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Decorated police officer shares story of life-threatening encounter

Officer’s story part of College’s Police Psychology Seminar

(L to R) Vincent Van Hasselt, Ph.D., Officer Mario Gutierrez, William Hladky, retired Miami-Dade homicide detective.

Faced with the prospect of death, Officer Mario Gutierrez of the Miami-Dade Police Department credited thoughts of his family with saving his life. As a result of his heroics, Gutierrez was one of 13 law enforcement officers who was recently recognized at the White House by President Obama, where he received a Public Safety Medal of Valor.

Gutierrez shared the story of his life-threatening encounter with a suspect during a guest presentation at the College of Psychology’s (COP) Police Psychology Seminar, hosted by COP professor Vincent Van Hasselt, Ph.D.

Gutierrez was on patrol near the Miami International Airport when he spotted a 51-year-old homeless man lighting a gas station’s underground gas tank. Gutierrez sprang into action to activate the emergency shut off valve, confronted the suspect and was attacked with a knife and screwdriver.

“That’s when I remembered my family, and that he was going to kill me and I was never going to see them again,” said Gutierrez, a 24-year veteran of the department. “I got really angry.”

“Good anger helps you survive,” said guest speaker William Hladky, a retired Miami-Dade homicide detective.

Gutierrez suffered multiple stab wounds from the two weapons and a deep bite on his thumb. After a two-month recovery period, Gutierrez returned to duty and still patrols the same area. During his recovery, Gutierrez said he was open about communicating with his family and a police psychologist regarding his emotional state. That course of action can be uncommon among officers, according to Van Hasselt.

“Officers may be reluctant to come forward and seek help because of the stigma attached to that and the fear of being perceived as weak,” he said.

The smarter choice, Van Hasselt said, is to seek help earlier to prevent problems from developing later. With an increased focus on mental health in the military, Van Hasselt said that conversation is now broadening to include law enforcement. The issue particularly overlaps when returning veterans enter law enforcement after leaving the military.

Van Hasselt’s summer course regularly features guest speakers like Gutierrez who have experienced an unusual encounter or survived a dangerous situation and have insight to share. The guest lectures target Forensic Psychology students who may in the future work as police psychologists.

“It helps show that psychology has much to offer to law enforcement,” he said.