What can agencies do?
We often find ourselves doing nothing because we do not know where to start. When I am asked what agencies should be doing, I often start with first they need to recognize better from worse. It is truly that simple for many of the decisions we make that affect officers and their families. Is a specific action going to make and officer’s life better or worse? Is a specific action going to help a family or hurt them? That is certainly where police leaders can start, but I will provide more specifics.
Have a policy:
Many departments still do not have policy or plan on how they are going to address and officer in need of mental health services or how to help a family that has lost an officer to suicide. I’ve seen the plans associated with physical injury and traditional line of duty death so it is not that these things can’t be planned for, it is that we either don’t know what to do (see the first paragraph) or we have chosen to ignore them hoping they won’t show up at our department. When an officer arrives at work with a broken arm insisting they can do the job the shift Sergeant would certainly decline and then take them to get medical treatment. Once treated, the officer would get a clean bill of health from a professional and then return to work. What is the plan when an officer shows up to work with an operational stress injury? Who is the professional that is going to help them if needed? What does it take to get a clean bill of health and how do they get back to work?
Find or Make Local Service Providers:
Some agencies have identified professional mental health services in their area, or even have them embedded in their agency. That is great, but many departments have not addressed this issue. Officers, in general are not very trusting of outsiders and you do not get much more outside than a mental health worker wanting me to talk about my feelings. Officers in crisis do not need to be finding and then developing a relationship with professional mental health services, they need these things in place before the crisis. Introduce these individuals to law enforcement, put them on ride-alongs, introduce them to law enforcement culture. If you want me to feel comfortable talking to someone, they need to have a basic understanding of what I do and why.
Connect Chaplains directly to families:
Religious or not, the Chaplains services are a good thing. In my dealings with Chaplains, they very often have experience helping families in crisis and they have interactions with officers in the field during some the of the toughest calls for service. This puts them in a unique position to understand some of what the officer is dealing with as well as having the ability to build strong relationships with the family. Once again, we do not want to introduce officers or families to the Chaplains when crisis is at the door. Interactions should be early and often to establish trust.
Teach the families:
Families are often disconnected from the harsher realities of law enforcement, and I certainly understand why officers choose to compartmentalize their work and their home lives. However, the family is also on the front line of seeing the officer when the work façade is gone. This puts them in position to see changes that may not be noticed at work. Families need to understand law enforcement culture, signs and symptoms associated with operational stress injuries and mental health crisis. Just as importantly they need to know who to call and what will happen when they do. Too many families have stated they did not know where to get help or that they were afraid if they asked for it the officer would lose their job.