Published on Friday October 05, 2012
Bruce Kruger has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder connected with his 29-year OPP career. He talks about some of the experiences as an OPP officer.
Retired OPP officer Bruce Kruger says his outwardly successful life is, because of post-traumatic stress disorder, “a mask.” He calls himself “the great pretender.”
Curtis Rush and Liam Casey
BRACEBRIDGE, ONT.— Bruce Kruger insists on having the perfect seat.
He’s fled airplanes, cried in restaurants and rearranged furniture at friends’ homes — all for the perfect seat.
That seat is backed against a wall.
So no one can attack from behind.
Most of the time, the retired Ontario Provincial Police officer appears to be enjoying an idyllic retirement.
He has four grown children and 11 grandchildren with Lynn, his wife of 43 years. He has a charming home/bed and breakfast on the banks of the Muskoka River.
Kruger runs two joint Swiss Chalet/Harvey’s franchises, one each in Bracebridge and Huntsville. He’s the official town crier of Bracebridge.
He seems successful and “normal” in most every way.
But “it’s a mask,” says Kruger, 63, who calls himself “the great pretender.”
Kruger has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder connected with his 29-year OPP career. He suffers from anxiety, depression, guilt and periods of rage.
He contends the OPP has failed to deal adequately with his PTSD and that of many other officers. Kruger is so passionate in that belief, he has complained to Ontario Ombudsman André Marin and urged other past and current officers to do so.
Later this month, Marin is set to release a landmark, 150-page report on how the OPP handles “operational stress injuries” within its ranks. He says it will “shake up” the police community.
Police culture today treats mental illness as a weakness, Marin told the Star. Officers who suffer from workplace stress are told to “suck it up” or are ostracized.
The Star spoke to about a dozen officers in total, eight of them retired and active OPP officers. Most of them are among the 78 OPP members and 29 municipal police who contacted the ombudsman about their PTSD (the Star also interviewed three municipal officers).
Two current OPP officers asked for anonymity because of fear of reprisals. But the stories of all eight interviewed by the Star raise a number of issues:
- They say the OPP has no protocol for dealing with PTSD over the long term — the condition can take a while to manifest itself, and can be chronic.
- Unlike a profession such as firefighting, they argue, in which it’s a given that cancer is a job risk and Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims are fast-tracked, there’s no such quick response with the OPP.
- The officers also say OPP management is woefully ignorant of PTSD and its treatment. And that there’s an atmosphere of denial, shame and secrecy.
Denis Lapalme, who was the OPP psychologist for 10 years until he left in August, contends the force has improved its response to PTSD as understanding of it has evolved.
“Over time, we’re doing things differently now than we did before,” he says. “That means people who retired some time ago may have not got the same level of care, treatment or approach that people are now getting.
“I think things have changed. Our level of awareness has changed and our level of care and compassion has changed. Society has also changed.”
Many officers hail the efforts of OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis, who assumed the leadership in August 2010. They call him a man of integrity who is determined to change the culture.
Lewis, who has read the ombudsman’s report, declined to be interviewed about it until it becomes public.
On a warm September day, Kruger strolls toward the stretch of the Muskoka River running behind his property. He carries bread in one hand.
One duck approaches him, then another. They’re hungry. The ducks pluck the bits of bread out of his hand.
“The whole river would be here if I quacked,” Kruger says.
Feeding the birds is comforting. A perfect day, he later tells his wife, would be driving his boat while simultaneously feeding ducks. It’s all part of his comprehensive therapy.
Kruger traces back his PTSD to the violence he experienced as an OPP officer, which includes:
Shooting and killing a prison escapee who was pointing a shotgun at his partner in 1977.
Finding slain OPP officer Rick Verdecchia frozen solid in a snow bank with three bullet holes between his eyes in 1978. Kruger stayed with the body to protect the scene for several hours.
Coming upon the bodies of a father and his 6-year-old son who had drowned in 1978, and having to row the bodies back to the shore of Healey Lake.
