Police doc was along for more than ride

August 26, 2007 

In the mid-1970s, Phil Trompetter decided he needed a better understanding of what the police officers he knew experienced every day in the field.

At the time, Trompetter was a clinical psychologist for Stanislaus County's mental health department. The laws had changed. The center could take in only those deemed a danger to themselves or the public. The rules created a tension between the mental health staff and the cops because some people clearly in need of help could not be held for treatment. They were back out on the streets, where the police were left to deal with them.

"The relationship between law enforcement and mental health was horrible," he said. "So I decided to start riding patrol with our (sheriff's) deputies, to listen to their stories, and explaining to them what's happening."

That was the beginning of his 30-year career as the shrink to law enforcement officers in Stanislaus County, a ride that made him a key player in every major critical incident here during that time, including the shooting death of an 11-year-old during a law enforcement raid and the Peterson case.

It's a ride that is coming to an end because he sold the police psychology part of his practice and is retiring, or at least semiretiring.

Trompetter, 63, will maintain the forensic psychology element of his downtown Modesto practice, continuing to evaluate defendants and suspects while serving as an expert witness in the courts.

But he'll no longer work directly with police officers and sheriff's deputies -- evaluating them before they are hired and counseling them after crises -- even though he is a pioneer in the field of police psychology.

Jocelyn Roland, a highly respected psychologist from Los Angeles, moved to Modesto three years ago to take over Trompetter's police practice. That time overlap has enabled her to gain law enforcement's trust by working alongside a man who has been a fixture at most of the local departments for decades.

She will conduct the psychological profiles of potential new officers, and will conduct critical incident debriefings when officers are shot in the line of duty, involved in shootings or witness events that require consultation.

"What I hear, for the most part, is that people sort of feel a loss that Phil will be leaving, but are comfortable with me because he picked me," she said.

Hence, that trust issue, a trust built over decades as Trompetter developed a reputation of client confidentiality.

It's a fascinating profession because cops traditionally have been expected to put up walls and handle virtually anything without succumbing to their emotions, Trompetter said. That is an unreasonable expectation. In fact, his favorite cops are the most human ones, those able to admit their job can cause stress and emotional trauma and able to talk it out.

Riding with the cops, and particularly sheriff's deputies when he began doing so in the 1970s, Trompetter saw officers who knew how to relate to the people, how to talk with them.

"Beyond the toughness, those who are loving, nurturing and tender are the kind of people I admire most," he said.

He worked for the county from 1972 through 1988, maintaining a part-time private practice. In 1988, he went completely private, working with law enforcement as needed.

"He was a trendsetter in terms of police psychology," said Mike Harden, assistant chief of the Modesto Police Department.

Bob Guthrie, former MPD assistant chief, remembers how different things were before Trompetter began working with the department and before critical incident debriefings became mandatory. Cops were expected to deal with situations and simply move on.

He describes an early 1970s incident, when he was still a street cop and had to confront a suspect.

"I wrestled with this guy, the gun goes off and he dies," Guthrie said. "I go in to the watch commander, Ann Fullmer, and tell her what happened. I literally had his blood on my uniform. She said, 'Think you did everything right?' I said, 'Yeah, I think so.' "

Her response?

"She said, 'Then go back to work,' " Guthrie said.

Several years later, with Trompetter ingrained in the department, Guthrie took him along to help with a hostage crisis.

"It was great having a psychologist there feeding you things," Guthrie said, "keeping me on a path that ultimately worked out well. Afterward, I told him, 'Phil, you need to start wearing a (bulletproof) vest.' I gave him mine."

Trompetter found that he, too, became affected by the same kinds of things that affected the officers he counseled. One such instance was the Jerome Martin case, in 1989, when a 3-year-old boy was tortured to death by his mom's lover. The boy was buried in a shallow grave.

"I remember (investigator) Linda Weidman showing me a picture of the grave where (they) put Jerome," Trompetter said. "That penetrated me more than anything. It paralleled what the cops always said about children (how those crimes affected them). And I wasn't at the excavation. I was just looking at the pictures."

Trompetter's effectiveness in working with officers compelled the county's law enforcement agencies to mandate debriefings after any critical incident.

Kevin Bertalotto, a former Modesto police officer who is now a district attorney's investigator, talked with Trompetter after being shot at in the late 1980s and after he was shot during a jewelry store robbery in January 2000. Bertalotto had helped make such sessions mandatory as an officer in the police union and valued Trompetter's expertise.

"He's been a positive piece of the law enforcement community as long as I've been here," said Bertalotto, who joined the force in 1986. "And every one of those cases is educational for him, too. He's giving something to us, but he's also getting something out of it."

Trompetter counseled officers who mourned the loss of Ceres Police Sgt. Howie Stevenson, killed in the line of duty in January 2005.

"It was hard being exposed to so many officers who were so shaken and so aggrieved by Howie's loss," Trompetter said.

In each case, he explained to them what they might soon endure -- sleeplessness, nightmares and host of other symptoms. They needed to know these are normal and that he was there if they needed to talk.

Modesto police Lt. Dave Sundy, a longtime SWAT team member, appreciated Trompetter's help in 2000, when Alberto Sepulveda, 11, was shot to death during a raid gone bad.

"To have a tragedy like that -- it's not something you could really be prepared for," Sundy said. "It was a life-altering experience for me. (Afterward) while I was functioning and thought I was fine, other officers and my wife didn't. Ultimately, I went to Doc to touch bases, to make sure I was feeling how a human being should feel."

The officers, in turn, knew that whatever they told him stayed with him.

"Phil was a strict- confidentiality kind of psychologist," former Stanislaus County Sheriff Les Weidman said. "He would give us the information necessary (in fitness evaluations), but he wouldn't go into details. The officers trusted him."

During the investigation in the Peterson case, Trompetter helped investigators as they focused on Scott Peterson as the prime suspect.

"(Lead detective) Craig Grogan finally came to me and said, 'He (Peterson) is lying to us about everything. He's lying about stuff he doesn't need to lie about.' They couldn't understand him being so nonchalant."

So Trompetter offered training on narcissistic personality disorder.

"The training helped them understand some of Scott's behavior," he said.

And perhaps the greatest testament is that he, on many occasions, has testified for the defense -- against law enforcement -- and has never lost his credibility nor damaged his relationship with the police.

"We all know Phil's going to do what's right," Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said.

Saturday night, he was honored by law enforcement officials at a dinner in Ceres -- one last ride-along in a career built on them.

To comment, click on the link with this column at www.modbee.com. Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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