Pittsburgh police officer Bristow takes steps to normalcy after enduring on-the-job injury
Pittsburgh Police Officer Colleen Bristow runs with her daughter, Laurel, 12, after her track meet Thursday in Schenley Park. Officer Bristow was injured in an on-the-job incident on the North Side in September 2010. Until recently, running was made impossible by her injuries.
Officer Bristow takes aim at Anthony Arms in West Mifflin.
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Colleen Bristow gripped her police-issued Glock .40 and fixed her gaze on the paper target, a man's silhouette, hanging 50 yards before her under the dim light of the gun range.
She assumed a shooter's stance, arms outstretched, and tried to quiet the questions that flooded her mind.
Officer Bristow, 30, is a Pittsburgh police officer, but on this day she felt less like one. The last time she wore a uniform, more than two years ago, a fleeing robbery suspect knocked her senseless with his getaway car. The blow not only damaged her body, it upended her life, took her off the streets and left her clawing her way back to normalcy.
On an afternoon in late September, she was back at a West Mifflin gun range, where she would fire the weapon for the first time since that struggle on a North Side street.
With the help of doctors, friends and colleagues, she has been determined to return to patrol, knowing that one of the biggest mental barriers to surmount in her recovery would be firing the gun again.
She was nervous.
Until now, every time she had set out for the gun range she had found an excuse not to go. But she was there, with her brown ponytail tamped down by ear muffs and sweat.
What if she couldn't shoot straight? What if it no longer felt natural? What if it made her feel different about the job that had always been a perfect fit?
She squeezed the trigger.
More than 200 of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau's roughly 890 officers are injured every year, the majority of whom require some kind of medical treatment. The year Officer Bristow was hurt, so were 253 others. Many are left visibly scarred, but Officer Bristow's deepest wounds are unseen -- she has seizures, migraines, balance problems, depression and anxiety.
"I feel like something has been taken away from me," she said. "I feel like I'll have my life back when I go back. ... That's all that was going through my mind. If you get back to work, you get back to life."
The last time Officer Bristow suited up for work -- gun, badge, baton -- it was a Wednesday: Sept. 15, 2010. She got her daughter, Laurel, then 10, ready school and reported to her home base, the Zone 1 station on the North Side. Then 28 and with a little more than three years on the job, she was known by her supervisors as a hard worker; she had earned departmental accolades the year before for having the most gun arrests of any female cop on the force.
She was typing a report about 11 a.m. when a call crackled over the radio: robbery in progress at The Swap Meet, a ragtag indoor flea market on Brighton Road, just three blocks from the police station. Officer Bristow was among the first out the door.
She got out of her cruiser and gave chase to three men as they escaped from the low-slung building. Officer Bristow tore after the largest of the bunch, Aaron Farrow, who, at 24, was three inches taller and outweighed her by nearly 200 pounds. She caught up with him on Riversea Road, an alley near the store, where he had managed to get into a gold van.
The door was open, and Officer Bristow stood inside it, ordering him out -- to no avail.
Her memory of the event ranges from foggy to nonexistent, but she has been able to piece it together by studying her colleagues' reports. She tried to pull Mr. Farrow from the driver's seat as he moved his arms and screamed "I didn't do anything! I didn't do anything wrong!"
Other officers with guns drawn were closing in on the driver's side door. One of them, Christine Bradley, said she could see Mr. Farrow start the van and floor it backwards.
The last thing Officer Bristow remembers is watching his hand work the gear shift.
She tried to get out of the way, but was stuck in the open door. She flailed out of control as the van drove backward, so fast she couldn't escape.
The open door knocked her to the ground, so hard that her colleagues believed she was dead. Her left leg was somehow pinned in the door, and the van dragged her 20 feet.
Officer Bradley rushed toward her tangled, motionless body.
"He's coming back! You've got to get up," she yelled.
But Officer Bristow didn't move.
Officer Bradley stood in front of her. As the van bore down, she and other officers opened fire.
Bullets shattered the windshield, narrowly missing Mr. Farrow, who then crashed into a police cruiser. Officers converged on him, broke the driver's side window, stunned him with a Taser and pulled him through broken glass and onto the street, where they struggled to cuff him.
Mr. Farrow would be one of seven men charged federally with marijuana distribution, robbery and weapons offenses stemming from the heist, which unearthed a drug packaging operation inside the since-shuttered building.
Their cases are still pending.
Officer Bristow didn't know the extent of her injuries then, as paramedics loaded her into an ambulance. Her immediate troubles -- a skull fracture, bleeding on the brain, a shattered elbow, broken bones in her face and ear -- emerged as she lay confused in a bed at UPMC Mercy, where she shunned visitors in her disoriented state.
She remembers little more than cursing at fellow officers and her own family, her rattled mind unable to make sense of what had happened.
In a cast and sling, Officer Bristow signed herself out of the hospital after three days, determined to be near Laurel. At home, fellow officers poured in and out with flowers, meals and cookies.
"She was not in her right mind by any stretch of the imagination," said her sister Heather Bristow, 38, a police detective in the city's Office of Municipal Investigations.