Before retiring in 1999, at the age of 51, he had witnessed countless other horrors, including gruesome accidents, sexual assaults and suicides, some involving children.
He’s now on two medications, an anti-depressant and a blood-pressure drug that stops the vivid nightmares that used to leave him screaming and panting.
“The nightmares were mostly fictitious gunfights,” Kruger says, “and I’d be right in the middle of it.”
He also drives to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at least twice a week to see a psychologist for cognitive therapy and an occupational therapist to help him deal with the sitting issue.
Occasionally he has appointments with a Toronto psychiatrist.
Because he can freeze up in certain situations, Kruger carries a card in his wallet notifying people that he suffers from PTSD and might “need a moment to settle.”
PTSD is a well-documented illness that is mostly associated with soldiers who have seen hell in combat zones. The illness was once called shell shock.
In recent years, there’s been a growing awareness that it can strike far beyond the battlefield.
“In police work, these are guys who are exposed to life-threatening stressors as part of their job,” notes Dr. Randall Boddam, who was senior psychiatrist for the Canadian Forces from 1996 until 2010 and now works with police officers along with veterans.
“I’ve heard police say, ‘When I pull a car over, I don’t know what I’m going to be getting into.’ That’s anxiety-provoking in itself.”
He says he believes many officers are suffering from PTSD and don’t know it or won’t admit it. “There’s a stigma.”
Anna Baranowsky, a clinical psychologist who works with police officers in private practice, points out that PTSD “is really a nervous-system disorder.”
Some people have a latent vulnerability to the condition, while others “are incredibly hardy and they do seem to be able to go through exposure to a lot of disturbing material and be able to tolerate it fairly well,” adds Baranowsky, CEO of the Traumatology Institute in Toronto and author of What Is PTSD? 3 Steps to Healing Trauma.
Police officers make up 10 to 15 per cent of her client base.
She says it’s key to catch the disorder early.
“People can recover, but if we see ourselves as being strong and we won’t tolerate any kind of weakness, then what we might end up doing is pushing (ourselves) until we are past the point of recovery, and that is really dangerous.”
PTSD can be relatively short-lived or chronic. Symptoms include flashbacks, rage, irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, nightmares, hyper-vigilance and an exaggerated startle response.
It can lead to abuse of alcohol and/or other substances.
PTSD can also spark suicide: a sufferer has a significantly higher risk of taking his or her own life.
Four OPP officers have committed suicide in the past two years, more than have died in active duty. At least one was known to suffer from PTSD.
No one keeps statistics on police suicides in Canada, but in the United States in 2008, 141 police officers committed suicide, more than double the number killed by criminals. It’s not clear how many suffered from PTSD.
And the number of police officers who report post-traumatic stress is rising.
According to statistics from the RCMP, the number of officers receiving benefits for PTSD has almost doubled in the past four years, from 1,077 in 2007-2008 to 1,955 in 2011-2012.
In Ontario, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board reports that in the past five years, 182 provincial and municipal police officers have been allowed benefits under traumatic mental stress.
Police officers, correctional service officers and paramedics rank just behind bus drivers and subway and transit operators in the number of Traumatic Mental Stress claims allowed by WSIB.
The WSIB does not release data on how many claims are rejected, so the number of police officers applying for benefits under mental stress are believed to be much higher.
Officers interviewed for this story suggest that undiagnosed or untreated post-traumatic stress may be why some officers act aggressively toward the public or otherwise behave inappropriately, sometimes rubbing their superiors the wrong way.
In June 2010, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ordered the reinstatement of Toronto police Const. Ariyeh Krieger, a rookie who was fired after over-reacting to a patron at a McDonald’s.
The tribunal ruled that Toronto Police Service discriminated against Krieger, who was known to be suffering from PTSD because of an earlier incident on the job.
Against this backdrop are skeptics who think some police are just trying to get off work by claiming phantom medical illnesses.
When current Ontario Ombudsman Marin was serving that role with the Canadian Forces, there was a common belief that soldiers reporting PTSD were “fakers, malingerers and poor soldiers,” he reported in 2001.
