The veteran cops were squirming in their seats even before their coffee got cold. To the group of mostly 20-year sergeants and lieutenants, the early morning seminar on officer trauma sounded about as appealing as paperwork. Better to work out stress at a firing range or corner bar than with some touchy-feely shrink.
But the speaker didn’t look like a psychologist, not with his drill-sergeant scowl and broad shoulders. And he didn’t sound like one, either.
“I’m not a cop,” Larry Blum began, his New York accent barbed with attitude. “I never wanted to be a cop. I couldn’t tell you about police tactics, either. But I am gonna tell you why you guys die out there.”
Welcome to the in-your-face world of “Dr. Deadlift,” cop shrink. Maybe it’s because he grew up as a street-smart kid in the bloody-nose Bronx, or because he practices triage psychology at crime scenes and emergency rooms, but Blum loves to get in that first punch.
Santa Ana Police Lt. Felix Osuna was in the audience that day. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘This guy’s a jerk.’ About 30 cops were ready to get up and walk out, me included. But by the end of that day, I was a believer. Larry knows what he’s talking about.”
Blum, who earned the “Deadlift” nickname because of his enthusiasm for weightlifting, has believers across Southern California. They talk about his clinical successes, of course, but also about his earnestness, his fierce loyalty and streetwise candor. Most important, they know he carries the same burdens they do.
“I feel very protective of all of them,” Blum, 49, says while holding one of the police caps that line the shelves of his Santa Ana office. The hats, and scores of agency patches, are thank-you gifts from former clients. “I’ve stood over them in hospitals, I’ve stood over their bodies, and held up their widows and partners.”
Blum looks up and smiles broadly. “I call all of them my babies.”
His “babies” bring in a parade of horror stories. Officers with trembling hands and shot nerves tell the big man about the mayhem and murders, the lost partners and innocent bystanders, and of the adrenaline rushes served with a side of stress.
Blum helps them cope with their anxieties and, at the same time, tries not to carry their weighty problems home. Often, that’s not easy.
“When I started doing this work I was a very sensitive, emotional person filled with love of life,” he says. “With the first five years of my practice, and all the call-outs for shooting and violence, I started losing my value of life. I became numb, hardened. Some of my close friends still accuse me of cynicism. But I have never lost my humanism. I still love good people.”
Blum’s 12-year-old practice includes a client list of 15 agencies, most in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Speaking engagements and appearances as an expert witness at assorted trials vie for his time these days. He recently testified on behalf of Sgt. Stacey C. Koon in the Rodney King civil trial.
Still, the Long Beach resident spends most of his time doing what matters most to him: talking one-on-one with troubled officers.
He finds it easy to communicate with street cops, particularly those who patrol dangerous turf. That can be traced in part to his childhood, when he ran with the tough kids in a New York Jewish-Italian neighborhood. His parents divorced when Blum was 14, leaving the teen-ager with little supervision.
Blum remembers the world view his father drummed into his head: “Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t take crap from anybody.
“That’s who I am. It probably helps me with the rank-and-file cops. They like the rough edges. But it’s not something I picked up at a university.”
And Blum did not forget that street education when he picked up his doctorate in psychology at the University of Michigan. Riverside psychologist Nancy Bohl, who also works exclusively with cops, says his markedly different influences make Blum an attractive confidant to officers. “They trust him, they like him, and he can help them,” she says.
Any bridge helps. Although officers are far more open to counseling and discussing their feelings than in the past, Blum says, a code of silence still comes with the badge. Many would rather swallow pain than show it. “It doesn’t just gnaw at them, it rigidifies, it locks up inside them,” Blum says.
One of his former clients, for example, responded to a domestic dispute call to find an infant shot point-blank in the head. The shooter, a boyfriend of the child’s mother, had committed suicide, and the officer walked away horrified by the sight and burned by his own helplessness. He told himself to shake it off and keep going. But it wasn’t that easy.
“Every time this guy looked at his own baby son in the crib at home, he got sick; he would vomit,” Blum says. “He couldn’t do away with that image. Until he talked about it and got OK with what he felt. Until he did that, he wasn’t gonna be able to enjoy his own kid.”
Blum says two-thirds of officers will suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms in their career, and one-third will have a profound reaction. The symptoms range from nightmares to gastric problems to freezing up in the field. The treatments include debriefing, counseling and sometimes biofeedback.
Cops who die on duty have often put themselves in a compromising position, Blum says. Distractions, anxieties and, in some cases, complacency cause them to miss danger signs or leap into situations they would otherwise avoid.
Typically, an officer can be counseled back to health in a matter of weeks. Extreme trauma or untreated emotional wounds take longer, Blum says. “Every cop who is worth his or her salt carries baggage. I help them deal with it, manage it, so they can become or stay healthy.”
Afew years ago, Blum forgot how to manage his own baggage. The burned-out cops, the late-night hospital visits and the manila folders bulging with lurid crime-scene photos began to darken his after-hours life.
“The way I did the work was by saying to myself, ‘OK, this is not my wife who’s been stabbed 26 times with hands and feet bound. This is not my daughter lying here raped and murdered.’ That’s how I did it, but everything got too close.”
As the horrors got closer, he pushed his wife and children further away, afraid they might be touched by it. And he turned to the bottle for solace: “Vodka. I had no time for beer. And I never really learned the meaning of the word moderation. “
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Harris has worked closely with Blum since 1986, and he saw the changes in his friend during those tough times.
