Michael Libertini, 43 years old, has been a police officer for twenty years. He started his career as a volunteer firefighter in New York, but soon gravitated towards police work. From as young as 23 years old, he’s felt a calling to help others. However, that calling means running headfirst into danger, turmoil, and sometimes heartache.
“I work in a smaller agency, just 40 officers in a small town of 22,000 people, but I’ve experienced things that even some police officers in a large metropolis would never experience,” Libertini says.
He stresses that people never invite police over for fun; they call them because they have a problem and want it solved immediately. Sometimes the problems are violent, sad, or both, which is emotionally taxing.
Understanding Cumulative Post Traumatic Stress
In 2009, Libertini responded to an emergency call and was in a 13-minute standoff with a suicidal man threatening to kill himself and his wife. The man pointed a gun at a rookie officer. Libertini had tried to use a taser, but when it didn’t make proper contact, he had no choice but to shoot him. The man died on site.
At that time, Libertini was a newlywed and had only been back to work a week after his honeymoon when the incident occurred. He and his wife both received death threats, but he handled it as well as anyone could expect. Or so he thought.
“A few years later, I had a lot of issues with anger which were affecting me and my marriage. Then throw in Sandy Hook… that affected me greatly,” Libertini says.
Libertini was a sergeant when the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in 2012. He and his entire shift responded and were there late into the night.
“There is a difference between the post-traumatic stress experienced by many veterans and that experienced by police and first responders. With law enforcement, it’s usually a culmination of many incidents over the years, which is known as cumulative PTSD,” Libertini says.
Most of what people think of as post-traumatic stress relates to trauma suffered by people in the military which is often a large event, such as being hit by an IED or experiencing a major trauma on the battlefield. It can often be pinpointed to a specific event or short series of events.
Cumulative Post Traumatic Stress occurs over many years or many incidences. Seeing the outcome of one major vehicle accident after another. Or having to continually put yourself at risk during domestic incidents. This type of post-traumatic stress is often more difficult to diagnose because the symptoms build over time and is often considered one of the more dangerous forms of post-traumatic stress.
Police officers have the highest rate of Cumulative Post Traumatic Stress of any profession. Although he wanted to serve others and keep the peace, the most traumatic experiences of Libertini’s career lingered, quietly eating away at him.
About five years after the 2009 incident with the suicidal man, Libertini was driving down the road and noticed he was being tailgated by another vehicle. He pulled the other car over in front of the police department. A young girl was driving. She seemed very afraid of him, and he was unsure why. When he took her license, he realized she was the daughter of the man he had shot.
“I let her go, pulled my car into the back lot, and cried for 45 minutes. When I shot him, I had just gotten married, no kids. My view of him was simple… a troubled man pointing a gun at a police officer. Four or five years later, I suddenly realized that to her he was her daddy and could do no wrong. Just like what my two kids think of me. It bothered me immensely,” Libertini says.
Finding Healing through the Outdoors
Libertini discovered Heroes on the Water when he happened upon a business card with HOW’s website on it in a tackle box he had purchased from FishUSA. He was intrigued by HOW’s therapeutic mission to help local heroes, veterans, and law enforcement.
Because he has always taken his mental and emotional care seriously, he was eager to try different approaches with his healing. He encouraged a buddy from the force to go with him on his first HOW fishing trip.
“Fishing and kayaking did something for me that nothing else could do,” he says. It allowed him space to just be alone, adrift in a place free from crime, panic, or violence.
Libertini felt so much relief from this meditative time on the water, he continued to get involved with as many events as possible. He is now HOW’s Chapter Coordinator for the Western Connecticut chapter.
“It’s about being in the moment, just focusing on one thing, and enjoying the things around you,” Libertini says.
Teaching His Peers Inner Peace
Libertini is now a department training officer. The police officers he works with are very well-trained, and younger officers coming in are specifically taught mindfulness practices. There are even policies in place that emphasize police wellness, peer support, and help for officers in crisis.
He encourages his fellow officers to take care of their minds as much as their bodies, and he believes that any type of wellness therapy that can put a person back on track is valuable. For Libertini, that often happens in a kayak.
He encourages his fellow HOW members and officers to stay present in the moment, taking a pause when they can. As a police officer, he’s seen and experienced things that no one ever should, but his devoted practice of connecting with nature and prioritizing mental and emotional health serve as a reminder that anyone can heal and overcome their darkest traumas.
“Kayak fishing is a great way to decompress,” says Libertini. “We work with veterans, first responders and their families. Getting the families out is also important so we can provide a healing response for everyone.”
Visit Heroes on the Water, the Western Connecticut chapter, and see more Success Stories to learn more about our organization.