, post-shooting resignations fell dramatically.
In the early years Keller and Jensen had no real budget. They drove their own cars to crime scenes, and their office was a "very large coat-hanger room."
"We were scroungers, is what we were," he said.
But eventually they received financial support, and PEAP has since expanded to a six-member staff that helps officers cope with other stressful issues. PEAP members act as trusted peers, helping arrange anything from mental health treatment to child care.
"Guys like Ed Jensen saved a lot of careers, teaching officers how to handle these things," said former Las Vegas police homicide Detective Dave Hatch, who experienced three nonfatal shootings of his own and became a nationally recognized expert in the investigation of police shootings.
Creating PEAP was cathartic for Jensen, who calls it his best work in 30 years of law enforcement.
He went on to work in hospice care and is now a pastor at a Boulder City church. He said he doubts he would have taken those turns in life had he not taken a life.
"I don't know if I feel like I'm repaying having taken a life, but I have companioned many, many people over my seven years in hospice as they actually, physically died, and then (was) with them as they took their last breath," he said. "I know that if I hadn't been involved in my shootings, I would not be the person I am today."