Chris Cornwell was an active police officer who loved helping people and serving the community. He and three other officers were awarded the city of Dayton’s highest honor for rescuing a woman and two children from a burning apartment in 2005.
“It was one of the best feelings in the world,” said Cornwell. “We were given the medal of valor by the City of Dayton.”
But after he was involved in his second deadly shooting and had to answer an attorney’s questions during a deposition, he went home to his wife and kids.
“I looked at my wife and I looked at my kids and I then I told my wife, ‘I don't think I can do this job anymore.’”
Cornwell took News Center 7’s Cheryl McHenry back to the scene of his first deadly encounter — an apartment building at 104 Central Ave.
He was a 27-year-old rookie police officer — on the job just seven months — when he knocked on a drug dealer's door.
“And he's probably about 18 inches away from me and he shoots me and the bullet hits me right here in the chest,” Cornwell said.
He radioed for help, and then looked into the dimly-lit apartment.
>> RELATED: When police fire: Officer-involved shootings
Cornwell saw a man with his hand in his pocked twisting toward him and quickly reacted.
“I fired my weapon at him twice thinking it was the same person that shot me.”
He later learned the man he shot — Harold Wells, who later died — was not the man who had just shot him.
That man jumped out a third floor window, aiming for a dumpster below.
He missed, was quickly captured and went to prison for nearly a decade.
Officer Cornwell’s bulletproof vest had saved his life, but he could not escape the mental trauma.
“I started having flashbacks, nightmares, when I went back to work I had a heightened sense of my surroundings too, more so than when I did before,” he said.
Five years later, Cornwell and other officers got out of their cruisers to chase a robbery suspect, Larry Labensky, through backyards in a Dayton neighborhood.
Cornwell approached the driver’s window when Labensky was stopped by a concrete barrier and started putting his car in reverse with other officers running up right behind him.
“I'm yelling at him, ‘You better stop or you're gonna get shot,’” Cornwell said. “He doesn't comply with me at all. He puts the car in reverse. Unfortunately, I had to shoot him to stop him.”
Cornwell was cleared of wrongdoing in both fatal shootings, but still paid an invisible, repeated price.
“All these things go through your mind, you play this stuff over multiple times a day in your head. I mean and it just doesn't go away.”
Fairborn Police Sgt. Bill Titley is a veteran firearms instructor.
“We carry firearms to defend ourselves and other people that are in danger of being seriously hurt or killed,” he said.”
Titley was the SWAT team sniper on a 2016 standoff involving an armed robbery suspect, who was standing in what appeared to be a two-handed firing stance.
“And then he turned around and actually pointed what he had in his hands, which was a gun,” he said. “Once he turned around I could tell; right at two officers who were in the front yard.”
Titley made the split second decision to shoot the man, who died.
Even though he believed he’d acted properly, and a grand jury later cleared him, he also found himself replaying his actions.
“Where I was worried, gosh, maybe the public, maybe my agency, maybe the team, and maybe the public aren't going to see it the way I did,” he said.
Centerville psychologist, Dr. Kathy Platoni, counsels officers within hours of a shooting, including the officers who killed the Oregon District mass shooter.
“Deadly force encounters really exact an enormous toll on officers,” said Platoni.
She said officers initially experience an onslaught of physical symptoms.
“Profuse sweating, headaches, nausea, vomiting, feeling faint.”
She said the psychological stress after a shooting can last much longer.
“The despair, the shock, the sadness, the grief, the guilt and self-blame.”
Dr. Platoni has seen firsthand how having officers talk about the experience is powerful therapy.
“Just walking through the entire event as many times as they need to because the more you talk about it, the less power it has to affect you, which diminishes its power the more you let go of it. It's kind of a download,” she said.”
Police departments know they cannot keep officers from having to fire their weapons. What they can do is give officers the skills to cope with stressful events before they happen.
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl thumped his chest with his hand rapidly for a few seconds, recalling what he felt as a young officer responding to a call of a person with a gun.
“That's what was happening on the inside.”
He knew he wouldn't last a full career if he didn't learn to control his breathing and awareness, so he turned to yoga — a practice he now shares with the department’s recruits to help them prepare for potentially lethal situations.
“It's so important for public safety personnel, not just police, to have these skills, before the crisis occurs,” he said.
Sgt. Titley returned to work after his fatal shooting. He is now recovering from a suspect shooting him in the arm last spring.
As for Chris Cornwell, he said he made one of the hardest choices he’s ever made and decided to quit the job he loved.
“I was just afraid that if I got into another situation where I had to use deadly force that I don’t think I could do it again,” he said.
Today his bullet-dented vest hangs in the Dayton Police Academy as a stark warning to other officers of what can happen. He and Titley hope telling their stories helps people realize that any officer, shot or not, who has to fire their weapon does not walk away unscathed.
As Chief Biehl put it, “They have to be prepared for that, but then you have to be able to live with the consequence of that enormously weighty decision.”