“I’ve seen so many cops walk away from the job as just hollow shells of who they had been because they’ve taken all the heartache and agony and held it inside,” Harris says. “He finds ways to let them let it go. He’s like this sponge soaking up their pain. Sometimes, though, you got to squeeze and let it back out.”
The pressure built until Blum and his wife, Paula, separated briefly in the late 1980s. “It was the worst time in my life, no doubt about it,” she says.
The couple had met as teen-agers in New York and had found success in California, but the gory secrets Larry Blum kept in his head threatened to bring them down.
“Because of confidentiality, he would never tell us about what his cases were, nothing specific, only a global picture,” Paula Blum says. “All this stuff was tearing his insides out, but he would keep it in. When he drank, all these terrible emotions would come out of him, just rotten things. We were all walking on eggshells.”
The separation made Blum think hard about his options. “Either find a way to remain healthy in the way you do your work or lose your family, that’s what it came down to,” he says.
The first step was to quit doing suspect profiles and interviews with murderers and rapists for the police. He decided to counsel and evaluate only officers. “I only work with the good guys. That helped a lot.”
He quit drinking, too. The Blums celebrated their 25th anniversary this year, and Paula, the director of senior services at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center, says the marriage is solid.
“Although for a while I was trying to convince him to buy less weight equipment so we could buy a dining room set,” she jokes.
Four years ago, Blum turned to weightlifting to relieve the stress in his life and the pain in his back. A spinal injury had forced him to consider extensive surgery, but one of Blum’s “babies,” a Pomona cop who loved power-lifting, offered an alternative.
Dr. Deadlift was born.
“It is the joy of my life,” says Blum, who strengthens his muscles and eases his mind among the clanging free weights. Earlier this year, he locked out with 600 pounds in the dead lift at the national Police Olympics. Blum laughs at the suggestion that lifting weights helps him carry his patients’ burdens.
“I’ll tell you this,” he says. “I’m helpless to prevent cops from being harmed, and that is my biggest wound. I can control the weight in the gym. It’s just me against the bar. And if I’m tough, tough enough, I can pull that weight.”
Blum is now planning his retirement. His son, Noah, 23, and daughter, Nicole, 20, are in college (“They like me now that I can’t tell them what to do”), and he hopes in five years or so to confine his practice to helping police departments create in-house trauma-response teams. He has worked to develop such programs in Brea, Huntington Beach and South Gate.
The teams, staffed by officers, quickly assemble and reach out to traumatized peers.
“It’s great because the cop hears from another cop that, ‘Hey, I’ve been where you are now. The things you are experiencing are nothing but normal reactions to a traumatic event,’ ” Blum says.
He says the pressure cooker his “babies” work in would be too much for him to handle. (“I don’t have the self-control. Take a guy that beats up a lady or a kid. I’d beat the hell out of him.”) Southern California has become a high-scrutiny, low-tolerance place for police since the fallout from the 1991 Rodney King beating.
When Blum testified as an expert witness on behalf of Koon, he explained to jurors that an officer’s account of a traumatic event may be blurred or rendered incomplete by a tunnel vision that kicks in during duress. The tunnel vision, Blum testified, could explain some discrepancies between the notorious videotape and the officers’ firsthand reports.
Although not a “big fan” of Koon, Blum says he fears that the King case fallout has ultimately made police officers too tentative in their work.
With the goal of charting the impact of the King case on area police departments, Blum is organizing a research project. He hopes the street-level cops can provide data on changes in stress, morale, public perception and police conduct.
Blum has only to thumb through his patient files to find anecdotal evidence of the pressures on today’s patrol officers. Montebello Police Sgt. Tim Mahan was a wreck when he walked into Blum’s office after a shooting three years ago.
Mahan had been directing traffic on Whittier Boulevard when he found himself staring down a stolen sedan with a trio of carjackers. As the officer leaped from the car’s path, he expected to feel a hot blast rip through his gut from the shotgun leveled out the passenger window.
The 23-year veteran got off two rounds before he hit the ground, killing the armed 15-year-old. “I couldn’t believe I was alive,” he recalls. He walked away with no visible wounds, but was shaken more than he knew.
His anxieties were compounded by the criminal investigation and trial, a subsequent civil case and the feeling that he was being treated as a lawbreaker instead of a lawman. He saw his name on a police report next to the word homicide. In court, he felt awkward sitting at the defendant’s table after years on the prosecutor’s side.
Mahan was vindicated, but not before months of worrying that he might lose both his job and home. The memory of the shooting left him with nightmares, and the emotional pressures manifested themselves as such physical ailments as stomach pain and diarrhea. Worse, other cops began to whisper about his hand tremors.
“I didn’t trust Larry, or any shrink for that matter, so I walked into his office emotionally armed and fearful,” Mahan says. “I was from the old school, too, where you don’t say you’re hurting; you play it off. I thought anything I said would cost me my job. But the healing began as soon as I began trusting him.”
Blum explained that the stomach ailments were tied to the shotgun wound Mahan’s mind had expected his body to suffer. And that the nightmares were tied to the carjacker’s age--the same as Mahan’s son. As Mahan recognized that his troubles were normal reactions, not signs of weakness, he began to mend and eventually returned to the force.
“Larry saved my career, no doubt about it,” Mahan says.
To Dr. Deadlift, that makes it all worthwhile.
“The good ones are the truest heroes and heroines you can imagine,” Blum says. “They literally sacrifice their own lives to save strangers. Think about that. Who does that? Some of the sweetest, finest human beings I have ever met wear badges. I’d do anything for those cops.”