by PoliceOne News Editor Lindsay Gebhart
Trooper Thomas A. Peoples, 31, began February 7, 1998, like many other days – at the Hallmark Restaurant eating breakfast with a few friends. Traffic in Killeen, Texas, would prove to be kind of quiet busy that morning. A small accident, a traffic ticket – little to note.
Shortly after 11:00 am, Peoples, who had been an officer for five years, heard a call from DPS Waco Communications about an extremely intoxicated driver, weaving his way from Waco on IH 35 to Killeen. With the driver 40 miles away, Peoples continued to listen to updates on the DUI’s movements, but knew it was still too far away to control.
Dispatch advised that the male, Hispanic driver had pulled into a truck stop, placed his beer on the hood of his car as he filled up his gas tank and urinated. After pumping his gas, the driver continued to travel south on I-35, heading closer to Killeen. Peoples considered heading him off but hesitated, knowing the driver would have to travel through two more cities, Temple then Belton. Surely, Peoples thought, the driver will be caught in one of these cities.
Dispatch advised that there were no officers available in Temple or Belton. The driver exited the highway and headed straight toward Peoples.
Peoples immediately started planning how and where would be best to stop the vehicle. Parking in the center median, he watched as the vehicle approached, weaving back and forth across the two westbound lanes of traffic at 82 mph, a wall of cars following behind. As it passed, he made eye contact with the driver, who appeared to “look right through him.”
Peoples entered traffic and the chase ensued. The drunk driver rocketed ahead at over 100 mph, flying back and forth across the lanes erratically. Suddenly, the vehicle darted across the center lane into oncoming traffic, barely avoiding several cars, then back onto the westbound lanes. Then he darted again, shooting for an on ramp of incoming traffic.
Peoples suddenly saw everything go into slow motion, frame-by-frame, as he watched the drunk driver smash into an on-coming car. Peoples crossed over the median in an attempt to block oncoming traffic and prevent further mayhem.
He jumped out of the cruiser and ran to the car that had been struck by the drunk driver. The male driver and female passenger were conscious. He ran around the drunk driver’s vehicle, where the driver was upside down and partially ejected, obviously dead.
Running back to the first vehicle, he heard an infant crying and was relieved. Looking in the back seat, he also noticed a child behind the seat. He shouted at the boy, whose eyes were open, but heard no response. He checked the boy’s pulse and found nothing. The vehicle was so damaged he couldn’t get to the child to administer first aid.
A paramedic friend who had been following Peoples climbed over the female passenger and into the back seat. Peoples used a window punch to remove the back window and he climbed in the back, administering CPR to the boy until life flight and Killeen EMS arrived on scene and took over.
Peoples stayed in “police mode”, interviewing witnesses until a waitress he knew well, Jennifer Dantzer, ran up to him. She said her family had been in the accident and pointed to the victims’ car.
That’s when it all came together. The little boy was the same one who had been sitting on his lap a week earlier. His name was Brady; he was five. He was Dantzer’s son.
A wave of guilt washed over Peoples: He hadn’t taken control of the accident. He felt he had allowed the drunk driver to kill Brady.
Immediately after the incident, Peoples was taken off duty for a few days and mandated to visit the department psychologist. He told the doctor everything he had to [in order to] stay on patrol. In reality, things were heading downhill quickly.
“I thought I was a weak person – not knowing how to cope and deal with things,” he said. His thinking was that as a male and as a police officer, things like this aren’t supposed to affect you. “BS doesn’t bother you. Working fatality accidents constantly … you hide it inside you and you don’t know what to do with it. Slowly but surely it tears you up.”
After two months, he went from being a social drinker to stopping every night at the bar to get drunk before he got home. He stopped eating and going to church. He began shutting everyone out of his life, including his fiancée, who eventually left him. He knew his fellow officers knew something was up, but none of them seemed to know what to say to him.
“I’ve seen officers distraught and despondent and didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say, or you think you are going to offend them,” Peoples told PoliceOne. “But that is not the case. Just a pat on the shoulder and saying ‘If you need to talk I am here for you’ makes a big difference.”
Emotional problems were compounded by the possibilities of the story getting out. If his supervisor found out, would he be fired? Would all the other officers think he was weak and unable to do his job?