But the evidence suggested that exaggerated or fake symptoms involved “only 1 to 3 per cent.”
Kruger, the son of a police officer, says the seeds of his PTSD were planted in 1977, when he shot and killed James McGrath, a career criminal and escapee from Joyceville penitentiary.
McGrath, 52, had broken into the Orillia residence of MPP Gordon Smith. Smith’s wife, Jean, returned home to find McGrath looting their home.
Armed with a shotgun, McGrath stole cash and jewelry, then fled in the family Volkswagen.
He led police on a chase that ended when McGrath slammed into a tree. McGrath jumped out of the car and pointed the loaded shotgun at Kruger’s partner.
When McGrath kept advancing, Kruger shot and killed him.
He was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
Kruger says he was traumatized again in 1991 when he learned that someone had been making freedom of information requests into the shooting. That person tracked down Kruger a year later.
He turned out to be McGrath’s son, and Kruger was certain the son wanted to settle the score with the man who killed his father.
Fearing for his safety and his family’s, Kruger says, he asked the OPP for assistance but was told to deal with it himself.
When the son came to his office on Jan. 16, 1992, Kruger was so terrified that he sat with his gun in his open drawer, and
a plainclothes officer posed as a secretary nearby with his gun by the typewriter.
As it turned out, the son just wanted to find out where his father was buried and if the man had any redeeming qualities. They shook hands and the son left.
That saga and other disturbing experiences on the job, says Kruger, led to his nightmares, angry outbursts and crying episodes.
And there was alcohol abuse. “There’s sometimes you just can’t drink enough,” Kruger recalls of the days before he got it under control.
He says there was limited counselling available through the OPP. And that the culture was one of toughing it out, or at least pretending stress wasn’t an issue.
Kruger believes if he had ever divulged that he was experiencing PTSD symptoms earlier in his career, “I would never have been promoted.” He reached the level of detective inspector.
Two years before he retired, Kruger’s superiors ordered him to undergo anger-management therapy. He had come to be known, he says, as “the officer from hell.”
Kruger became even angrier after that.
What should have happened, he says, is that someone would have read his file, learned about all the horrendous things he’d experienced, and realized he was suffering from PTSD.
“They still don’t do that now,” he contends. “It’s that kind of quality research and care for the officers that’s truly needed.”
Kruger believed that once he retired from the job, his symptoms would disappear. In fact, they got worse for years.
It wasn’t until 2002, three years after he’d retired, that Kruger was finally diagnosed with PTSD, by a civilian psychiatrist.
Still, it hasn’t been easy to get treatment.
In his complaint to the ombudsman, Kruger noted that he had been turned down by the OPP employee assistance program, which is available only three months after retirement, so he turned to the Canadian Forces website.
As a result, he received “unbelievable support and immediate contacts from several sources,” he told the ombudsman.
One person at Canadian Forces took it upon himself to contact the psychiatrist in charge of its PTSD program.
Col. Rakesh Jetly, psychiatry and mental health adviser to the Canadian Forces surgeon general, contacted Kruger personally, giving him suggestions for treatment, and then took time to find the best facility for his needs, Kruger says.
He was soon admitted to Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, spending February and March 2010 there. He paid for that himself.
In the time he was there, Kruger says, no member of the OPP visited him or any other OPP officer.
In 2009, Kruger applied to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to be reimbursed for the costs of his various treatments.
But most of the traumatic events of Kruger’s career occurred years ago, and the timing is crucial because WSIB policy is to not grant financial assistance to officers if they began suffering from PTSD before Jan. 1, 1989.
Kruger argued in an appeal that meeting with McGrath’s son in 1992 was partly responsible for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Finally, last December — 2-1/2 years after he’d first applied — Kruger’s claim was approved, retroactive to when he started getting treatment.
“If an officer was bleeding to death, would he have to wait to help for this length of time?” asks Kruger. “PTSD is just another method to die, although a little slower.”
He says he’s out of pocket $25,000 but hasn’t been reimbursed yet, and doesn’t know how much he’ll receive.
