Under Fire

Police officers throughout the country have been caught -- and some even prosecuted -- for falsifying reports of being shot on duty.

In Brockton, Massachusetts, a police officer claimed last March that a man had shot at him after a routine stop. The bullet pierced the officer's jacket, but didn't hit him. The shooting sparked a manhunt by more than 100 officers. A 19-year-old man later was arrested after the cop identified him in a photographic lineup as the shooter. But the alleged shooter had an ironclad alibi, and soon was released. A few days later, police charged the officer with false reporting and obstruction of justice.

A California Highway Patrol officer said in August 1999 that a white male in a new red Toyota pickup had shot him after he'd stopped the man for speeding on the San Diego Freeway. One bullet struck the officer in the right arm, and another hit him in the chest, but was slowed by his bulletproof vest. The traffic jam that ensued as police hunted the alleged assailant took six hours to clear. The cop's story broke down, however, after repeated questioning by investigators.

A Midland, Texas, officer claimed last August 3 that she'd been shot in her left arm as she stepped outside of her home around midnight. The officer claimed two men had pulled up in a pickup truck and fired at her for no apparent reason. A subsequent investigation concluded that the wound was self-inflicted. The cop resigned after her police chief told her she was about to be fired.

In Moultrie, Georgia, a cop reported in July 2000 that he'd been shot in the arm after stopping two men in a pickup truck. Investigators later determined there had been "no hostile shooting." The officer later pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of making a false statement.

In Maui, Hawaii, a patrolman fired a 9mm handgun into his bulletproof vest last December, then lay down on the side of a road until passing motorists discovered him. The officer first told investigators he'd pulled over a gray sedan without license plates. As he'd approached the vehicle, the cop alleged, the driver -- of Filipino descent, he said -- had fired once at him, then fled. A massive manhunt, which included two helicopters, produced no viable suspects.

In that incident, Maui's police chief said the officer, a 10-year veteran, had been having family problems and was otherwise stressed at the time he'd shot himself. But, the chief added, "We're not sure what he hoped to gain. We have theories, but we don't know why he did it."

One theory, expressed in an early 1990s article titled "Munchausen's Syndrome in Law Enforcement," argues "the unique demands of the law enforcement profession create an atmosphere in which this type of disorder may be more common than in the general population."

Munchausen's syndrome is a psychological condition in which a person intentionally injures him or herself, with no obvious reward other than drawing sympathy and attention.

Police officers "who strive to be in control at all times, may find it difficult to admit when their relationships, jobs, or even they are out of balance," wrote Dr. Peter DiVasto in the article. "It is this uneasiness with loss of control that leads to the most common source of 'Officer Munchausen' incidents."

DiVasto, a contract psychologist with the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police Department, continued: "The pressure to achieve parity and acceptance in a law enforcement environment is strong. An officer who feels the need to fabricate a critical incident may be manifesting perceived ego deficits or may be simply reacting to that pressure, often combined with boredom. . . . They may be trying to alter unsatisfactory career or personal circumstances, or they may be attempting to gain the acceptance of their peers."

Dr. Tod Burke, a former Maryland cop who now is a criminal-justice professor at Radford University in Virginia, also has studied the phenomenon of Munchausen syndrome in law enforcement.

Burke, who wasn't told the specifics of the Phoenix case involving Officer Frank Brown, spoke generally about the unusual condition.

"I really believe a lot of it has to do with attention-grabbing," he says. "That while the other cops are getting noticed and great things are happening, these officers are simply going on patrol. And when it comes time for promotion or evaluation, they weren't going to be properly recognized, not realizing they are making a contribution. They want that something more, and sometimes, they'll create their own crimes.

"There are tons of Munchausen cases. Every state has got some."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin

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