Provo police officers try to cope with loss of fallen brother while honoring his memory

The Provo community gathered together in remembrance of Joseph Shinners at a candlelight vigil in his honor on Jan. 9. (Claire Gentry)

See also “How does trauma affect police officers?”

Senior Patrol Officer Scott Nielsen was at home when he learned his friend and fellow officer at the Provo Police Department had been shot. He heard the sirens and looked at his phone — it was an alert informing him Officer Joseph William Shinners was in surgery fighting for his life. Nielsen immediately went back to the station and started taking calls.

Not long after arriving, Nielsen received a domestic violence call about a man who was shooting rounds off into a vehicle. He got into his patrol car and drove to respond to the incident like he would any other call, but something felt different this time.

“It was weird because I was pretty scared and I wasn’t used to that. I’d been on a lot of dangerous calls before and always thought that it will be fine, it works out, but man, it made it way more real,” Nielsen said.  “I didn’t like the way I felt when it was happening.”

The officers took the shooter into custody without any problems. Shinners succumbed to his injuries later that day, Jan. 5. He was 29.

A map depicting the distance between the Provo Police Department, the location where Officer Joseph Shinners was shot and the hospital where he later succumbed to his injuries. (Sahalie Donaldson)

It was “a tough deal,” Nielsen said.

The Provo Chief of Police had a psychiatrist come in and meet with the department in the weeks that followed. He gave the reeling officers his business card with his personal phone number and said to call any time, Nielsen recalled.

The psychiatrist’s visit wasn’t standard practice either. Nielsen said he thinks the chief thought it was important so he made sure help was available.

While the psychiatrist has helped, the impact of Shinners’ death is still casting shadows across the police department. Things have changed, Nielsen said.

“Our whole department has commented on how some calls feel different to us now, so I know it’s not just me. Other people are feeling it,” he explained. “Is that good or not? I mean I don’t know. It probably makes it safer, but it’s not healthy either.”

About Shinners’ murder, Officer Russ Billings said it is like losing a family member and that returning to the police department — the very place they used to see Shinners each day — is “raw emotion.”

“We see his picture up at the police department and we’ve worn what is called a mourning band — it’s a band with his badge number across our badges  — for a month after he was killed,” Billings said. “Yeah, it’s raw. It’s still fresh in everybody’s mind.”

There is even a star shaped sticker with Shinners’ number pasted across the back window of every car in the police department.

The entire department is trying to pick up the pieces left behind.

“You lose a friend, you lose a brother and you lose a coworker. It’s hard,” Billings said.

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