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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Streetwise Psychologist Helps the Police Cope With Their Job Horrors, and He Has Learned to Work Out His Own Problems : Arresting Cop Stress

July 03, 1994|GEOFF BOUCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The veteran cops were squirming in their seats even before their coffee got cold. To the group of mostly 20-year sergeants and lieutenants, the early-morning seminar on officer trauma sounded about as appealing as paperwork. Better to work out stress at a firing range or corner bar than with some touchy-feely shrink.

But the speaker didn't look like a psychologist, not with his drill-sergeant scowl and broad shoulders. And he didn't sound like one, either.

"I'm not a cop," Larry Blum began, his New York accent barbed with attitude. "I never wanted to be a cop. I couldn't tell you about police tactics, either. But I am gonna tell you why you guys die out there."

Welcome to the in-your-face world of Dr. Deadlift, cop shrink. Maybe it's because he grew up as a street kid in the bloody-nose Bronx, or because he practices triage psychology at crime scenes and emergency rooms, but Blum loves to get in that first punch.

Santa Ana Police Lt. Felix Osuna was in the audience that day. "I was sitting there thinking, 'This guy's a jerk.' About 30 cops were ready to get up and walk out, me included. But by the end of that day, I was a believer. Larry knows what he's talking about."

Blum, who earned the Deadlift nickname because of his avid weightlifting, has believers in police stations across Southern California. They talk about his clinical successes, of course, but they speak just as much about his earnestness, his fierce loyalty and streetwise candor. Most of all, they know he carries the same burdens they do.

"I feel very protective of all of them," Blum, 49, says while holding one of the police caps that line the shelves of his Santa Ana office. The hats, and the scores of agency patches that surround them, were left as thank-you gifts by former clients. "I've stood over them in hospitals, I've stood over their bodies, and held up their widows and partners."

Blum looks up and smiles broadly. "I call all of them my babies."

His "babies" bring in a parade of horror stories. Officers with trembling hands and shot nerves tell the big man about the mayhem and murders, the lost partners and innocent bystanders, and all of the daily adrenalin rushes served with a side of stress.

Blum shows them how to cope with their anxieties and, at the same time, tries not to carry their weighty problems home with him. Often, that's not easy.

"When I started doing this work I was a very sensitive, emotional person filled with love of life," he says. "With the first five years of my practice, and all the call-outs for shooting and violence, I started losing my value of life. I became numb, hardened. Some of my close friends still accuse me of cynicism. But I have never lost my humanism. I still love good people."

The Long Beach resident's 12-year-old practice has a client list that has swelled to 15 agencies, most in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Speaking engagements and requests to appear as an expert witness in assorted trials vie for his time these days. He recently testified on behalf of Sgt. Stacey C. Koon in the Rodney King civil trial.

Despite the other projects, he still spends most of his time doing what matters most to him: talking one-on-one with troubled officers.

He finds it easy to communicate with street cops, especially ones who patrol dangerous turf. A lot of that can be traced to his childhood, when he ran with the tough kids in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood in New York. His father was a salesman with a drinking problem that strained the household and led to his parents' divorce when Blum was 14, leaving the boy with little supervision.

Blum says he still remembers the world view his father drummed into his head as a youngster: "Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't take crap from anybody. That's who I am. It probably helps me with the rank-and-file cops. They like the rough edges. But it's not something I picked up at a university."

Nor did Blum forget that street education when he picked up his doctorate in psychology at the University of Michigan. Riverside psychologist Nancy Bohl, who also works exclusively with cops, says the two markedly different influences make Blum an attractive confidant to officers. "They trust him, they like him, and he can help them," she says.

*

Any bridge helps. Although officers are far more open to counseling and discussing their feelings than they were a generation ago, Blum says, there are still codes of silence that come with the badge. Many prefer to swallow pain rather than show it. "It doesn't just gnaw at them, it rigidifies, it locks up inside them."

One of his former clients, for example, arrived at a domestic dispute to find an infant who had been shot point-blank in the head. The shooter, a boyfriend of the child's mother, had committed suicide after the heinous crime, and the officer walked away horrified by the sight and burned by his own helplessness. He told himself to shake it off and keep going. But it wasn't that easy.

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