A tough cop with a tough-love approach, she fought her emotions as she watched her wounded sister struggle with balance and memory loss and later traumatic seizures, migraines, depression and anxiety that seemed to worsen as she languished at home.
Every day revealed a new problem, every week a different diagnosis.
"One day she was getting up and fell onto the floor into seizures," said her mother, Shirley Bristow. "She would be wobbling like a baby deer. Her legs would be intertwined."
The 28-year-old who relished hiking and basketball was hobbling around department stores with a cane.
Heather was the one who urged her sister to apply for the job when Colleen was studying biology at Carlow University. Watching her older sister shine on the force and feeling her own desire for civic duty, she thought police work would be a good fit.
"I had extremely guilty feelings when she was hurt because I felt like I encouraged her to get on the job, and had I not done so, she wouldn't be hurt," Detective Bristow said.
But she could neither wallow nor watch her sister do the same. She reminded her that her worth was about more than her job. There was Laurel. She, too was frightened by her mother's injuries, which had become the subject of schoolyard gossip.
"I felt it was necessary immediately for Laurel to be made aware of how extreme the issues were and to protect her from that," Heather said.
But there were some problems Laurel could not escape.
Her mother's crippling seizures rendered her unable to do the routine tasks they shared.
"I was worried if I was by myself when it happened that I wouldn't know what to do," said Laurel, now 12. "She was brave through this, and I had to be brave with her."
While she once helped Laurel with her homework, Officer Bristow in the months that followed struggled to read and write.
She took a sip from a Slurpee and realized she couldn't taste it. Hearing became harder, too. She had trouble recalling things; her memory became as short as her temper. And on the worst days, she found little reason to get out of bed.
At night, she would lie awake, anxious. She replayed the struggle over and over in her mind and wondered: Could it have been different? Why couldn't she remember? Would she ever return to work?
"As a female police officer, you don't want to feel weak. I feel like I shouldn't be depressed. I feel like I shouldn't have anxiety. But I do," she said. "You feel like you should have those types of emotions on this job, but you do. It's a lot different being the victim."
Officer Bristow sometimes felt alone. But there was someone else who shared her anguish and uncertainty.
"It's probably one of the most defining moments of your life to be in a critical incident like that," said Officer Janine Triolo, 31, who was badly beaten by an armed robber in Shadyside before fatally shooting him in February 2010. She suffered a shattered eye socket, broken hand, a broken nose and a concussion in the fight and was off the job for more than a year.
She knew Officer Bristow from a rotation they shared in the city's aggressive and now-defunct Street Response Unit.
But in their time off the job they became almost inseparable, shopping and grabbing lunch and more recently walking the track together. Officer Triolo was among the first people to visit Officer Bristow after she came home from the hospital.
"We were kind of like each other's crutch. To have someone who understands is priceless," Officer Triolo said. "The roughest part is, you work with all these people, you get to know them very well and you could pick up the phone and call them for anything. But then the longer time you go and you're removed from that, you lose a lot of those close bonds and relationships. People forget about you, and that's fine, but it's nice to have a few good friends who remember you and will pick up the phone and call you.
"She didn't forget about me, and I didn't forget about her."
Officer Bristow has come a long way from the broken person she was two years ago. But challenges still lie ahead before she can return to police work. She has been seizure-free for five months. After a sixth, her doctor will clear her to drive again. She must remain on anti-seizure medication for the rest of her life, but her doctor is working to wean her off others.
"I wouldn't come back if I felt like I was going to hurt myself or the public," she said. "I wouldn't come back if I wasn't 100 percent certain I could do it."
Her doctor will have to clear her to return to patrol, as will a city physician. She will have to go through the city's police academy to make up missed training, requalify to use her firearm and reacquaint herself with the law.
"When Officer Bristow worked for me, she demonstrated herself to be a dedicated and proactive police officer," said Lt. Christopher Ragland, who supervised her when she worked overnight in Zone 1. "If she can get healthy and cleared to come back to work, she would be a welcome addition to the department."
Some wounded officers first return to "modified duties" like desk jobs, but that doesn't suit Officer Bristow. She wants to go back to the streets.
"Some people are very anxious to get back to work, they don't enjoy being off, and they'd like to come back in any capacity," Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said. "Other people would rather return to full capacity. That's always the goal. Going back to work correlates to getting well."
Laurel said she's more fearful for her mother's safety now that she has been hurt once. Shirley Bristow, too, has urged her daughter to consider another line of work.
But Heather Bristow knows the draw of the force and that her sister won't be deterred.
Can she do it?
"I'm not sure until she does it," Heather said. "You just have to jump back in and do it."
Officer Bristow has been trying to follow that advice. Running laps on the track alongside Laurel was one step. Now she was at the range, with her gun in her hands. She squeezed the trigger.
Shell casings spit from her gun, whizzing around her.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The bullets hit the target in the chest. She continued to fire, again and again and again.
"It feels fantastic! It really does," she yelled after clamor from the first rounds quieted. "I loved it just as much as I did before. I am excited about that."
On this day, Colleen Bristow took one more step to becoming Officer Bristow once again.
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am