PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Dave Silva had been on the Pawtucket police force for six years when he responded to a motorcycle crash so gruesome that he didn’t recognize the rider was a beloved cousin.
As the officers waited for the medical examiner and investigated the crash, Silva remained with his cousin’s mangled body in the road. Then, he was assigned to notify his own relatives of the death.
For years, Silva tried to bury his memories of the scene. Then last July, exactly 15 years after his cousin’s death, Silva was called to another fatal motorcycle crash.
The man’s twisted body, surrounded by a wailing, enraged crowd, was eerily similar to his cousin’s crash, Silva later said at an arbitration hearing. “It kind of opened up the floodgates and it opened up the boxes that I had closed for years,” he testified.
He remembered piecing together the bodies of three people who’d been shredded in a car crash. An elderly woman strangled and raped after her death. A little girl who hung herself. A toddler who tried to revive her murdered mother by feeding her M&Ms.
The worst was the case of Aleida DePina, a 10-year-old girl who was tortured to death by her father, who videotaped his abuse. The videos were so brutal that the judge in the murder trial allowed them to be played for the jury only once. As the only Pawtucket detective who speaks Creole, the language spoken by the father and girl, Silva had to watch the videos multiple times as he worked on the case.
Silva, a former Marine who has received numerous awards for his work as a detective in narcotics and major crimes, is considered by peers as one of the best detectives in Rhode Island and “an excellent detective” by his chief. But he was undone by his job.
He was seeing his own children in the faces of the young victims. He had visions of his cousin’s body. For a long time, he’d tried to cope on his own, believing that asking for help was a sign of weakness. But he’d been waking up from night terrors for years and couldn’t control his anger anymore.
After the second motorcycle crash, Silva went on vacation and, at the urging of his wife, began seeing a licensed clinical social worker. When the counselor determined Silva had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and couldn’t work safely or effectively temporarily, Silva requested to be put on injured-on-duty leave.
Pawtucket Police Chief Tina Goncalves sent Silva to a psychiatrist, to get another opinion. That doctor was even more adamant that Silva needed mental health treatment and shouldn’t return to work for at least three months or until he was cleared for duty by a psychiatrist. Silva had acute stress reaction that could turn into PTSD because of severe trauma from his work, the psychiatrist wrote.
Instead, Goncalves rejected Silva’s injured-on-duty claim, arguing that his experiences were no different than any other officer’s — including herself, though she was never a major crimes detective like Silva, and only spent a few years working on the streets.
Medical experts agree
Silva filed a grievance last September after Goncalves rejected his request for injured-on-duty leave. The months-long battle with the city used up his vacation and sick time, and he went without pay for two months as two more doctors examined him.
All four medical experts agreed that Silva was traumatized by the work, that he was overwhelmed, angry, and depressed. (Silva declined comment for this story, but permitted the police union’s lawyer, Joseph Penza of Warwick, to release an arbitrator’s decision that included details of his case.)
While the chief and other Pawtucket officers described Silva as an excellent cop, they also said — and Silva agreed — that he was known to argue with supervisors who denied him resources to pursue investigations.
The medical experts found that Silva didn’t feel supported by his superiors. Some took note that Silva perceived his workplace as a “dysfunctional, poorly run hostile work environment,” and had trouble with “illegitimate leadership” and “narcissistic personalities” at the department.
“I don’t know why I’ve been given a hard time. All I’ve done is my job, and really well,” Silva told another psychiatrist that the city ordered him to see. “Why is the chief giving me a hard time?”
Goncalves reiterated that any other officer would handle the same types of calls as Silva, and the state law required extraordinary circumstances — such as the Station nightclub fire or 9/11 — to grant injured-on-duty leave.
But arbitrator Michael C. Ryan sided with Silva in May, finding that the city violated the police union’s collective bargaining agreement, which doesn’t distinguish between physical and mental injuries. He also noted that if Silva’s work experience and “undisputed diagnosis of PTSD” didn’t him qualify him for injured-on-duty leave, he couldn’t imagine any other officer who could. He ordered the police chief to put Silva on injured-on-duty status and restore all the vacation and sick time he used since last summer.
Instead, Goncalves and Mayor Donald Grebien are preparing to fight Silva in Superior Court. According to Vincent Ragosta, the city’s lawyer, the police chief and the mayor will argue that Silva “exaggerated his experiences” as a police officer, and that his mental stress is part of the job.
It’s an argument that’s worked in the past against other first responders in Rhode Island who allege they’re struggling with post-traumatic stress from their jobs.
Silva’s case, however, could be a game-changer.
A heightened standard
Ragosta told the Globe in a recent interview that Rhode Island holds police officers to a heightened standard, because their work exposes them to more traumatic events than civilians. Courts in general have been very skeptical of claims of mental injury, he said, believing they can be feigned or exaggerated.
“Just because he has a mental illness and has a PTSD diagnosis doesn’t make it compensable under Rhode Island courts,” Ragosta said in a recent interview. “We say to make it compensable, there has to be some proof that the working environment he was exposed to was of extraordinary stressors and stimuli. Our argument is while they were traumatic, they didn’t cross the line to extraordinary.”
During the arbitration hearing, Ragosta argued that this was the job Silva had signed up for, and a “mental-stress injury was a not an ‘ace in the hole’ to be kept facedown until the stress of the job becomes subjectively too great.”
Goncalves, Major Dan Mullen, and four Pawtucket detectives testified for the city that Silva’s experiences were no more extreme than the normal work of any police officer. Some talked about horrible scenes that they’ve encountered. Goncalves also said that patrol officers see more than detectives, who come onto scenes when they’ve been “cleaned up,” Ragosta said.
