Police Mental Health Gets Long-Awaited Attention

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Photo by Arash Azizzada via Flickr

As new attention is being paid to the trauma suffered by officers who respond to critical incidents, the Justice Department has issued two reports focusing on the safety and mental health and safety of the nation’s police officers.

The DOJ reports, Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act: Report to Congress and Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Programs: Eleven Case Studies, were published by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) as required by the federal Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) of 2017.

Attorney General William Barr said, “The demands of this work, day in and day out, can take a toll on the health and well-being of our officers, but the Department of Justice is committed to doing our part to help.”

COPS Office director Phil Keith said that, “A damaging national narrative has emerged in which law enforcement officers – whether federal, state, local, or tribal – are seen not as protectors of communities but as oppressors … In this environment, where an inherently stressful job is made more so by a constant undercurrent of distrust and negative public opinion, the risks to officer wellness are exacerbated.”

The 2017 law required the COPS Office to make recommendations on the effectiveness of crisis lines for law enforcement officers, annual mental health checks for law enforcement officers and other issues.

Meanwhile, a group of global law enforcement administrators has begun work on uniform guidelines for psychological care for SWAT teams and other officers who respond to carnage.

State legislatures are also taking note, with four states, including Colorado, passing laws to extend workers’ compensation for mental health to police and other first responders. The International Association of Chiefs of Police is in the early stages of developing policies for police departments for providing psychological care following “critical incidents.”

A voluntary accreditation organization, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, offers a standard for employee assistance programs that include peer-to-peer counseling and confidential therapy.

One example cited of the impact of major tragedies on officers’ mental health is the experience of the SWAT team called to the Columbine High School shooting 20 years ago.

The first SWAT members on the scene had to step around bodies and ignore a wounded student’s plea for help as they searched for shooters, recalled team member  Grant Whitus, who added  team members suffered a level of trauma and a sense of futility that stayed with them for years and may have contributed to the team’s demise the Associated Press reports.

“It was just beyond anything I’d ever thought I’d see in my career,” he said of the 1999 shooting that left 12 students and a teacher dead and remains locked in the nation’s memory.

“So many children were dead.”

Amid the emotional toll of what it experienced, the Jefferson County Regional SWAT team began to fall apart. By 2002, only three of its 10 members remained. The others were reassigned or left the department.

On the 20th anniversary of Columbine, the effects of trauma experienced by law enforcement authorities who respond to school shootings are still largely unknown. Agencies are reluctant to let researchers interview officers and dredge up potentially painful memories. Many officers view seeking psychiatric help as a sign of weakness and see their own mental health as secondary when civilians suffer grave loss.

See also: Police Suicides May Be Rising

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