After the accident, Peoples job performance suffered. One day in March his supervisor asked him into his office and commented that his attitude and performance had deteriorated. When Peoples tried to explain about the accident, he broke into tears.
The process repeated itself. He was removed from patrol duties and sent to the unit psychiatrist. He said what he needed to say to be cleared and was sent back out on duty.
“I went home that day, parked the patrol unit, jumped in my truck and headed straight to the liquor store. I think at this point I had made up my mind that I was going to stop the pain,” Peoples said. “I started drinking at about 2 p.m. and continued into the night. At some point in the evening I went back into the bedroom, got my duty weapon and began to clean it with my mind made up that I was going to end it all.”
“After I finished cleaning my weapon, I can remember doing a straight shot of Jack Daniels and sitting down on the sofa. I picked up my weapon from the table and made sure it was empty. I pulled the hammer of the gun back and placed the barrel in my mouth.
“I was in tears as I pulled the trigger on the empty pistol, I guess I just wanted to insure myself that I could do it. I then placed the magazine in the pistol, chambered a round and prepared to do what I had previously called the unthinkable. The thing that I had always told my friends that even if they found me dead with gun in hand, I didn’t do it to – start an investigation.
“I placed the weapon on the table and said a prayer asking for forgiveness and for God to give my family strength and understanding.
“As practiced earlier I pulled the hammer back on the pistol. As I began to place the barrel in my mouth someone knocked on my front door.”
That providential visit would save People’s life.
At the door was Lynn Brown, his captain when he was a city officer. After Brown knocked three times Peoples put the gun under the table and let him in. They talked for a long time that night, sharing similar experiences.
When other officers were involved in deadly pursuits, Peoples said he always thought, “They did what they could, doing their job. It is [the criminal] who is to at blame, not the officer,” he said. “I realize now that it was the [criminal] I was chasing who killed Brady. I was just doing the job I was paid to do.”
While Peoples had seen a person shoot and kill themselves during a pursuit, which in itself can be traumatic, this was different to him. Seeing an innocent person die took away everything he knew about suicidal people.
“With the right ingredients [suicide] can happen to anyone. The academy never teaches you how to handle your own problems. They can affect you, ruin your life and career,” he told PoliceOne.
Peoples said a key to emotionally surviving an incident like this is training to be prepared to encounter and cope with stress and be prepared for vast changes in your patrol environment. A “normal” patrol can turn into a live shooter situation in a nanosecond. You need to train to be ready to make the emotional and professional transitions sudden crisis situations require and be sure you take appropriate steps to help yourself through the emotional aftermath that often follows…things like seeking professional support, avoiding alcohol and drugs as emotional “escapes,” acknowledging that your emotions are normal and to be expected, etc.
After the incident Peoples left the highway patrol and works in a classified position. He and his fiancée got back together after a post-incident breakup and were married. He has also returned to the church. But even after going on medication and counseling, Peoples admits he struggles on the anniversary of the incident.
If you encounter a traumatized officer, Peoples suggests, “Be straight forward. Ask them: ‘Are you thinking about committing suicide?’
“If they would have asked me, I would have told them ‘yes.’”
Thomas Peoples is currently a Law Enforcement officer and coordinator for the Critical Incident Stress Management Team. He has been in law enforcement since 1988 when he first began with Harker Heights, Texas Police Department as a reserve officer. He has been interested in law enforcement since childhood and served as a law enforcement explorer for the Jacksonville Police Department. Thomas became a full time officer in Harker Heights in 1991 after returning from Operation Desert Storm and ending six years of active duty service with the United States Army.
Thomas obtained the rank or Sergeant before leaving Harker Heights Police Department for a position with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Thomas has worked as a CISM member since 1993 when he became certified through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. He has also served as a SWAT team leader, narcotics officer, advisor for police explorer program among many other duties. Thomas continued to work in CISM after becoming a member of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
After leaving the Texas Department of Public Safety in 2002 and going to work for another law enforcement agency, Thomas became a trainer through the National Police Suicide Foundation and now devotes time to educating other law enforcement officers in stress management, emotional survival and police suicide awareness. Thomas also does volunteer work for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (M.A.D.D.), providing education and training to young drivers and DWI offenders.
You may contact Thomas through his website, Shadows of the Badge.