Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) work in Law Enforcement
I haven’t been involved with Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) work in Law Enforcement for very long. In fact, to some I haven’t been in law enforcement as a whole very long. This is a positive as well as a negative, since my measly nine years have given the benefit of a jaded outlook as well as the ability to still get excited about new ideas and new approaches to how the job is done. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by officers and deputies who were 25 to 35 year veterans, and many were military prior to and during that time “on the road”. In my present department, we found that there was a need in law enforcement that was not being addressed: mental health.
By this we weren’t so over-ambitious enough to suggest that all cops were “crazy”, and had mental health concerns. I mean, who else would want to voluntarily be a cop and not get a decent wage, right? We were worried about the veteran officers who were also military members, who had tenure and had accumulative stress that rivaled most retired military members from Vietnam and Korea. In fact, some of our department members remembered Vietnam. Some have only read about it in history books, and after a trip to the Gulf and Afghanistan, realized why these veteran officers acted the way that they did. A growing number of our officers were National Guard members for various branches, and were active duty as well as being civilian police. An even more select few were military police as well as civilian police.
As the years went by, and I started seeing members one on one to talk about stressors and problems with the job, a lot of the military guys started feeling comfortable enough to start sharing experiences with me. This was an eye opening experience, because of the trust involved in sharing these emotions but also the willingness of these men to want to help fellow veterans. I have tapped into this, because I am seeing that there is help out there for military veterans, and there is help for civilians, and there is also a wealth or resources for fire fighters and EMTs. But who is there to help the police? Who is willing to tackle that mountain of anger and frustration, all while the person is armed? Apparently I am.
Most startling about this group of men and women as they begin to share experiences is the fact that they all recall there being some form of military session and testing phases before deployment to assess people for their propensity towards PTSD; and the fact that they know they can see a military shrink or chaplain whenever they want. Here in our department we have chaplains, and a newly formed Peer Support Team, so now we have resources in place to. Many of our Peer Support Team members are former military. But what I wanted to know was how do we help them re-assimilate back into civilian policing from military (combat) policing? Did anyone else see that these men and women had a harder time thanks to the pseudo-combat and pseudo-violence situations? Were the two really that different?
I’m not suggesting that there isn’t violence and urban combat in the civilian law enforcement setting. There is a lot of it. But our ‘combat’ stress is more different, and much more pronounced thanks to the constant ups and downs that we endure going from call to call to call; it’s not a constant state of vigilance for most officers. One of our newly returned veterans from Afghanistan, who has been in the military for over ten years and a civilian police officer for seven years sat down with me and was very candid, allowing me to ask questions about his personal experiences. I learned quite a lot from him about the emotional turmoil starting with the stress of deployment through having to come home and find your place in the home as well as your place back at work.
Feelings of disconnect as well as the physical responses that returning soldiers go through is bad enough. Add into that the fact that they can’t just “turn it off” and re-integrate into their lives leaves quite a few servicemen feeling lost and adrift in a place they don’t recognize anymore. Take that same soldier and place them in an environment not unlike a squadron or platoon, but pepper in domestic disputes, the occasional gun fire, car crashes and child abuse and you can see how emotions can quickly get suppressed and overlooked making the soldier appear “normal” and “dealing” with the situation, when in reality they are hyper-aggressive, hyper-vigilant, and anxious.
I asked the officer who sat down with me if he felt better as a patrolman, working standard road patrol duties versus SWAT or Detective assignments. In all honesty he felt better in a patrol capacity, saying that being a detective didn’t engage him enough physically, and SWAT was too similar to what he had just done (meaning being deployed). He didn’t think that the two assignments would allow him the ability to “flip the mental switch” when he got to go home at night and be a husband and father. He felt that Patrol allowed him to go back to his old life pre-deployment, and made him feel more normal.
Another point I have asked our officers about concerned services and what they felt would help them the most, and what could have been done different for them when they did come back and started working again. Most felt that the concern and support people showed, as well as the quickness they could start their old jobs back made a huge impact. Others were more focused on the home life and the fact that just being home and getting their marriages and routines back to what they remembered allowed them to better process their emotions. Two soldiers actively sought counseling for their experiences because they felt they weren’t assimilating well and needed extra support.
Most all agreed that additional counseling and support for their families while they were deployed would have helped; especially in preparing the spouses for what to expect when they came back and confronting some of the changes they would see in their loved ones based on their experiences overseas and in combat. Several soldiers had feelings of skittishness, jumping at loud noises, a fear of crowds, aggressive driving behavior, not traveling without a firearm or weapon of some kind, and in some cases inability to sleep at night. One specific soldier explained to me that he had a fear of driving in a pack of cars like what you find in large cities or the interstates; he had to speed and weave around them because he didn’t like feeling boxed in without an “ability to escape”. I’m sure you can imagine the complaints this officer generated while he was assigned to day shift.
While we have begun addressing the individuals in my department and getting them on track and helping them stay there, some of our personnel weren’t so fortunate and it had nothing to do with military service. In the last ten years we have had several members retire medically that were addicted to alcohol or prescription narcotics; two have been arrested by their fellow department members as a result of their addiction. One, who was prior military, just finished a rehab program. We have been fortunate not to have had any suicides in the last decade. One of our neighboring cities hasn’t been able to claim that statistic, and were instrumental in developing a working Peer Support Model which we adapted here.
In the end I think that we have to address the subsets within the Law Enforcement umbrella and address their needs as well. Every police officer had a prior life- the life they led before they were a cop. The key is getting them to remember that former “wholesome and innocent self” (as one officer called it), and getting them to see that person is still there and reachable, as well as getting them to understand that our experiences can either hold us back or make us grow. Each person has specific needs and wounds from previous emotional trauma, and these unique experiences are what can make us better police officers and community leaders if handled in an honest and caring manner. I don’t believe that any organization or company hires individuals with the understanding that they will leave soon, or the hopes that they can get rid of “damaged goods” to another department. I would just like to see more officers reach retirement and live long enough to enjoy it with their marriages and families intact.
Written and submitted by Detective Sara Kane-Watson