GRANT TO HELP OFFICERS COPE WITH JOB STRESS - Tucson Local Media: Import

GRANT TO HELP OFFICERS COPE WITH JOB STRESS

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Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2001 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

They often don't know why it's happening to them or why their lives have suddenly become a living hell.

They thought they were the cops who were above it all, the crying, the shaking, the inability to remember all that was involved in the trauma that brought that hell to bear.

Thousands of big city cops, however, have learned how wrong they were in thinking they were immune to the stresses of a cop's life. They've done so through the creation of peer support groups and an increased awareness of other programs that have helped them recognize the symptoms of post traumatic stress and the career-long stress factors that lead to washed out careers.

Cops in small and rural departments and those on Arizona's Indian reservations will soon learn as well of the help available to them in addressing the problems unique to their departments.

Their soon-to-be expanded education is the result of a $122,000 National Institute of Justice Corrections and Law Enforcement Family Support grant awarded to the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge Number 51.

The grant is the FOP's second in three years. It is a follow-up to a separate $225,000 grant awarded in 1999 to develop the concept of peer support among smaller law enforcement agencies and to make those agencies aware of the outside help available to assist officers facing career-threatening personal problems, said Bob Easton, head of the Oro Valley Police Department's Office of Professional Development and a co-director of the grant.

Just looking at turnover rates among law enforcement agencies illustrates why such awareness is critical with from two-thirds to three-fourths of all officers involved in fatal shootings gone from the force within four years, Easton said.

"The tragedy is they're first-rate police officers who love their jobs but have found they just can't tolerate it any more," Easton said. "And a lot of them don't even know why they're leaving," blaming their sudden alcoholism or the increase in complaints against them rather than the incident that led to it all, he said.

In recent years, an average of 65 officers have been killed in action annually, down from about 100 a year 10 years ago, Easton said. Improved training has been a major reason, but in spite of that improvement in training, an estimated 300 officers a year are still committing suicide, evidence of the need to concentrate more on the stress and trauma aspects of the job.

Even the 300 suicides a year may be a low figure since departments will do anything they can to avoid the embarrassment of reporting an officer's suicide, Easton said.

In one criminal justice study it was found that more than 300 officers and 500 children and spouses of officers had committed suicide in one year alone due to stress factors stemming from jobs, Easton said. "You don't think they take their stress home? This is what happens without proper stress awareness training.

"They forget they're like the rest of us, that they're prone to suffer as we all do. They stuff it down and it becomes a cancer that leads to depression and suicide."

"There are those "tough guys" who insist they can do without stress counseling, Easton said, so he does the best he can for the officers in the briefings that are required following a critical incident such as a shooting. "I tell them I'm here for them if they need me and I'll predict what will happen if they let things go too far. Then I tell them to come back and see me if I'm right.

"You can't force the horse to drink," Easton said. "That's their coping method."

The first FOP grant Easton was involved in focused on developing peer support programs for Native American and campus police departments. The four chosen as a test project were:

Pima Community College, with 20 officers serving more than 60,000 students at 10 campuses, the fourth largest community college enrollment in the United States.

The University of Arizona, with 52 officers serving 35,000 students.

The Tohono O' O'odham Reservation, the second largest independent Native American reservation in the nation with 62 officers serving 19,000 residents on 2.8 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut.

The Fort Apache Reservation, with 50 officers serving 11,000 residents on 1.7 million acres, an area 25 percent larger than Delaware.

The early work by program co-directors Larry Morris, J. Michael Morgan and Kevin Gilmartin, all clinical psychologists and experts in the field of law enforcement stress, and Easton as site supervisor and trainer, revealed common stress-causing factors between both rural law enforcement agencies and their Native American counterparts.

These included: a lack of resources, social and geographic isolation from other law enforcement agencies, policing in an environment in which government controls are mistrusted by both the population served as well as administrators, and often not being treated with respect, not being accepted as "real" police.

Other similarities included financially stretched departments, affecting manpower, breadth of services, shortages of vehicles and firearms; populations with long histories of government mistrust; the higher potential of being related to the victim or the perpetrator; having to deal with crimes unique to their geography such as thefts of livestock, timber, wildlife and antiquities; and exploding exportation of urban problems and urban crime driven by urban drug trafficking and the development of gangs.

On the campus force especially there is an identity stress that prevails because of the officers' limited scope of authority and their dealings with issues that in the eyes of their peers in larger departments don't seem as important, Easton said.

On the reservations, the same kinds of identity issues have to be dealt with as well as the extended family relationships that exist in which either the victim or the assailant is more than likely to turn out to be your neighbor, your child's teacher or a relative, Easton said. "Here, you're dealing with your own people all the time," he said. "There is the feeling you can't escape the role of police officer."

As part of the initial study grant, peer support team members were selected within each department and a three-phase training program was initiated.

The first phase concentrated on developing listening skills, effective interviewing and evaluation procedures, identifying and understanding various types of traumatic stress, detecting warning signals of traumatic stress, providing effective intervention strategies and understanding the intensity and complexity of traumatic stress in the law enforcement profession.

Rosters were developed assigning six officers to each peer support team member. Site supervisors attempted to maintain monthly meetings to provide consultation, support, and individualized training related to effective peer support activities for officers and family members as well.

Through such efforts officers began to realize they were not alone in experiencing the crying jags, the vomiting and dizziness, the inability to recall details of an incident or hear the sounds of shots and sirens after a particularly critical event.

In a second phase, the grant team focused on such issues as substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, death and grieving. In a final phase, critical incident stress was addressed.

Among the findings of the test project, researchers found that peer support intervention, help from their fellow officers, "had a positive impact on their overall psychological adjustment" and not only gave them a better understanding of the physical and mental aftershocks they were likely to experience after a traumatic event, but made them realize they weren't alone in experiencing these aftershocks.

Researchers discovered, too, that police, when one of their own is injured or slain, are far more likely to require a much greater level of intervention from both peers and outside sources.

The results of the initial grant are being distributed to law enforcement agencies nationwide through the National Institute of Justice.

The same researchers are now filming videos to relate their findings in the areas of the cumulative stress that occurs in law enforcement for the officer and his family and another titled "Responding to Officer Stress: A Training Video for Command Officers" to small departments everywhere.

Easton recalled the time the police chief of a small agency came to him in tears after a meeting, frustrated by his inability to help two officers in his department, one whose wife was dying of cancer, the other stressed out with dealing with a runaway child.

"That's when I realized the need to get our message out to a much broader audience," Easton said.

His realization was based on the fact that that an estimated 96 percent of the nation's police departments have fewer than 100 officers and employ 40 percent of the nation's cops, but the vast majority have no idea where to go to help their stressed-out officers.

"We can't go around the country creating support teams, so we looked at training films as a way of providing that help," Easton said "We're simply looking at ways to help small departments mitigate the stresses of the job."

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