Kruger believes the OPP has much to learn from the Canadian Forces.
The ombudsman for Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence has been monitoring the military’s handling of PTSD for the past decade.
There are now 26 mental health clinics at bases across Canada, and seven Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centres.
Canadian Forces also have a number of educational and screening programs — all personnel are screened three and six months after deployment.
There is also a peer support program, Operational Stress Injury Social Support, a joint initiative of the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada.
Yet the Canadian Forces has its own struggles, as was pointed out in September when ombudsman Pierre Daigle released his report Fortitude Under Fatigue.
In his findings, Daigle said he was “troubled” that the Canadian Forces still does not have an appropriate system in place to determine the numbers of members affected by PTSD.
At first, Kruger felt shame about his PTSD and was loath to go public with his story.
He is a prominent member of the Bracebridge community as town crier — he has won international awards and performed for the Queen — and the last thing he wanted was for people to know about his inner demons.
One of his sons and other relatives are OPP officers.
But things changed through his friendship with former Toronto police sergeant Eddie Adamson, who blamed himself for the 1980 death of Const. Michael Sweet during a botched robbery at a Toronto nightclub.
Kruger and Adamson became friends after Adamson moved to the Bracebridge area.
They would meet for coffee to share their experiences on tactical teams.
“He and I used to sit and shoot the bull,” Kruger says. “We would discuss our horrific difficulties, from the nightmares to the drinking.”
One day in 2005, when Adamson decided he couldn’t handle the pain anymore, he took a room at the Sundial Inn in Orillia. He also took his notebooks and correspondence related to the shooting of Sweet.
He drank while poring over the notebooks. Then he pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
The family successfully fought the WSIB to get Adamson’s cause of death changed from suicide to PTSD. They then lobbied to get Adamson’s name on the Toronto Police Wall of Honour, something they have yet to achieve.
Adamson’s suicide got Kruger thinking that things had to change. So he wrote to the ombudsman’s office about PTSD among police officers.
The office replied that it needed to hear from more people before it might conclude PTSD was a systemic problem.
Kruger contacted the Ontario Provincial Police Association, the Police Association of Ontario and the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and asked them to circulate a letter asking for anyone suffering from PTSD to write to the ombudsman.
They all refused, he says, telling him everything was under control and there was no need for this.
Kruger also sent a letter to the Ontario Provincial Police Veterans’ Association.
President Bob Arbour contacted him and said he’d be glad to circulate the letter.
Eventually, the Ontario Provincial Police Commissioned Officers’ Association also circulated the letter.
“I had calls all across Canada,” Kruger says. “Several came out of the States, from retirees. And the stories went on and on and on. I get an average of one to two calls per week in regards to people suffering from post-traumatic stress on the job, and they don’t have anywhere they feel safe to turn to. And there are still no mechanisms in place to guarantee their confidentiality to the satisfaction they’re looking for.
“I was not going to let this go. I was determined that I wanted nobody ever to go through the hell that I and my family have. I don’t want the next generations to go through this either.”
Sitting in a wall-backed chair in his Bracebridge house, where one room is filled with Kruger’s OPP mementoes and bravery medals (one April he swam out into the frigid Muskoka River to rescue a woman), Kruger talks about his recovery.
In Toronto, with his occupational therapist at his side, he goes to a downtown restaurant such as East Side Mario’s and tries sitting out in the open.
He is timed. Five minutes. Six minutes. By eight minutes, he can’t take it.
“So far it’s not working,” he says.
Kruger says his sitting issue goes back to the murder of fellow OPP officer Tom Coffin in 1997.
The killer came from behind and shot Coffin in the head at close range while Coffin was off-duty at the Commodore Hotel in Penetanguishene. The shooter had been charged with impaired driving by Coffin in April 1996.
Kruger pays tribute to his wife for sticking with him — and for scoping out restaurants and other venues for that safe, perfect seat.
“I can laugh and joke about it,” he says, “but the reality is it’s absolutely terrifying.”