Trauma | The Wounds Left on Officers We Don’t See
In the past several years the topic of officer suicide has crept into the public lexicon, and is starting to be treated as a serious topic that needs to be addressed. The problem is being addressed at literally the lowest possible starting point: statistics on officer suicide are massively skewed, as few agencies track officer suicide, there is no national database for data, and mental health resources are scattered outside of pre-hire processing in law enforcement. We’d like to talk about an extremely sensitive topic, one that we are passionate about at CaseGuard.
We Have A Problem
While numbers are still considered inaccurate, it is being reported by several news sources that twice as many officers commit suicide then there are killed in the line of duty. At CaseGuard, we take line of duty deaths as a personal crusade where we intend to push awareness to higher levels in an effort of reducing the dangers police face on the job through sharing information. But we’ve not previously discussed this topic, which we are equally passionate and disturbed by. We have seen over time that departments have cited alcohol abuse, toxic marriages/relationships, and financial constraints as the lead causes of officer suicide. But as more research is conducted, it becomes clear that these things are actual symptoms of deeper issues occurring in an officer’s professional life. While strong arguments can be made about the effects of a toxic marriage, much of what is being discovered is that the nature of the problem revolves around PTSD, and fractured relationships with police administration and line personnel.
What is The Solution?
No one can say they have a solution that solves the problem in its entirety. There are many facets to this problem, and each requires a nuanced response that aims at neutralizing the emotions, trauma, and aftermath that they present on the person. The non-profit organization, Badge of Life, which is very near and dear to our hearts, has listed on their website a comprehensive plan that is intended to address much of these problems. Here is the training/trajectory of internal resources:
Emotional Self-Care – This is where it all starts; officer self-awareness, learning to identify their own triggers, their own reactions, and their own behavior patterns, in an effort to know themselves, and potentially address problems pro-actively, before they have time to take over the officer’s psyche.
Peer Support Officer/Chaplains – BOL roundly supports a program that is slowly being integrated in larger agencies, is a program where officers take on extra assignments in their departments, and provide support to officers facing personal crisis, reeling from critical incidents, or any other type of traumatic event that is affecting them. BOL’s recommendation takes the PSO role a step further, saying these are officers that should have influence in the following areas of all officer’s career paths:
- During Academy – PSO’s should be instructing throughout academy courses, and have some level of direct interaction with academy recruits, in an effort to ‘normalize’ the need for self-care, and to become familiar with support elements that they can access in their career.
- Selection of FTO’s – BOL believes that PSO’s need to be involved in selecting personnel who field train officers. It has been studied over many different premises, but one result that has caused concern even before the issues of mental health in law enforcement came about, was that FTO’s, if poorly selected, have just as much influence on career outcome, as the personal choices an officer makes in their career. The implication being that FTOs do indeed affect the decision making by officers in the future in a very specific way, and if an FTO is not mentally fit themselves, or not an appropriate candidate for the role, they can systematically ruin the entire culture of a department from confines of their ‘teaching’ seat. PSO’s have a unique view point where they can see things in FTO candidates that evaluators who are focused on experience, and knowledge base, simply don’t look for, or are too occupied to look for. At any rate, BOL highly recommends that PSO’s are involved directly with FTO selection, noting that their input is as invaluable as those in administrative roles.
- In-Service Training – Just as PSO’s are recommended to be involved in academy training, they for sure need to be part of in-service training. Most agencies dedicate a week once a year (standard 40 hours) to in-service training for all personnel to attend. There is no reason not to have PSO’s, if you have such a program, to not be in this portion of your agency’s training program. At a minimum, PSO’s need to have one instructional block in this period of training to go over what they offer, how they assist officers and families, success stories (anonymously of course), and outcomes. While this sounds like mostly a marketing pitch, the fact is that this type of program has to market it’s results in order to get the majority to buy in, which we’ll discuss later in this article.
- Annual Unit Training – Just like the general in-service training, specialized units, or even patrol shifts have a training schedule meant to address their greater needs. Unit/Shift leadership should be writing a schedule that includes PSO training for their troops, ensuring that officers learn the link between the traumatic incidents they are processing in the field, and the way PSO’s can assist them in processing what just happened mentally so that they remain sound, ready to handle the next set of tragedies.
