Jacksonville

Aug. 31, 2009

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Crouched behind a green Ford Explorer, gripping his tactical shotgun, Jacksonville police officer John Forte could only see the gunman’s face when the muzzle of the man’s semiautomatic rifle flashed and he fired another round at the officers surrounding his house.

Forte was wearing his bicycle patrol uniform — shorts. He had hitchhiked part of the way to the scene in the back of a pickup after he heard radio calls of a man shooting at officers. He had been behind the Explorer for hours, providing cover to another officer pinned behind a tree.

At one point, he called his mother. “Get my daughter ready,” he told her. “It doesn’t look good. I don’t know if this will end well.”

Though Forte survived that day, it hasn’t ended well for him.

Since the Aug. 25, 2008, shootout on quiet, residential Foxwood Drive, which ended when a police sniper killed the gunman, four doctors have diagnosed, Forte, 43, with post-traumatic stress disorder. He takes drugs to sleep. His worker’s compensation claim was denied, and he has burned through more than 600 hours of vacation and sick time, electing finally to take unpaid medical leave. His claim for unemployment benefits was denied. He has not received a paycheck for 10 weeks.

That isn’t the end of his troubles. This afternoon, Forte faces an insubordination hearing after his attorney questioned Jacksonville Police Chief Gary Sipes’ order that Forte see a fifth doctor.

“I have the medal I got right here,” Forte said, sitting in his attorney’s office last week. “We all got one. Everyone who was there that day.”

He turned the medal around in his fingers. His eyes didn’t leave it.

“Lot of good it does me,” he said. “Maybe I can hock it for something.”

ON BIKE PATROL

The shootout began a little after 2:30 p.m.

Forte was on bicycle patrol when he heard on his police radio that a suspect was getting a gun. He heard screaming.

Forte headed toward the Police Department. He got a ride in a white pickup, then grabbed his shotgun out of his personal car and rode with his partner toward the house where Steven Smith, 45, lived with his parents. When the officers parked about a block away, they could see officer John Alberson pinned behind a tree.

Smith sprayed dozens of shots out of his front door, the garage door and a small kitchen window. Forte and others fired back.

Smith spoke to a negotiator, hanging up on her several times. He slurred his words and screamed into the phone. He said he had Cherokee ancestors and hated how the “white man” had “massacred” American Indians.

He threatened to kill every officer there.

Smith shot Alberson in the left shoulder. Forte got permission to lay down suppressing fire so officers could get Alberson to a hospital, documents show. Forte also helped escort the wounded officer to a waiting patrol car, then he took up a new position outside the house.

A short time later, Sgt. Brett Hibbs took aim at Smith with a sniper’s rifle. He fired twice. Smith fell, shot through the back.

Forte, along with other officers, made sure the house was safe. It was 7:14 p.m.

Forte had never been in a shootout. He had no combat or special weapons and tactics training.

HELPING PEOPLE

Forte was hired in April 2005. He said he decided to become a police officer to better help people.

At the time, Forte worked security in the emergency department at Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock.

“John is very keen on doing things the right way and always takes into consideration not only the legal, but the moral consequences of his personal actions,” one of his colleagues, L.E. Bratcher, wrote in a reference letter.

Before that, he worked for several years as a bouncer at the Electric Cowboy nightclub in Little Rock after about 10 years as a data collector for the Arkansas Crime Information Center.

Stocky and bespectacled with an oval face and thinning hair, Forte stands just 5-foot-9 in the black police-style boots he wears even when he’s not at work.

Forte shared the department’s “Life Saving Award of the Year” in his first year after he and another officer rescued an overdosing drug addict who trapped his 7-year-old son in a house.

In a sexual predator case last November, less than three months after the shootout, Sipes wrote him a commendation letter.

“This is an indication of good police work and the [willingness] of you to work with others in a team effort to take people like this off of our streets to protect our kids,” Sipes wrote.

SYMPTOMS OF DISORDER

After the shootout, though, it did not take Forte long to figure out he wasn’t right. He was sleeping 10, 12 hours a night and feeling increasingly fatigued. He started having nightmares that someone was shooting at him. He had flashbacks, too, but the nightmares were different, he said. They weren’t memories. They seemed like they happened in real time.

“It wasn’t every night,” Forte said. “But it happened more than anything like that ever had in my life.”

His symptoms were typical of post-traumatic stress disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines it as an anxiety disorder “triggered by a traumatic event,” which can be any experience “that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror.” Symptoms of the disorder can be fleeting or can last for a lifetime.

