To Heal a Community by Robin Saenger

What does it mean to be a “trauma-Informed community”? It’s a question we at Peace4Tarpon ask ourselves frequently – and the answer evolves as we discover through this journey who we are and how we are.

I am still processing the story I am about to share with you. It’s not the feel-good type with a tidy ending but more like a series of snapshots cut into puzzle pieces that don’t quite mesh. They look like they should all fit together, but they really don’t and maybe they never will.

The story is a tragedy, a traumatic event, that happened in Tarpon Springs, FL,  in early May 2017. We are a small community — this shook us at every level when it happened and the aftershocks continue. We are definitely not healed from it.

On Saturday, May 6th, I was working in my art studio when my friend Pat, a hair stylist who works at a salon in downtown Tarpon, calls. “Oh my god! Someone just got shot,” she cries. “There’s a car show going on downtown and there are people everywhere. I was doing a blow dry and I heard ‘pop-pop-pop’. I ran outside and saw this kid lying there. A cop shot him. His bike is laying there and there’s a banana and some broccoli on the ground. It must be his lunch. Oh my god.”

That’s how I hear the news and instantly, the stories start to swirl. The next morning I am at the outdoor fitness park with my dog when a friend asks to speak with me. He wants to know what I think about the shooting, and honestly, I don’t know. He says this “kid” Nick, was a vegan and supposed to be a peaceful guy with lots of friends. They say he didn’t have a weapon, that just his sunglasses were in his hand when he was shot. He asks again what I think and I don’t say much…I still don’t know.

A video press briefing is released from Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen. He tries to bring clarity and separate gossip and hearsay from the truth. I know the Chief. I trust and respect him and have no reason to disbelieve anything he says. Chief Kochen waits until Tuesday to identify the officer over concern for his safety, because he and his family are being threatened on social media.

“This type of incident is difficult for everyone involved or affected,” Kochen reads from a prepared statement. “We offer condolences to the family and friends of Nicholas. We ask that you allow the investigating agencies the respect to complete their duties.”

The officer who shot the young man had just completed CIT (Critical Intervention Training) the month before — training that helps officers better understand and interact with folks who are acting off-kilter or strangely…..the “mentally ill”. I only know what the paper reports about Nick — he was off his meds, Baker-Acted once again and escaping the facility only that morning. A bystander noticed Nick’s “strange behavior” and concerned, alerted an off-duty officer who was working the car show. Accounts say Nick threatened the officer with a knife and was shot. Nick was 25 years old. For those who don’t know, very broadly, the Baker Act is what happens when someone is deemed a threat to themselves or others. It puts folks involuntarily into a mental health facility under observation for 72 hours. Often, after the 72 hours pass, they are released. Police officers are sometimes tasked with delivering them to the facility.

Folks say that the officer was bent over after the shooting, overcome with emotion, holding his head in his hands. Videos show some of that…he looks to be very shook up. I think that we aren’t wired to kill each other. Even though it can be part of his job, the human element remains at the core. I think about the officers I know and how they got into the profession to help and protect people — they have high ideals. They are good guys.

Five days after the shooting, I am walking my dog right up the street from where it happened. I am not really thinking about it and then, a young woman exits a car right next to me. I notice there are bumper stickers — one says “powered by positivity”. I am just behind her and she walks up a few yards away where there are pictures, candles, notes, mementos, drawings — at the corner of the bank building close to where Nick died. It’s obviously a memorial.

The young woman kneels down in front of it. She is very young. I ask her if this is for the young man who was killed. She nods. I ask her if she was his friend. She looks up at me. “He was my fiancé.” She starts to tell me more but it’s very hot and we are standing in the bright sun, my dog is panting. I ask if we could move out of the sun, maybe sit at a bench around the corner in the shade. She nods and we walk to the bench and sit. For a long time, she bares her heart and soul to me. Here is some of what she shares: Nick was her twin soul. He was an inspiration to many. He wanted to help humanity. The ring on her finger she will never take off. She wants justice for him. She has cried for five days. This seems like a bad dream…unreal. Nick was Baker-Acted many times but they just medicated him. No one gave him therapy. He just needed therapy. He hadn’t slept for days before he was shot. His older sister died from a drug overdose. There is a 16-year-old younger brother at home. Nick was all about family. They are Italian. She says he was treated violently by a police officer once.

I tell her a bit about Peace4Tarpon. That we are working to be the kind of community where people can find help, get therapy and have community support. A compassionate community where if someone was struggling, they would be encouraged to find someone to talk to. Just like you’d tell someone they might want to get their ankle sprain x-rayed to make sure it wasn’t broken. A community with the culture that de-stigmatizes mental illness and supports each other to find help and have the help available. Right now, the Baker Act is what’s available. I also tell her in the spirit of being honest and transparent that we work with our first responders and families of first responders too. They are part of the solution. They also experience things that humans can’t process and sometimes they are just supposed to “get over it”. They don’t just “get over it”. I don’t want to take the focus off of her story — about Nick and her and Nick, but I see her nod. She gets it. Nick would have loved you, she said. You are a wise woman she says. Luckily, I am dressed as one of her tribe. I am wearing a bright fuchsia dashiki and cowboy hat. I look like an artist. I don’t feel wise. I feel helpless.

Where were we during this unfolding? Where was Peace4Tarpon in this mix? I tell her I am sorry we weren’t there for her Nick. I am determined that something good will come out of this, but right now, it seems only half-true, like a remote wish and in soft focus. After I leave her and while walking home, I am thinking about Nick’s younger brother.

Sometimes I provide a trauma-specific therapy called TIR (Traumatic Incident Reduction) for people. I do it pro-bono upon request and it’s not a constant thing, but I have observed what happens when someone is able to release some of the “charge” of a trauma. They smile, they look taller and lighter, they actually regain some of the energy they had been using — sometimes for decades — to hold onto their trauma. The energy comes back to them. They are more complete and more of who they are. I’ve observed it many times and it seems like a miracle every time.

When a community undergoes a trauma, I think the same thing happens. The organism — the community — has some of its energy tied into the trauma. Maybe it floats above the city — a ball of chaos and pain. It’s up to us to find peace, to find resolution, release it and heal. If it’s a very big mess, there might be several pieces to cobble together until we find our center again — until we can regain the energy we had been using to hold the trauma.

How we can find true justice for Nick and those who loved him? There will be a “next” Nick and many others who struggle. How can we help them? How we can support the police officer who was protecting bystanders, doing what he thought was best. How can he process and resolve the trauma he may hold around this sad event? What about his family? What about the people standing by who witnessed the shooting? How can our community heal from this? How can we re-claim the energy around this that is now tied up in pain? There are no “good” or “bad” people in this story. It was a tragedy all around, on every front.

I have some ideas and Peace4Tarpon has many wise folks — perhaps together we hold some partial answers. I think we can move beyond this in time if we come together as a community. I hope we can move past this by moving through it in an honest way — knowing we are all connected. I think we must be led by our hearts. Compassion is important and powerful says our Peace4Tarpon poster. It also says: Build trust and have real conversations, offer the piece/peace you can. You are not alone.