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Local law enforcement raises the bar for officer mental health programs

STATE OF MIND

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ILLUSTRATION BY ELENA TRAPP
  • Illustration by Elena Trapp

Nickolous Acevedo had eluded officers for more than two weeks after he fired at two sheriff’s deputies.

Confidential informants told officers that Acevedo said he wouldn’t be taken alive. So when the police spotted him in a vehicle in the 1800 block of North Weber Street, then-Sgt. Pat Rigdon and 13 other tactical enforcement officers rushed to capture him.

After a chase that reached 60 mph in residential areas, Acevedo jumped from his vehicle and ran. When Rigdon caught up to him on Tejon Street, Acevedo put a gun to his own head.

“Police,” Rigdon announced, according to the District Attorney’s officer-involved shooting report. “Get down on the ground. Drop the gun. Drop the gun.”

But Acevedo refused and instead swung the firearm toward the officer.

Rigdon fired twice, but Acevedo didn’t fall. So he fired again, killing Acevedo.

That was Nov. 3, 2005.

The DA ruled Rigdon’s actions justified, and Rigdon long ago settled on the idea that Acevedo’s plan was to use him to complete “suicide by cop.”

But even 14 years later, the lingering memory serves as a reminder for Rigdon that officers are called upon to make split-second judgments that have deadly outcomes.

“It’s truly one of those things you have to be prepared to do,” he says, “and hope you never have to do it.”

Since then, Rigdon has risen to commander at the Colorado Springs Police Department, and the shooting remains the only time he’s discharged his firearm at another person during his 24 years on the force.

CSPD Commander Pat Rigdon - COURTESY CSPD
  • Courtesy CSPD
  • CSPD Commander Pat Rigdon

But experiences like that and other traumatizing events, such as dealing with child abuse or animal cruelty cases and traffic crashes, play on an officer’s psyche.

One study of small to mid-sized departments found that officers witnessed, on average, 188 critical events during their careers, and another recent study reported that more police officers die by their own hand than in the line of duty.

That suggests that psychological problems among officers might be more common than earlier believed.

Local law enforcement agencies, though they report few officer suicides, seem to have awakened to that reality.

While the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office continues to provide innovative mental health programs adopted years ago, the CSPD dragged its feet.

“I don’t think we have kept up with the times,” Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski admits in an interview.

But now, the department is playing catch-up and recently launched several initiatives to identify and support troubled officers.

A string of suicides by New York City police officers this year has thrust the issue into the spotlight. Ten had killed themselves by mid-October, despite the department’s stepped-up efforts to identify and help law enforcement deal with traumatic stress and mental illness. Other departments also have seen suicides rise.

Based on 2013 figures, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the suicide rate among officers at 16 per 100,000, slightly higher than the general population’s rate of 14 per 100,000, which itself is the highest number since World War II, according to Time magazine.

As of late October, 187 officers nationwide had died by suicide this year, compared to 169 in 2018, reports Blue H.E.L.P., an Auburn, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that works to reduce the stigma associated with cops seeking mental health treatment.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told ABC News that the rise in suicides “makes this the No. 1 issue for police departments around the country.”

Earlier this year Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a bill that provides $7.5 million a year in grant money for police suicide prevention efforts, mental health screenings and training to identify officers at risk, the Associated Press reported.

The Colorado Legislature adopted Senate Bill 91 this year, giving agencies until Jan. 1, 2020, to adopt policies that provide counseling and other support for officers involved in shootings or fatal uses of force. Agencies must provide pre-incident training and preparation, support for law enforcement at the scene of an incident, post-incident support and services, guidelines for temporary leave or duty reassignment, and guidelines for return to duty.

But it’s not just the big events, such as officer-involved shootings, that wear on personnel, according to a 2018 study commissioned by the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on issues related to disability, inclusion and mental health.

