The police may not be able to control lethal criminal conduct when officers’ lives are taken in the line of duty, but Montrose Police Chief Blaine Hall hopes to end another type of deadly scourge — officer suicides.
As he and others recognized and honored those killed in the line of duty Wednesday, Hall also spoke of the 159 officers nationwide who took their own lives last year, a number exceeding line-of-duty deaths.
Continued exposure to traumatic events, coupled with the stigma associated with admitting a problem, are seen as driving the numbers and Hall is looking to change that by establishing a peer support network.
“It (stigma) is something that we battle as a profession. We are supposed to be the armored, tough individuals that nothing affects us. And we see the worst of the worst,” Hall said.
“There’s not a single human being, no matter who you are, that can get through a career in law enforcement without suffering some type of crisis where you need someone to talk to.”
The Montrose Police Department lost Officer Jamie Parker, 27, to suicide in 2007. Police officers and other law enforcement officials routinely deal with tragedies and dangerous situations. It all exacts a toll — and Hall doesn’t want the price to again be an officer’s life.
His agency has applied for federal grant funding that is available for peer support programs. Also, the MPD and other agencies are taking advantage of funds through the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, or POST; these funds are for training and certifying department members as peer-support advocates.
The Colorado State Patrol also offers this type of training for the region, Hall said, in commending that agency.
“Tackling this issue is much more than just training, or support teams. It’s about removing the stigma that asking for help is a sign of weakness,” he said.
“That’s why it’s our responsibility as law enforcement executives to build a culture of support and trust within our agencies. We need to have these hard conversations with our employees to break down the stigma and fear that taking advantage of services means losing one’s career, or being labeled as weak.
“In fact, asking for help is one of the most courageous things our men and women can do.”
The police department is not the only entity now following a peer support model, Hall later said. Several agencies in the area have also adopted the strategy and obtained the training through POST.
The Delta County Sheriff’s Office has trained three in peer support.
“PSTD is a real thing, not only in our military family, but law enforcement as well,” Delta County Sheriff Mark Taylor said. “They see a lot of things throughout their careers that no doubt have an effect on them. It’s something real and that we have to recognize and try to stay ahead of.”
The Montrose County Sheriff’s Office has between four and six people trained to offer peer support.
The team deployed as recently as last week, to offer assistance to posse members and deputies who responded to teenager Connor Imus’ drowning in the South Canal last week.
“They’re there to support our officers. Day in and day out, we deal with stresses of the job,” Montrose County Sheriff Gene Lillard said.
“Even getting up and putting on the uniform every day, and going in with the mindset that we might have to take a life, or we might lose our life, I think this goes through our minds on a daily basis. Having peer support is very good.”
The stigma associated with mental health issues is entrenched in society as a whole, and to an even greater extent within law enforcement, Lillard and Taylor said.
“A lot of times, the officers couldn’t deal with the everyday stress and the stuff that built up on their minds and the tragedies they went through. A lot of them develop PTSD,” Lillard said.
“Law enforcement is one of those careers, where, a lot of times, we hide our mental anguishes, which isn’t healthy,” Taylor said.
“As Chief Hall mentioned, there is a stigma against reaching out sometimes. We have to bridge that gap somehow.”
Hall said it is also important to have a confidential outlet available for officers’ families and agencies’ civilian support staff — for financial, marital and other issues, or any of the stresses that go along with the job.
“They can get hooked into services, talk about their issues, possibly find solutions to their issues. And it’s just as important that our law enforcement officer families have that outlet of support as well,” Hall said.
The MPD’s peer support program is intended to work in tandem with the MCSO and Montrose Fire Protection District’s programs to provide a “robust” peer support team overall, he added.
Clergy members, even friends of individual officers, also play important roles in supporting an officer through a crisis, he also said.
“We’re trying to create at least an avenue or an outlet to ensure there is someone always available who can help our employees and our families,” Hall said.
One of the worst outcomes of a mental health crisis, suicide, remains an “issue in our profession,” the chief further said. It’s so much of one that the FBI promotes risk awareness and support services in the federal training academies Hall and others have attended.
“It’s a big deal, and it needs to be,” Hall said.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.