Since the end of February, former Belle Plaine Police Chief Tom Stolee has been out of his office at the Belle Plaine Police Department. On Monday, June 15, that absence came to a head when he officially separated himself from his employment as the city of Belle Plaine’s police chief, citing a medical concern as the motivating factor for doing so. Stolee separately confirmed with the Herald that the medical concern is post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by his career in law enforcement.
The Mayo Clinic describes post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short, as a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event that leads to distressing memories and dreams, severe emotional distress associated with thoughts of traumatic events, a detachment from self, and emotional numbness, as well as a long list of other symptoms typically associated with depressive or anxiety disorders.
Tom first began realizing his mental health might be a problem for him last October. It was around that time that he began feeling less concern for his own wellbeing. He recounted multiple instances in which he entered potentially dangerous circumstances without a second thought. Such disregard for one’s own health and safety is a telltale sign of PTSD, Tom said.
“The number one thing is you really start to care less and less about yourself,” Tom said. “My brain was telling me I have less to lose than anyone else.”
“It was a slow burn. I was just working more and more and more. I was able to walk into a horrific scene and not be affected by it many times. I guess I put it away in too many boxes,” he later added.
When Tom returned home from a day most would consider jarring or potentially life-threatening, his wife, Amy, would often never be the wiser. When she asked Tom what was going on after work, he’d often give simple, unengaged answers, like “Not much.”
“You could just tell he was a million miles away at times,” Amy said.” He was pretty much emotionally numb. There’s no better word than numb, I guess.”
Amy added that leading up to her husband’s “severe PTSD” diagnosis, she noticed he seldom wanted to be by himself and was always by her side.
The signs of Tom’s battle have manifested themselves internally as much as externally. Boxes of awards Tom has accrued over his 30-year career now sit untouched in the couple’s house. He said that with his current state, he has a hard time internalizing what went into earning them due to his PTSD.
“When I look at the awards and different things we were able to accomplish, it’s hard for me to realize the good, if any, that I did for the city of Belle Plaine,” Tom said.
By February of this year, Tom knew he needed to step away from his role as chief and did so initially with the hopes that he may return. Multiple doctor visits and a litany of assessments later, and Tom, who spoke to the Herald on two occasions about his condition, knew he could no longer serve in his role. Something as small as a certain smell acted as a trigger for Tom’s PTSD toward the end of his stint as chief, so he knew he needed to take a drastic step.
Tom said that years of putting others’ concerns before his own likely compounded his condition, but February marked a turning point for him, and in a statement read at Monday’s council meeting, he expressed that it was a necessary turning point.
“The decision not to return to my role as chief was not made lightly,” his statement reads in part. “This was never the path I would have chosen on my own will.”
“Although I am proud of my career, it is time that I prioritize my wellbeing,” it later continues.
Now, Tom believes opening up about his condition publicly was a crucial first step in his recovery process, which doctors told him may take years or the rest of his life. He hopes that those who learn of his story and may be struggling with PTSD or another condition will be inspired to get the help they need in dealing with their conditions, whether they are members of law enforcement or otherwise.
“In order to heal, I need to be vulnerable,” Tom said. “I want people to know that I’m still the same person.”
In 2018, the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit that tracks the line-of-duty deaths of American law enforcement officers, tracked 185 line-of-duty deaths. The figure accounts for deaths related to gunfire, vehicle crashes and other causes. In 2018, 172 current or former officers died by suicide, according to figures published by Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit aimed at reducing mental health stigmas in law enforcement.
The following year, in 2019, the Officer Down Memorial Page tracked 147 line-of-duty deaths. Blue H.E.L.P., meanwhile, tracked 228 deaths by suicide. Tom drew attention to these statistics and hopes they draw attention to the realities of PTSD.
Rates of PTSD and other mental health conditions, which express themselves more regularly in law enforcement than in the general public according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, may play a part in those figures. But Tom does not feel as though PTSD is a condition with which only past or present law enforcement officers should concern themselves.
“It can happen to anybody,” Tom said.
Amy, meanwhile, urges the loved ones of those who may be suffering from PTSD to never give up on those who may not be open about their condition.
“They’ll say they’re okay but keep pushing,” Amy said.
For now, Tom said he will take things one day at a time on his road to recovery and encourages anyone who may be struggling to speak to loved ones about their situation.
“ It’s not something that people should be afraid to talk about,” Tom said.
At Monday’s city council meeting, the mayor and council appointed acting police chief Terry Stier as the interim chief.