Researchers found that police officers and other first responders can be affected by an array of incidents that happen fairly routinely — discovery of a decaying corpse, responding to an incident in which a child or adult has been badly beaten, being threatened by armed suspects, responding to life-threatening disasters and making a death notification.

Exposure to that type of trauma again and again, the study found, is linked to mental health issues, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as substance abuse, the incidence of which in police officers exceeds that of the general population.

Up to 35 percent of police and correctional officers suffer with PTSD and nearly a third sink into depression, compared to about 7 percent of the general population on both counts.

Moreover, mental issues can prey on a person’s physical health, further eroding well-being, the Ruderman study found. It cited a CDC study of a decade ago that revealed more officers were obese than the general public, and suffered from metabolic syndromes such as high blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, which led to serious health conditions.

Simply put, the study said, “Mental health can be deleterious to physical health, and poor physical health interferes with first responders’ abilities to complete their daily work.”

Suicide, the most catastrophic outcome of mental illness, takes more lives of officers than line-of-duty deaths — 140 compared to 129 in 2017, the study reports.

Considering police officers must pass psychological assessments before they’re sworn in, “The suicides we see must reflect deterioration of mental health that occurs after men and women become police officers,” according to Badge of Life, a nonprofit based in Streamwood, Illinois, that provides education and training to law enforcement about mental health and suicide prevention for officers and their families.

Rigdon says mental issues might be triggered by a constant barrage of the worst humanity has to offer. “You see things you thought you’d never see,” he says. “And that can’t help but impact who you are as a person.”

Fortunately, local agencies have seen few officer suicides. “As far back as the last 30 years, we have not had a Deputy Sheriff die by suicide while employed at the Sheriff’s Office,” Sheriff’s spokesperson Jackie Kirby reports.

Four CSPD officers have taken their own lives over the past 25 years, says department spokesperson Lt. James Sokolik.

Despite the relatively low number of suicides, both departments know being a cop takes a toll.

“Before law enforcement officers even earn their badge, the CSPD actively recruits for individuals with resiliency, people who can prepare, recover, and adapt to stress and adversity,” CSPD spokesperson Natashia Kerr says in an email. “Once on the force, officers go through regular training for how to respond to critical incidents, not just physically, but also mentally.”

Officers also are subjected to psychological exams at other junctures, such as when entering a specialty assignment like the Tactical Enforcement Unit (SWAT), Kerr says, and after being involved in an officer-involved shooting. More about that later.

But Niski says after a string of high-stress incidents, he felt compelled to strengthen his department’s resources aimed at dealing with depression, anxiety and PTSD that beset not just officers, but civilian employees, such as call-takers, dispatchers and others who work in the law enforcement realm and take part in critical events.

Consider that over the past several years, officers and support personnel have dealt with:

• Two major and fatal wildland fires — Waldo Canyon in 2012 and Black Forest in 2013.

• The 2015 Halloween killing spree that left three dead by a mentally ill killer who was shot by police in a daytime shootout near downtown Colorado Springs.

• The Planned Parenthood shooting in which a man killed an officer and two others and fired at numerous cops, including SWAT teams, during an hours-long standoff on Nov. 27, 2015. 

• The Feb. 5, 2018, death of El Paso County Deputy Micah Flick amid a shootout with a wanted car thief, who also died, in an apartment complex parking lot. Three other officers were injured and a civilian seriously wounded.

• The Aug. 2, 2018 shooting that left CSPD officer Cem Duzel seriously wounded. Duzel was shot in the head while responding to a man firing a gun after being kicked out of an Uber vehicle.

CSPD Commander Tish Olszewski says via email that a months-long review of the employee wellness program led to an agenda to bolster professional counseling, peer support and proactive programming.

While the CSPD has had a staff psychologist for years, Dr. Aldo Tartaglini, the department signed contracts on Aug. 1 with two vendors to provide behavioral health services. It will pay up to $100,000 a year to Nicoletti-Flater Associates to train officers in peer support, conduct work-related counseling and provide critical incident response, which means “actually showing up at our officer-involved shootings to help start counseling earlier,” Niski notes.

