A must-see film for everyone…
by Martin Hafer
This is a tough time in the United States for the police, as many folks have been protesting real and perceived police brutality in several widely publicized cases. Yet, despite all this acrimony, I strongly urge everyone to see Code 9: Officer Needs Assistance regardless of how you feel about these issues. The film does a great job of humanizing the police and it also helps you to understand the cases where officers react poorly towards the public and why there’s often a WE versus THEY attitude.
The purpose of the film is to bring to everyone’s attention just how common and debilitating mental health issues are for most folks in law enforcement. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder not only is common but an almost unavoidable part of the job….yet it’s very seldom talked about and little, if any, help is available to these cops who are emotionally impaired by their experiences on the job. According to Code 9, there is a widespread macho attitude that seems to say that police should somehow be above mental health problems and they should just ‘suck it up’ when it comes to dealing with the pain of dealing with death. Plus, if they ask for help, they might actually be jeopardizing their jobs or a chance at promotion! Their fellow officers often feel callous towards these emotionally wounded officers as do the local governments which employ them. Yet doing this creates more seriously impaired officers because they have no outlet for their problems…officers often resort to using drugs and alcohol to stop the nightmares and allow them to sleep, officers who have hair-trigger anger problems as well as officers who are completely ineffective or even suicidal. Common sense would say that cops should routinely be offered mental health counseling as a normal part of the job–and we’ve accepted that this is a need for soldiers. After all, seeing a dead child or someone whose death was extremely violent would have a horrible impact on anyone. Yet, surprisingly, the way most police departments deal with these symptoms of PTSD is to fire the officers…leaving them in many cases with no pension and no way to pay for much needed psychotherapy or substance abuse treatment for real psychological injuries received in the line of duty.
The film deals with this crazy situation by showcasing a wide variety of police officers–from small towns, large ones and even officers in Canada and Australia. Each is given a chance to talk about their experiences and archival footage is also used to tell their stories and narration is minimal–allowing the officers to speak for themselves. Many of their stories include the painful loss of friends on the force who ended up killing themselves to get away from the stress, the horrors of finding accident victims in pieces (something that apparently every police person has to deal with sooner or later) and the awfulness of dealing with the deaths of small children and teens. Their stories are heartbreaking and you can’t help but shed a few tears as they talk about what they’ve seen. Additionally, these same officers then talk about how symptoms of their psychological problems came out and how the departments refused to deal with the problems and gave them no chance to receive the help they need. It’s a tough job…but cities that just cast aside these wounded warriors is hard to fathom and the film is intended to educate the public about this problem as well as try to change public policy. On the positive side, the film’s director and head of the Code 9 Project, Deborah Louise Ortiz, has said that a few departments are changing for the better and mentions Mesa, Arizona as the model police force as they are one of the few which is proactive in dealing with the everyday stressors on their employees.
Why do I give the film an A+, a grade I very seldom give to any film? There are three reasons. First, like any good documentary, it has a very strong emotional impact and challenges the viewer towards taking action. Because of this, the fact that the film had me bawling is a very positive thing. Second, I was a psychotherapist and am very familiar with PTSD and its accompanying depression, anger and substance abuse issues. I often had patients who were suffering from PTSD and the film does a marvelous job of explaining this mental disorder and its treatment in a way that all of us can understand. Third, although Ortiz and so many people associated with the movie were not professional filmmakers, the overall quality and technical aspects of the picture are superb and I cannot imagine how the film could have been made any better. It is a perfect documentary. And don’t just take my word for it, as when it was shown the audience broke into huge rounds of applause and the picture received the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film at the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival. In my opinion, it was the best film of the festival…and that’s saying a lot because I saw a lot of great films there. I can’t wait to see what Ortiz and co-writer Frank Besser do next.