Ten years into his law enforcement job, Sheriff's Deputy Chad Louviere snapped, terrorizing the Louisiana town of Houma in an October 1996 rape and murder rampage that finally led him to the bank where his estranged wife worked, and where he took the employees hostage at gunpoint—still in his sheriff's uniform.
As tense negotiations began, Tommy Beeson, then a sniper on the county's SWAT team guarding one side of the bank, aimed his weapon at a man who was not only a colleague but a friend.
“Just a few hours earlier, we had been laughing and having coffee together,” recalled Beeson, who now works as the chief criminal investigator for the Terrebonne Parish District Attorney’s Office.
The relieved Beeson never had to fire his weapon. Louviere eventually gave up without a fight, and is now on death row after being convicted in the murder of one of the bank's employees and rape of three women serving. He is still appealing his death sentence. But for Beeson, the events of that day still haunt him.
Although counseling was provided, Beeson believes he and other officers involved in the incident received inadequate treatment. For example, many of the officers didn't receive help for two to three days afterwards, and the help was not ongoing.
What happened to Beeson is not uncommon for professionals in law enforcement and associated careers such as victims' services counselors, attorneys, judges, and members of emergency medical services who witness or hear about traumatic events.
Often, they suffer from so-called “vicarious trauma,” a term used by psychologists to describe the response of caregivers, first responders and other front-line professionals who, while not physically affected, are emotionally shaken by incidents they've witnessed or participated in.
Over time, those affected can become withdrawn and have trouble with their relationships or trust in people, experts say. They stop seeing the world as a positive place and instead view it through a negative lens. While the symptoms can mimic Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), if addressed, vicarious trauma can be managed before it escalates to a debilitating condition.
'Running Toward Trauma'
“(Most] people work as hard as they can to move away from trauma, but we spend our whole lives running towards trauma,” said Gina Scaramella, Executive Director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC).
As a young social worker, Scaramella once found herself working with a client who was gang-raped shortly after being forced to watch as her three-year old child was killed. At the time, Scaramella also had a young child.
“I remember I couldn't stop thinking about it—it was hard to stop,” she said. “You become more guarded, more cautious.”
BARCC offers numerous techniques for their workers and volunteers to guard against vicarious trauma. After an incident call in which a rape or trauma is reported, the volunteer that takes the call checks in with a back-up coordinator, where they can decompress. After medical visits, the staff whom accompanies and counsels the victim, also reports to a back-up coordinator. Additionally, the clinical director at BARCC is always available for private sessions with staff.
Although there are programs and resources that address first responders needs, including the Johns Hopkins University's Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center and the First Responders Addiction Treatment Program run by the Livengrin Foundation.
But for the broad spectrum of organizations there are few resources available; nor are there sufficient or policy guidelines for dealing with their experiences. And there is no real standardized information about what works. That led researchers from the Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice at Northeastern University in Boston to develop a national toolkit for vicarious trauma aimed at professionals working in the fields of victim assistance, law enforcement, emergency medical services, and similar jobs.
Funding for the toolkit came through a grant from, the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime (OVC).
Although the Justice Department released “Vision 21,” a seminal report on the needs of crime victims two years ago, researchers realized there was almost no effort to address the needs of professionals exposed to traumatizing criminal incidents.
Research findings consistently reported that between 40% and 80% of helping professionals experienced “compassion fatigue” and/or high rates of secondary trauma, according to the institute.
The need was brought home graphically to Dr. Beth Molnar, the principal investigator on the project, who serves on the board of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, after she heard former Boston Police Chief Ed Davis speak at Northeastern University as he accepted an honorary degree on behalf of Boston Marathon bombing first responders in May 2013.
Davis called for large-scale counseling efforts and spoke about the need to treat police officers that respond to traumatic events.
“Officers that I have talked to have been extremely traumatized and saw things that you would see on a battlefield. We are extremely concerned about that,” Davis told The Wall Street Journal in an interview.
Dr. Molnar added: “Policies need to be in place in organizations that are dealing with situations like this. They need to take care of their workers.”
The two-year grant paid for an initial survey of professionals about their experiences, which garnered 8,000 responses. Based on the findings, researchers will develop the toolkits for use in four pilot sites—not yet named—by November 2015.
While organizations or institutions can establish their own safeguards against vicarious trauma, including on site clinical mental health, encouraging a strong support network for staff and a work-life balance, the survey results should guide researchers to develop a more standardized approach using practitioners needs and techniques that have worked in other organizations. If this approach proves successful, it could make a big difference to the emotional health of law enforcement professionals.
One police officer who serves on the force of a major metropolitan city in the Pacific Northwest, and asked that his name be withheld so he could speak candidly, complained that mental health services to his colleagues have suffered from budget cuts. His force recently let go a staff psychologist and instituted instead peer-led groups.
That, he said was a real loss to his fellow officers on the homicide and plainclothes narcotics squads.
“We see the worst things that people can afflict on each other,” he said. “And it's hard for us to get help. You are just expected to be at work again at 8am in the morning.”
The officer recalled his own reaction after investigating the suicide of a young woman in a prestigious downtown hotel in his city. He was the first officer on the scene. She had used a shotgun to blow her head off, and she was holding divorce papers in her hand.
“She walked across my dreams for years,” he said.
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.