In September 2008, Forte asked that the department allow him to attend an Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute seminar on coping with law-enforcement stress. His supervisor, Sgt. Kimberly Lett, denied the request, he said. Not long afterward, Forte took a sharp tone on the radio with Lett and received a letter of counseling in his personnel file.

DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS

The first doctor diagnosed Forte with post-traumatic stress disorder on March 3.

He started taking Seroquel, Remeron and Invega for anxiety and to sleep after Ambien, Lunesta and other drugs didn’t help.

Then he applied for workers’ compensation benefits citing his mental state. Municipal League Workers’ Compensation Trust claims examiner Andrea Ross denied the benefits in a letter dated April 6.

Under Arkansas Code Annotated 11-9-113, Forte had to show that his “mental injury” resulted either from a physical injury or because he was the victim of a crime of violence to receive workers’ compensation. In her letter, Ross wrote that Forte “did not meet the criteria of a victim of a crime of violence based on our interpretation of the law.”

Ross wrote that Forte could not have been a victim because he was an armed, trained police officer who knew shots were being fired and went anyway.

Her reasoning has drawn criticism from law enforcement and legal experts.

“It’s not like you’re a cop and separate from a human being,” said Allen R. Kates, author of Copshock: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. “That workers’ comp decision is baloney. Just baloney. They’re just making this up.That’s insane.”

Kates, who works with several police agencies near his home in Arizona and has served as an expert witness in court cases involving post-traumatic stress disorder, said such diagnoses are considered an expected part of law enforcement these days. It doesn’t happen to everyone or even most people. But it happens.

“That’s the reality police agencies have to deal with,” he said. “This is real and this officer is not alone by any means.”

Former Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Wendell Griffen, who served as chairman of the state’s Workers Compensation Commission from 1985 to 1987, said Ross’ letter is not supported by law.

“The law does not define what a victim of a crime of violence is,” he said.

He said the ruling was bizarre.

“If you go by the notion that a police officer who does his job is disqualified simply because he has training as a police officer, then where do you stop?” Griffen asked.

Sheryll Lipscomb, the Municipal League’s assistant director for workers’ compensation, said in response to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week that Forte’s claim sounded like something the Municipal League would cover.

“I would think that is a compensable claim,” she said.

Lipscomb said she did not know how often in Arkansas law-enforcement officers filed for benefits because of post-traumatic stress disorder or how often those claims are denied.

The Municipal League’s legal counsel, J. Chris Bradley, said he had requested more information and documents from the city of Jacksonville.

“This sounds like something we need to look at,” he said. “We need to see what they’ve got, what might be there.”

Forte has filed a notice of his intent to appeal, but his hearing has not been scheduled.

He had all four doctors who diagnosed him write a letter confirming their opinions. He said the Jacksonville Police Department chose two of the doctors and he and his attorney, Scott Scholl, chose two. One doctor signed a form in June so Forte could return to work on light duty – no gun and no exposure to situations that might call for lethal force. The department said it had no opening that fit.

THE CHIEF

Sipes became Jacksonville’s police chief four months before the shootout. A former SWAT commander in the North Little Rock Police Department, he has worked in law enforcement since 1975.

After the shooting, he offered counseling to those involved, stepped up officer and SWAT training and ordered new bullet-resistant vests – ones that offer better protection to the shoulders.

“I cried that day,” he said. “It was an emotional day.”

In 34 years as a police officer, Sipes said he had never seen anything like Aug. 25, 2008. He also said that in his career he has never encountered another officer diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of something that happened on the job.

He said he was studying the disorder on his own, but would not say how.

After four doctors and four identical diagnoses, Sipes ordered Forte to go to a fifth doctor, telling him which doctor and the date and time.

In a letter to the Municipal League’s Workers’ Compensation Trust, Scholl, Forte’s attorney, asked for guidance.

“If a ‘second (fifth?) opinion’ is necessary,” Scholl wrote, “Ofc. Forte would like to assert his right to seek treatment by the health care provider of his choice.”

When Forte did not show up for the appointment, Sipes wrote him a letter telling him to attend an administrative hearing for an insubordination charge, defined in Jacksonville as “any act of arbitrary defiance, disobedience, dissension, or resistance to authority.”

Asked more specific questions about Forte – including why he felt a fifth diagnosis was necessary – as well as the department and his own experiences, Sipes wouldn’t answer further questions.

Sherwood police detective Scott Hicks, the chapter president of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, will represent Forte at the hearing.

“He’s obviously been done unjustly,” Hicks said. “How this is insubordination I just don’t know. I think they might try to fire him. How is this right ?”

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Comments
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