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-smart 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 enthusiasm for weightlifting, has believers across Southern California. They talk about his clinical successes, of course, but also about his earnestness, his fierce loyalty and streetwise candor. Most important, 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 scores of agency patches, are thank-you gifts from 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 of the adrenaline rushes served with a side of stress.
Blum helps them cope with their anxieties and, at the same time, tries not to carry their weighty problems home. 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."
Blum's 12-year-old practice includes a client list of 15 agencies, most in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Speaking engagements and appearances as an expert witness at assorted trials vie for his time these days. He recently testified on behalf of Sgt. Stacey C. Koon in the Rodney King civil trial.
Still, the Long Beach resident 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, particularly those who patrol dangerous turf. That can be traced in part to his childhood, when he ran with the tough kids in a New York Jewish-Italian neighborhood. His parents divorced when Blum was 14, leaving the teen-ager with little supervision.
Blum remembers the world view his father drummed into his head: "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."
And Blum did not 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 his 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 in the past, Blum says, a code of silence still comes with the badge. Many would rather swallow pain than show it. "It doesn't just gnaw at them, it rigidifies, it locks up inside them," Blum says.
One of his former clients, for example, responded to a domestic dispute call to find an infant shot point-blank in the head. The shooter, a boyfriend of the child's mother, had committed suicide, 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.
"Every time this guy looked at his own baby son in the crib at home, he got sick; he would vomit," Blum says. "He couldn't do away with that image. Until he talked about it and got OK with what he felt. Until he did that, he wasn't gonna be able to enjoy his own kid."