But neither Goncalves nor Mullen have worked major crimes — felonies and capital offenses including homicide, rapes, and child molestation — the arbitrator noted. Another detective who testified for the city had made only one murder arrest, but botched the investigation; the attorney general’s office dismissed the murder charge and the defendant is now suing the police department.
“In my opinion, having heard all the witnesses, the grievant’s actual cumulative experience, beginning with the 2005 motorcycle accident, was more likely significantly more stressful than the day-to-day emotional strain and tension,” the arbitrator wrote. “While the City is understandably apprehensive about PTSD-based claims for IOD that arise long after the traumatic event, that is the nature of the illness.”
A cumulative effect
John Violanti, a retired New York state trooper and a research professor at the University at Buffalo who studies police stress, suicide, and PTSD, said the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in police officers and firefighters are only now being recognized.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is cumulative — the more traumatic events that you see, the more you risk ending up with the disorder, Violanti said.
However, “the legal aspects are tenuous and difficult, with each case, the officer has to prove the experience of the traumatic event was beyond traumatic, the worst that could possibly happen,” Violanti said. “An ordinary event of shootings and dead children doesn’t seem to matter to the courts.”
It’s very difficult to get a retirement based on a mental injury such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Violanti said. “There’s a fear among administrators that this is going to explode, that there’s going to be a lot of police officers filing for PTSD.”
But the tides may be starting to turn, Violanti said.
“It costs a lot to replace a police officer,” he said. “We’re paying more attention to the mental well-being of police officers, providing more training and peer support.”
Violanti coauthored a landmark study that found stress leads to significant health risks for police, who are more likely to experience chronic disease and suicide than the general population. Another one of Violanti’s studies looked at the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on brain functions. “We did find officers with higher levels of PTSD had more difficulties in making decisions,” he said.
That was a profound revelation, Violanti said.
“If you take it to the street and get an officer in a bad situation, they are going to have more difficulty in making a decision, which affects not only safety of the public, but safety of the officer as well,” Violanti said. “These decisions are made in split seconds. The lesson to be learned is departments should be very much focused on mental health of officers, because it affects everyone.”
Law enforcement is still figuring out how to deal with cumulative post-traumatic stress disorder, said Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and a retired chief from Little Compton.
For the last 20 years, instructors at the Municipal Police Training Academy have warned families of recruits about signs to watch for that signal their loved ones are under stress, he said. Police departments also have employee assistance programs and peer support officers, though those roles are a challenge in the smaller departments, he said.
Overall, though, the culture in law enforcement hasn’t been supportive of officers who struggle with their mental health.
“When I started in law enforcement, the way you dealt with things was to suck it up. You dealt with it, you had a few beers, and it was coping, in a way,” Wordell said. “We are recognizing over time that’s suppressing it — that’s not dealing with it.”
A hidden illness
Break your leg on the job? There’s a procedure to follow and no questions about being granted injured-on-duty leave. But PTSD can be just as debilitating, with effects that are more far-reaching and harder to heal than a broken bone. “We’re dealing with the mind — you can’t physically touch to check on it,” Wordell said.
This issue is important enough that the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association listed officer wellness programs for physical and mental health as part of their “Twenty for 2020 Campaign,” launched last summer after the murder of George Floyd. There were proposed policies and promises to make departments transparent and accountable. All of the police chiefs in Rhode Island signed the pledge, including Goncalves.
“It starts from the top. It starts with recognizing our folks are human,” Wordell said.
In the last session at the General Assembly, a state representative who is also a Woonsocket firefighter sponsored a bill that would allow first responders suffering from diagnosed PTSD to take injured-on-duty leave.
Representative Stephen Casey said he wrote the legislation after the suicide of a fellow firefighter two years ago — one of four firefighters in Rhode Island who’ve killed themselves in the last three years.
“It’s a safety concern and a mental health concern,” Casey said.
Like police officers, many firefighters don’t want to admit when they’ve been through enough and need help, he said.
“We’re all real big, tough guys, and we’re supposed to be heroes, and that’s the perception,” Casey said. “You don’t want to have to tell your buddies that you’re out on stress leave, because then they’re concerned with how you perform (when you return). But everyone has their own personal struggle.”
All first responders have been through hard calls that stay with them, sometimes during their entire careers, Casey said. There shouldn’t be a stigma against first responders who admit they are human and need help, he said.
By treating PTSD as a work-related injury, first responders can recover, and return to work, he said.
“Let’s get people right,” Casey said. “I want my friends to be OK first, so that when we get to work, we can all just do the job.”
A chilling effect
Silva is still in therapy and still wants to come back to work, Penza said. But he has to continue fighting.
The city’s lawyer, Ragosta, said Thursday that Chief Goncalves, Mayor Grebien, and City Solicitor Frank Milos have decided to ask the Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision and force Silva to repay the costs of putting him on leave.
Goncalves did not respond to questions from The Boston Globe. Milos’ office said it couldn’t answer an open records request made on June 10 for the costs of litigating Silva’s case until sometime in late July.
Even if the city loses its fight against Silva, Ragosta said, the court may offer guidance on other mental-health injury cases that could benefit municipalities and law enforcement.
Otherwise, he said, “we will be confronted with officers coming forward saying, ‘I want the Dave Silva result.’ They will say, ‘I was exposed to so much trauma that it’s extraordinary, and I should receive the same compensation.’ ”
But, the police union’s lawyer said that Silva’s fight has sent the opposite message to his fellow officers.
“It’s difficult for any first responder to come forward and say, ‘This is bothering me.’ They are supposed to be tough guys,” Penza said. “Now, you report it, and you think the department is going to help you out, but they fight you every step of the way.”
“If I’m a Pawtucket police officer, and I’m suffering from stress, I’m not going to come forward,” he added. “ ‘Look at what happened to Dave Silva, one of the top in the department by any account. Look how they treated him. How will they treat me?’ ”