Officer who suffered PTSD after Pulse massacre granted retirement, pension

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Tess Sheets
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO — Police pension board members voted unanimously Thursday to grant disability retirement and a lifelong pension to Orlando police Officer Alison Clarke, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder following the Pulse massacre.

Clarke cried as she embraced her wife and friends after the hearing. Clarke’s wife, fellow OPD officer Kate Graumann, let out a deep breath as tears welled in her eyes after the vote.

“Now I feel like I’ve come to a conclusion and I can start moving on with the next chapter of my life,” Clarke said after the hearing.

Clarke was nearly fired from OPD in November as she awaited the pension board’s decision, because her application had been pending for 180 days, the time limit set by the agency’s union contract for officers to either win their pension or face termination.

But during a Nov. 8 meeting, Clarke was offered the option to take unpaid leave, which she chose. The firing wouldn’t have had an impact on her retirement application, but Clarke said she didn’t want to leave the agency that way.

“I’ve given everything that I can give to this department and I didn’t want to go out with anything less than a retirement," she said.

She stopped receiving pay after Nov. 23, she said. The decision Thursday, which assures Clarke 80 percent of her salary for the rest of her life, also grants her back-pay to Dec. 1.

OPD’s attorney, David Margolis, said during the hearing he “agreed with virtually everything” Clarke’s pension attorney said in opening statements: Clarke had been involved in multiple traumatic events as a cop, which had a cumulative effect that led doctors to declare her “psychiatrically disabled.”

He called the case “complicated factually,” however, because Clarke’s condition wasn’t triggered by just one event, and she continued working for more than a year after the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, the event for which she initially sought psychiatric help.

Clarke’s attorney, Marcella Bouchard, said Clarke had trouble sleeping after Pulse and began experiencing irritability, anger, hypervigilance and anxiety. Clarke watched multiple victims perish at Pulse June 12, 2016, and worked a shift at a hospital the next day, Bouchard said.

She went to counseling for her symptoms and continued working.

But her condition worsened after the January 2017 death of OPD Lt. Debra Clayton, who was shot and killed outside of a Walmart near College Park, Bouchard said. Clarke responded to the scene, where she “witnessed her colleague and friend mortally wounded,” Bouchard said.

In a psychiatric evaluation of Clarke completed Nov. 20, a doctor described Clarke’s mental condition as having been “significantly exacerbated” after Clayton’s death.

“In Ms. Clarke’s first high-stress confrontational call following the death of Lt. Clayton, she had a severe stress reaction with prolonged panic attack,” the doctor wrote.

The doctor concluded that Clarke’s PTSD “was caused and compounded by repeat exposure to traumatic events” and that she was “totally and permanently disabled from serving in any first responder capacity.”

Before the unanimous vote Thursday, board member and OPD Detective Michael Fields questioned why Clarke attended a homicide conference while seeking treatment for PTSD symptoms.

Clarke choked up while answering, something she said later was indicative of her mental state.

“I went somewhere to be part of being a police officer again," she responded. “I made sure I was outside of the conference, interacting with other people who were also police officers, so I could feel a part of something.”

After the meeting, Clarke said her cool demeanor in stressful situations used to be something she took pride in and believed made her a better police officer. Now, her emotions “go from zero to 100, quickly,” she said.

“That’s not there anymore, so that’s why I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to the road,” she said.