A former officer whose marijuana addiction and criminal activities led to his dismissal from the Toronto Police Service says more support is needed for officers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jim Vaughan-Evans, 48, moved to Carbonear five years ago in order a start a new life.
However, he’s still dealing with the demons of his past, including his close involvement with two horrendous child death investigations in the early 1990s.
The suicide earlier this month of Ron Francis, an RCMP officer on medical leave in New Brunswick, shook Vaughan-Evans to the core, and brought his own struggles with PTSD screaming to the forefront once again.
“I had been exactly in his same shoes, and it’s only by the grace of God that I’m here today,” said Vaughan-Evans, who left Ontario for Newfoundland and Labrador, where his father was born.
Francis, 43, was found dead Oct. 6 after a very public struggle with PTSD. The 21-year veteran made national headlines for his stand on smoking medicinal marijuana while in uniform.
Vaughan-Evans, who was diagnosed with PTSD more than two decades ago, took his death personally.
“The Ron Francis that passed away was me. He was me,” Vaughan-Evans told CBC News.
Vaughan-Evans followed Francis’s troubling story with great interest, since there were many parallels to his own difficult past.
“We both were very proud of the work we were doing, and we both got sick as a result of that work.”
And they both ran afoul of their superiors, who felt their behaviour was damaging the reputation of the police fraternity.
Media images of Francis turning in his famous “red serge” Mountie’s uniform captivated the nation.
His death brought an end to a troubled life, but Vaughan-Evans wants to make sure it’s not the end of the story.
He decided to speak out, hoping society will get the message that emergency responders diagnosed with PTSD should get the help and support they need and deserve.
'We make bad decisions when we’re sick. I live with the fact that I made those bad decisions.' - Jim Vaughan-Evans
Vaughan-Evans said that didn’t happen in his case, and he’s certain more could have been done to save Francis.
“Instead of finding ways to get rid of them, I think there is a much healthier path to try and help that person. Even to help them transfer out of that profession. To make an easy exit,” he said.
To explain why Vaughan-Evans turned to marijuana and criminal activity, you have to understand how he was feeling when the symptoms of PTSD started causing havoc in his life.
“You know that things aren’t right. You know you’re troubled. You have trouble sleeping. You become short and irritable with the people you love. You start distancing yourself. You have nightmares. You don’t know what’s happening with your life,” he explained.
“Along with that you start to revisit what you experienced; the image, the event, whatever it may be, over and over and over again”
Vaughan-Evans said it was the circumstances of the two child murders, along with constant flashbacks of homicide and sudden death victims, that ravaged his emotional well-being.
As a teenager, Vaughan-Evans was a regular user of marijuana, and again turned to this illegal substance in order to find relief.
“I would do anything in this world to make (the flashbacks) stop, and I did,” he said.
His habit became so addictive that he once stole cheques from his fellow officers — he later paid them back as part of a restitution order — in order to pay for his habit.
On another occasion, he was observed rolling a marijuana cigarette in his car by another officer.
“We make bad decisions when we’re sick,” he said. “I live with the fact that I made those bad decisions.”
Prior to his affliction with PTSD, Vaughan-Evans said he lived a “moral life” and was raised by “great parents.”
Stealing from his colleagues, the men and women he put his life on the line with every day, was as low as it got for Vaughan-Evans.
He spent many years going through the court system and appearing before disciplinary panels, and pleaded guilty at every step along the way, hoping for the help he needed.
He tried to take responsibility for his actions, but said his PTSD symptoms and marijuana addiction were overpowering.
He was required to take treatment programs, but they never worked.
According to one report, he deceived physicians, caregivers, his fellow officers and his wife.
He received lengthy suspensions, was demoted, had two criminal convictions and, eventually, was fired in 2008 after 22 years as a police officer.
Vaughan-Evans feels his employer went to great lengths to force him out, instead of offering the help he needed.
“What is being addressed ... are your actions. What isn’t being addressed are the reasons for those actions,” he said.
'I live a very happy life here today. That’s not to say I’m all better, but I’ve come through so much.' - Jim Vaughan-Evans
Vaughan-Evans said his claim for workers’ compensation benefits were vigorously fought by the police department, even after his PTSD was confirmed by “many doctors.”
He was eventually deemed to have a permanent injury, and received compensation.
Best of intentions
Vaughan-Evans said it’s obvious he wasn’t cut out to be a police officer.
That’s despite the fact he underwent an exhaustive screening during the hiring process.
“That’s a decision I made when I was 19 years-old with the best of intentions ... over time it just took its toll on me.”
By exposing so much of his personal life, Vaughan-Evans risks being negatively perceived by those in his adopted community.
But he’s surrounded by “great friends,” feels a “deep connection” to this province, and wants to emphasize there is hope for PTSD sufferers.
“I live a very happy life here today,” he said. “That’s not to say I’m all better, but I’ve come through so much.”
He hopes his story will help in some way, and added: “I’m doing this because of Ron Francis.”