How Newtown Has Helped Police Deal with Trauma

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After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Ct., Police Chief Michael Kehoe screamed in his sleep, reliving the gruesome scene in his dreams. After the mass shooting of 20 schoolchildren and six adults, Kehoe found himself overwhelmed at times, the Wall Street Journal reports. His relationship with his wife suffered because he ordered her around in an attempt to exert control. He was wrought with guilt. “To have that much in one day can really hit you hard,” says Kehoe, 62. “This is your watch. This is your community. This is where you are paid to keep the community safe.”

The Newtown shooting helped accelerate how police departments approach mental-health care for officers, particularly in preparing for mass-casualty events. It prompted many police chiefs to become more receptive to addressing trauma proactively, says James Baker of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The IACP has several new initiatives aimed at officer trauma. One focuses on collective healing within a police department and the community after a mass-casualty event. The group is selecting  departments for a pilot program. Another concentrates on improving resiliency to everyday trauma among officers. “I think it’s a major shift in the way enforcement has looked at officers exposed trauma,” says Baker. Kehoe, who retired in 2016 after three decades on the force, has learned to live with the horrors of December 14, 2012, in part by working with police departments around the U.S. on mental-health care for officers. He helped develop a manual with the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Alliance for Mental Health, called “Preparing for the Unimaginable.” About 15 percent of police officers develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over their career, said Prof. John Violanti of the University of Buffalo. About one-third develop some PTSD symptoms.

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