- Pre-Retirement Training – PSO’s don’t just work with acute series of trauma that officers experience, they are also trained on long-term exposure, and trauma that builds up over time from multiple incidents. When your officers are beginning to plan their retirement, they usually attend pre-retirement training. Some of that training may be hosted by your State government (pension systems), and some may be hosted through the peace officers’ association (post-career decisions/employment/networking, etc.). Even better are agencies that have a localized component to officers who are transitioning. At any of these stages of retirement planning/training, PSO’s should be inserted into the schedule for officers to seek out mental health resources where needed. Officers who are close to retirement are likely to have memories that are not pleasant to say the least, and even after they retire, they are eligible for agency-sponsored resources, and should be informed of that, how to receive them, and know that they are fully supported in asking for help after they have retired. The worst thing we could do is let officers who gave their best years to us retire in silence, and feel helpless once they reach their golden years, when they should be enjoying themselves.
- Annual Mental Health Checks – BOL makes the point that just like we have annual physicals, and semi-annual dental care appointments, annual mental health checks should be part of everyone’s routine, especially officers. The body needs maintenance check-ups, that much our culture has been able to agree with. However, when it comes to mental health there seems to be a disconnect between that principle and the concept of what needs arise. There are any number of reasons why people feel this way. Bringing awareness to this need is a big first step. The second step to this is describing a best practice. This is where an agency’s given role as employer takes on considerable value, and makes the statement of support our officers need. Every department should be giving each member of their department one extra day off a year for mental health, that they can use to schedule this appointment. It sends the message that this is a priority the agency takes seriously, and that personnel are supported in taking this tremendous step. They shouldn’t be required to provide proof of appointment, nor should there be an effort made for the results of this mental health appointment to be made available to the department. This isn’t about mandating therapy. It’s about supporting healthy behaviors in our agencies. With rare exceptions, these appointments are not the business of the agency anyway. They are meant for personnel to have the chance to decompress at least once a year. It may not be enough for each person, but it’s a major start, and there is value that can’t be translated from it.
This plan is intended to address the needs of officers in an effort for them to never need suicide prevention/intervention support. However, there is no way we can fully solve the issue of officer suicide. PSOs should be trained in identifying suicidal indications, and be empowered to speak directly with all personnel to address concerns.
How Does This Plan Help?
There are many ways this plan helps, but let’s look at the bottom line: agency exposure to liability and agency morale.
A fully functioning mental health program in an agency will see reductions in the following areas: officer deaths (both in shootings and accidents), lawsuits, complaints, sick leave use, alcohol and substance abuse issues, criminal/ethic/moral behavior issues, on and off the job injuries, divorces, grievances, resignations, morale problems. Better relations between line personnel and management is also not out of the question. A conservative estimate on the topics that are positively impacted by this program would potentially save a department several million dollars over a given budget cycle, and it is likely that such a program may cost as little as $20,000.00 in up front costs, and may involve between $5,000.00 to less than $10,000.00 in continued funding. Budgets are always tight, but how can we deny pennies on the dollar to not only improve our agency’s culture and health, but to reduce our average liabilities?
BOL also makes the valid point that “Chiefs must lead the way.” They have to be the first one attending annual mental health checks. They have to remove the stigma, and they have to treat this topic with the sensitivity and priority it deserves.
This is a fantastic plan to start any program with. Each element in this plan takes time to plan, implement, and get thriving. It’s also important to know that this part of a mental health program is the start, it’s not the end of building a program. As we begin to discuss this terrible topic, we will discuss more portions of a fully-developed program that should be implemented. And certainly, if you’ve been in law enforcement for longer than six months, you know that it’s difficult to get officers to access mental health resources, because they fear that there will be professional ramifications if they do. The point in building a mental health program is to remove those anxieties. Helping officers be better not just for themselves, but for their families, ought to be our commitment to them, for all that they do for our benefit.
Be safe out there!