The firm’s personnel also will respond to line-of-duty deaths, officers who are injured, shot or shot at, and mass casualty incidents.

In addition, Insight Services PLLC has been hired to provide work-related counseling, at $50,000 a year.

Niski required all employees to attend training in the past year on trauma “countermeasures,” Olszewski says, and the department’s peer support program, which now involves 27 officers, could expand. Tartaglini helps train officers on the peer team, which is overseen by a “wellness sergeant,” Olszewski says.

In addition, any CSPD employee may seek free, confidential counseling services from the two providers for any work-related issue, or seek help from police chaplains or through the city’s Employee Assistance Program.

Finally, Olszewski says the department has formed a Wellness and Resiliency Committee, composed of sworn and civilian employees, who will serve as watchdogs for emerging issues and seek ways to respond to them.

Dr. Sharon Trivette - COURTSEY EPSO
  • Courtsey EPSO
  • Dr. Sharon Trivette

El Paso County Sheriff’s Of- fice personnel can seek help from staff psychologist Sharon Trivette, who’s been on the job for 10 years, dating to the Sheriff Terry Maketa years.

Like the city, the county offers an employee assistance program through traditional insurance, backstopped by sheriff’s chaplains and Trivette, who offers counseling and education about the signs of stress, both physiologically and mentally. She also can refer personnel to other providers.

Kirby of the sheriff's office credits Maketa, who served from 2003 to 2014, with introducing wide-ranging counseling measures before they became more standard in the profession. “We were very much on the forefront of getting help for employees when it wasn’t the norm back then,” she says.

Counseling services, she adds, span not only deputies and jailers but support personnel, such as dispatchers, who experience “that vicarious trauma, hearing all this transpire on the other side of the phone.”

The result, she says, has been improved overall health and well-being of the workforce.

Trivette isn’t mandated to disclose who she’s counseled to anyone, which protects privacy and encourages people to seek help.

Both the Sheriff’s Office and CSPD report that personnel don’t risk discipline or other forms of blowback simply for seeking help. “No one has ever been discouraged, reprimanded or [seen] negative consequences from seeking therapy,” Trivette says.

Niski notes, “I haven’t seen any negative impact on somebody who’s asked for help. I have just not seen it.”

But Trivette says that while she’s made significant inroads in destigmatizing counseling and reports that she sees up to a third of the workforce in a year’s time, “There’s always going to be that stigma.”

As the Ruderman Foundation study found, the perceived blemish of seeking mental health services contributes to lack of awareness of officer suicide. “The public needs to know about this as an issue, so that our citizens can push policy-makers to devote funds, and so that our first responders can feel supported instead of ashamed as they make the brave decision to access services.”

Peer support is one way to combat that stigma, and it’s the latest addition to the Sheriff’s Office's stable of services.

Based on guidelines suggested by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the peer support program will be introduced in the next month or so to satisfy requirements of Senate Bill 91.

Kirby says details of the department’s peer support program are being worked out, but will include “a significant amount of training, ethical and legal understanding of what their role will be.”

One controversial aspect of police officer counseling centers on policies, shared by CSPD and the Sheriff’s Office, that call for a psychological review following an officer-involved shooting but allow for the officer to be returned to duty within three days.

The policy drew sharp criticism after the Aug. 3 shooting of De'Von Bailey, 19, who was shot in the back as he fled officers with a handgun.

Pastor Terry Thomas, a Bailey family friend, has said putting officers back on the street so soon suggests “there’s no consequences” and gives rise to “a mentality of fire first and think later,” according to media reports.

Trivette explains that the three-day window, a fairly common time frame, stems from the concept that memory “doesn’t work like a movie.”

“Memory comes in bits and pieces,” she says. “There needs to be one good sleep cycle between an event and then being able to recall that event with some detail that you might skip over if you talked about it from the beginning. That three days is designed for an officer to get rest, to see to any physical problems or injuries they need to take care of. It’s a time for them to get the sleep cycle they need, get their memory in line with what’s happened.”

