Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Police crisis counselor recalls first-hand trauma of San Bernardino attack

by Julian Burrell and Alex Cohen | Take Two®

Police at the command center in San Bernardino the day after an attack at a center for the developmentally disabled left 14 dead and 17 injured. Maya Sugarman/ KPCC

On December 2, 2015 Angelika Robinson, a psychologist who specializes in counseling first responders, like the police, was working at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino.

She was there when shooting broke out. Husband and wife, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, armed with high-powered rifles, opened fire at a holiday party. Fourteen People died and 22 were seriously wounded. Robinson herself was unharmed but she found that in the day and months after ward, she had her work cut out for her. 

Robinson connects deeply with that work  - helping law enforcement officers work through their emotions after critical incidents. "What I feel very strongly about is being able to help those who show up for us. Who show up for the general public and who put themselves in danger," Robinson tells Take Two's Alex Cohen. "Who's there for them? Who watches out for them? Who makes sure that they're able to stay intact and that they're able to live a healthy life."

Robinson has worked with first responders for years, and has helped guide law enforcement through the process of dealing with grief after trauma. "The first thing really that we focus on is identifying what those reactions are that they've had after a critical incident," she says. "It's very important, it's very crucial for first responders to know that whatever the reactions are that they're having that they're normal."

But after the San Bernardino shooting, she had her own trauma to deal with. 

The day of the San Bernardino terror attack

On December 2nd, 2015, Angelika Robinson was conducting some routine mental health assessments when she first heard gun shots. 

"I then walked down the hallway to the glass doors that faced the other building and saw people running towards me," Robinson recalls. "As they burst through they yelled they're shooting everywhere, they're shooting everywhere. Some of them, their clothes were blood stained. At that point the alarm went off and we were told there's an active shooter and we were instructed to hide in an inside office in our building ... until police would allow us to come out."

It was a difficult situation. But as a mental health professional, Robinson was prepared.

She remained in the room with others, some of who were directly in the middle of the shooting. Robinson noticed one woman who was particularly distraught.

"I went over to her and I just kept thinking, I need to distract her. I need her to focus on something else. Not just for her sake, but because we were in a room with about 30 other people and I wanted to make sure the room didn't escalate into a panic," Robinson says. "I asked her to get out her phone and show me pictures on her phone and she told me about her son and we talked about her dogs."

It worked. Helping her fellow survivor also put her own mind at ease. "It was helpful because I realized that I was able to do something, Robinson says, "I couldn't get out of the room and do something. So it was helpful to me because it gave me a purpose."

The difficulty of returning to her work

Robinson too was struggling with the emotions she was feeling. She had difficulty sleeping, tearfulness and survivor's guilt. She'd eventually work through them with the help of family and colleagues. But there was one sensation that she didn't expect to feel: Shame.

"Because I was in some way involved in this event I couldn't provide services and I couldn't work with the first responders afterwards," Robinson says. "That was the most difficult part for me because I didn't understand what my role was. I felt benched and I felt sidelined and I felt in a sense like I'd betrayed those individuals that I promised to help."

But eventually Robinson was able to get back to work. She says that because of everything she's gone through, she believes that working with first responders in her field feels more meaningful than ever.

"In a strange way I feel better equipped and I feel even more comfortable because there is that underlying understanding of what it's like."

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