Officers helping colleagues with fragile mental health

BY CHRISTINE BYERS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/TNS

ST. LOUIS —  Filling out a traffic crash report felt as challenging as a chemistry test to Joan “Joann” Glover Straughter. A call for all available units boomed across the St. Louis police sergeant’s radio, but she didn’t flinch. Questioned later about why she didn’t respond, she exploded in anger, then cried.

Officers Joan Glover Straughter and Dondrell Harris pose for a portrait on Aug. 19 in St. Louis, Mo. The two St. Louis police officers are being honored and called heroes for an incident in 2013 when they stopped a would-be robber in a restaurant full of people. (J.B. FORBES/ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/TNS)
Officers Joan Glover Straughter and Dondrell Harris pose for a portrait on Aug. 19 in St. Louis, Mo. The two St. Louis police officers are being honored and called heroes for an incident in 2013 when they stopped a would-be robber in a restaurant full of people.
(J.B. FORBES/ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/TNS)

Three days before, at a restaurant where she worked a security job, Glover Straughter had fatally shot a man who raised a gun at her after ignoring her commands to drop it.

She went through the motions of department protocol: completing a psychological evaluation, making a statement to investigators and returning to work three days later. But as the investigation moved ahead, she felt like she was moving backward.

Anger, grief, paranoia
Routine paperwork took hours. She would get ready for work three hours early but barely arrive in time. Sometimes, she couldn’t remember how she got where she was.

“It was like my brain was not clicking like I was accustomed to,” she explained recently. “It was like I was trying to do hopscotch and wasn’t sure which leg I wanted to move.”

Some colleagues noticed her distress, and told her they understood. For years, some city officers involved in shootings have informally mentored each other through the variety of emotions — including anger, grief and paranoia — that follow.

Most won’t talk publicly about it. As one put it: “I really don’t want to unpackage that.”

Called to minister
Other cops, who never shot anybody, also opened up to Straughter about living risky off-duty lifestyles to keep up the adrenaline rush the job has conditioned their bodies to crave. And to dissipate the emotional traumas that build up.

Call to call. Day to day. Year to year.

Straughter has made it her mission to minister to them, freely trading stories of their experiences.

The conversations intensified after the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown. Cops repeatedly endured verbal and physical attacks while facing off with angry protesters. Their role as hero-protector was under challenge in social media. Police conduct became a headline topic in news stories that equated some cops to race-driven murderers.

“People think we are gun-happy and we want to shoot and kill, but that’s not the case,” she said.

“Because of my faith, the Word tells me as a police officer, I’m a minister of God. And Scripture tells us we have to defend by self-defense.”

Mental challenges
She hopes the Ferguson shooting can be the catalyst for publicly addressing not only police behavior but the mental challenges that can shape it — the very core of her hushed conversations among concerned cops.

Increasingly, it looks like she may get her wish.

Recommendations that departments formally address the mental health of officers are part of both the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Ferguson Commission’s reports. It’s unclear how or when that may play out.

In the meantime, the St. Louis Police Wives Association has been raising money to provide mental health care as needed by local officers and their families. And researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis are studying the effects of the Ferguson experience on cops.
Straughter couldn’t be happier about it.

“A lot goes on in the streets. You see things, like babies getting hurt, and our brains are not equipped for that day in and day out,” she said. “And yet you don’t think about maintenance on your brain. We get our hearts checked … try to work out. So my question is, ‘You are trying to take care of all this, why not taking care of your brain?’ It’s a muscle that needs to be kept in working order as well.”

Domino effect
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said his department was talking about mental health before the Ferguson shooting. “We noticed that police departments in Missouri are woefully behind in addressing these issues,” he said. Larger departments like his have “early warning systems” to gauge whether an officer is struggling. While the city seeks to upgrade its system, he said his department is focused on training peer counselors.

“If there is some type of mental or physical problem, it’s going to affect an officer’s performance, and it’s a domino effect,” he said.

President Barack Obama’s policing task force saw the same thing.

“Hurt people can hurt people,” member Tracey Meares warned a hearing in February.

That group’s report, released in March, concluded: “The ‘bulletproof cop’ does not exist. The officers who protect us must also be protected — against incapacitating physical, mental and emotional health problems as well as against the hazards of their jobs.”

St. Louis County police include mental health awareness training in their academy, including a suicide awareness class, said Sgt. Jeremy Romo of the Crisis Intervention Team.

Romo’s team typically trains police on de-escalating situations involving the mentally ill. After Ferguson, it began looking inward, too. Now it refers officers in need to two mental health professionals with law enforcement backgrounds. That helps overcome reluctance to confide in an outsider, he said.

“One thing Ferguson brought to light nationwide is that law enforcement does a really good job of taking care of people in the community with mental health needs, but we do a horrible job of taking care of our own,” Romo said.

The president’s task force said, “An agency work environment in which officers do not feel they are respected, supported or treated fairly is one of the most common sources of stress.”

Misconduct in McKinney
The mental health issue lurks behind some high-profile controversies. An officer who resigned after video showed him forcefully dispersing a crowd of teens at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, had just responded to back-to-back suicides, his lawyer, Jane Bishkin, said. “With all that had happened that day, he allowed his emotions to get the better of him.”

But poor mental health cannot be an excuse for misconduct, said Dr. John Violanti, a research professor at the University of Buffalo who testified before the president’s task force. “Personality factors and a lot of different things can lead to that behavior; stress is a contributor,” he said. An officer’s disposition, exposure to incidents in a given shift and the time of day can matter, he said.

“In a period of 20 years, can you imagine the trauma an officer sees?” asked Violanti, a New York State Police trooper, investigator and department psychological assistance coordinator for 23 years.

A study in the president’s task force report estimates that police kill themselves almost 2 1/2 times more often than others kill them.

Wellness checks
Violanti cited the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that suggest police are at a 69 percent greater risk than the average U.S. worker of committing suicide. He said various studies estimate that between 7 percent to 19 percent of all officers experience post-traumatic stress syndrome at some point.

An officer in Caseyville shot himself to death on duty last month.

Straughter said she believes she has helped prevent three officers from taking their lives.

Peer programs work, Violanti said, because police trust each other. Many fear that revealing themselves to bosses might cost them promotions, or even their jobs.

He said officers who resist mandatory counseling may respond to incentives and finesse. He recommends cash bonuses or extra time off to reward cops who submit to “wellness checks” for whatever ails them, physically or mentally.

Violanti said police already under high stress were demoralized after Ferguson, when “ … all of a sudden, it seems like all people think all officers are bad.” He explained, “Most cops sign up for the job because they want to help people, and that may decline over the years, but they’re still there.

“And to not be appreciated for risking their life every day is not a good feeling.”

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