But Niski and the Sheriff’s Office say three days isn’t a hard and fast number.

“Our staff psychologist could tell us that they’re not ready. That’s one step,” Niski says. “The employee can come to us and say, ‘I’m not ready to go back on the street.’ That’s another step. The supervisors that they work for could say this person is not ready to go back on the streets.”

Niski adds that the department doesn't want to hold back an officer who is ready to return to duty.

“Like I’ve said, these incidents impact people differently," he says. "[For] some people going back to work, it might be better for him than not going back to work. But we work with the employees. We give them options.”

CSPD officers who use deadly force are required to contact Nicoletti-Flater Associates within 24 hours to schedule an appointment for information and assistance regarding possible reactions to critical events. Thereafter, Nicoletti-Flater Associates will contact the involved officer on a periodic basis for one year to reduce the likelihood of post-traumatic incident complications.

A similar regimen is followed by the Sheriff’s Office.

In addition to meeting with a psychologist, Niski also notes that during the three-day mandatory leave following an officer-involved shooting, the officer must visit the shooting range for practice, among other administrative duties.

Meantime, Niski and his deputy chiefs and commanders conduct a review of the shooting within 24 to 48 hours of the event. If there are no red flags that the shooting wasn’t justified, the officer is allowed to return to regular duty, if the officer decides it’s OK, he says.

“Why would we keep them off [duty], if they’re ready to go to work,” Niski asks. “He or she is not being charged with a crime. We’re not investigating them. If we determined that there was a problem, then we would keep them off the street.” (Though officers do return to duty within three days of an officer-involved shooting, the district attorney’s office often doesn’t render its opinion on whether the shooting was justified for months.)

All that said, Niski notes the CSPD is further analyzing the three-day mandatory leave. “We’re actually having discussions now about do we extend that to be a little longer, so there’s a longer break,” he says.

Officers’ stress can be heightened by reliving those spur-of-the-moment decisions to shoot and kill suspects when the incident undergoes endless analysis by the public afterward.

No sheriff’s deputies agreed to be interviewed. But CSPD in-service training coordinator Officer Bryce Macomber, who trains recruits using simulated use-of-force exercises (see sidebar), describes it this way: “As an officer, we’re required to make split-second decisions with limited information, and we’re held to that decision while everybody else has days, weeks, months to second-guess the decision this officer had to make.

“A good officer is going to be questioning ourselves with the ‘What ifs.’ Even if it was the right decision at this time, we’re going to second-guess anyway. Then you have other people who don’t have the basis for our decision analyzing it, picking it apart. The public scrutiny can be very demoralizing to the individual.”

The introduction of body-worn cameras some years ago compounds that scrutiny, Rigdon says.

“Everything’s on camera, but cameras don’t show everything,” he says. “People have the ability to watch that over and over and criticize [the officer’s] action or lack of action. I think it does add a layer of stress to the whole situation for officers. Probably not just officers, but families of everyone involved, including the suspect in the case.”

When Rigdon fired on Acevedo in 2005, body cameras hadn’t made their debut here yet. But he replayed what happened through his head a hundred times — and he says he felt mentally prepared to take the action he felt necessary.

“On the Tactical Enforcement Unit,” he says, “you know that could happen. If you choose to become law enforcement, you ultimately have to be prepared to be in a situation where you’re forced to use deadly force. If you’re not suited to that, then it may not be the right thing for you.”

Given the pressure cooker in which officers do their jobs, Rigdon says it’s essential that everyone on the force, from officers to supervisors, pay attention so that those who are struggling can be identified and steered toward help.

Trivette says statistics show that police officers have a high mortality rate within five years of retirement, which she links to excessive stress in their jobs.

“My overall goal,” she says, “has always been that my officers and deputies get to retire from their work and live longer than five years.” 

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