Aftermath of traumatic calls need healthy outlet, police say
By Brandi Makuski
Child abuse, elder abuse, homicide, suicide and domestic violence: they all leave a mark on local law enforcement officers, particularly if they are among the first on a traumatic scene.
But police officers need to keep moving, said Tom Zenner, assistant chief for the Stevens Point Police Department.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re seeing when you’re on a call; as a police officer you need to stay focused and keep your head on straight,” Zenner said. “One of the ways we keep ourselves focused during those more stressful times is knowing we have the support of another officer — that’s essential.”
Officers are already trained in crisis intervention, which teaches them to work effectively with citizens who have a mental illness or are undergoing an emotional crisis — Police Chief Martin Skibba has repeatedly said officers frequently work with people “during the worst moment of their lives” — but the department’s new Critical Incident Stress Management (CIM) program is aimed squarely at officers’ well-being.
“It’s a way for the officers to deal with and talk about the stuff they see everyday, unfortunately,” said Officer Trina James, who heads the new program.
James said the ongoing, nationwide violence against police officers was just one of the elements which prompted her to propose the idea.
“I think there is just so much going on — we’ve got officer-involved shootings, obviously not here, but it’s still something that really effects our officers,” she said.
It’s not always the large-scale extreme violence that weighs on officers’ minds, James said. Some types of calls are so common they almost become routine for police, and that can have a cumulative effect on an officer’s mind and body.
“But obviously, suicides, any death scene, car accidents, injuries to children — that stuff can eventually really weigh on an officer,” she added.
James is one of six officers, plus department chaplains, who have undergone specialized training to run the program, which is based on talk therapy and designed to note warning signs of a larger problem an officer may be having. The program is simple, James said: following a critical incident, an officer meets with one member of the CIM team for a 20-minute talk about what happened during the call — what’s called a “defusing” — within three hours of leaving the scene.
James said the program was part debriefing, part therapy session, but stressed the program “was not a replacement for psychotherapy”, which is available to city employees through the Employee Assistance Program.
“And this could be for anything, it doesn’t have to be a local incident — after the shootings in Dallas, I sat with my shift to just touch base, see how everyone was doing,” she said.
Zenner said the program may not sound like anything special to an untrained ear, but it creates a program of official support for an officer following a serious incident. He referenced one extreme case: an officer-involved shooting from several years ago when, due to department policy, the officer was not allowed to speak about the incident for several days during an administrative investigation.
“Can you imagine what that’s got to be like for someone in that situation, to not be able to vent, to talk about what happened?” Zenner asked, shaking his head. “To have to go through that alone — that could almost be worse than the incident itself.”
James said the program is designed to monitor officers’ mental and physical health — a measure of support that’s needed more than ever in the wake of so much violence aimed at law enforcement in recent months.
“You’ll notice if an officer is having a tough time, but this is a good way to monitor if an office is doing okay,” she said. “We try to normalize stress, to make sure they’re eating and sleeping okay: We give them some suggestions as to how they can get back to normal, whether it’s making sure they’re exercising regularly, or doing things with their family.”
James said so far, she’s conducted two CIM sessions, and said “they’ve gone really well”.
“Our officers do a great job in the community, but you have to really look at the officers and what they deal with,” James said. “We have to make sure officers feel supported, and know they can talk about what’s going on, and they can get help if they need it. If we’re not healthy, how are going to help other people?”