By Justin D. Anderson
Charleston Daily Mail
WEST VIRGINIA — In the wake of a Putnam County trooper's suicide, staff with the State Police and state Division of Criminal Justice Services are examining whether a longstanding system of private counseling services available to the nearly 1,000 State Police employees is enough to help prevent future tragedies.
Agency officials say they will look at what other states do and may suggest some changes in the way the State Police help troopers deal with on- and off-the-job pressures.
"That's the main objective right now, what could we have done differently," said Joe Thornton, deputy secretary of the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
Gov. Joe Manchin already has asked state officials to look at all the circumstances surrounding the death of Cpl. Marlo Gonzales, 39, to determine whether the current system in place to help troopers deal with personal problems is adequate.
Gonzales killed himself earlier this month while sitting in his police cruiser near his home right outside Hurricane. Police say he shot himself with his service revolver.
State Police administrators said Gonzales' act caught them off guard because he was always in good spirits.
Some members of the public have criticized the State Police for not doing enough to help Gonzales with whatever was troubling him.
Gonzales was the second state trooper to commit suicide since 1999.
Right now, the State Police uses a Nitro company to provide a sounding board and referral service for its employees and their families.
Peoplework Solutions has been under contract with the State Police since 1994. The company is paid $833 a month to meet face-to-face with troopers, civilian employees and immediate family members on any issue they might be dealing with - from work-related stress to problems at home.
Under the contract, employees and family members get three free counseling sessions per problem with Peoplework, which offers services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
If Peoplework deems a problem too serious for low-level counseling, the company refers the employee or family member to a psychiatrist.
The company also conducts mandatory debriefings after a trooper either witnesses or participates in a critical incident, such as when the officer has to use deadly force.
These mandatory counseling sessions have come about only within the past couple of years, said Sandra Ashley, who heads up Peoplework.
"That's only been an established policy for a very short period of time," Ashley said. "And it's something that we've recommended as we've worked with them over the years."
The company says its programs are cost-effective compared with other services. The State Police saves on insurance costs because the company says 51 percent of those who seek its services don't require additional services beyond the allotted free counseling sessions.
So far this year, the company has spent 77 hours talking to State Police officers, said Lt. Col. Steve Tucker, deputy superintendent of the State Police.
"During that 12 years, there's been a substantial increase in the number of people that call upon Peoplework Solutions when they have problems," Tucker said.
"I think that's probably in part because people have learned they can go there and seek the services and their confidentiality isn't going to be breached."
Tucker said the State Police also relies on troopers seeking counseling on an informal basis from fellow troopers.
Other State Police agencies have formalized this peer-to-peer method, and officials say there's no better way to help officers deal with problems.
Since 1986, the Pennsylvania State Police has run its own internal assistance program for its 6,200 members and their families. The program is considered one of the best in the country.
Beyond a mental health referral service, 80 State Police employees are trained in listening skills and serve as peer contacts for coworkers.
The program also has 36 volunteer chaplains.
"Most times, people just need to vent," said Cpl. Govan Martin, who heads up Pennsylvania's program.
The state pays a psychologist about $5,000 a year to train the peer contacts, who serve mostly on a volunteer basis, Martin said.
Martin said the program was essential in helping troopers who responded to the Amish school shootings last year.
In October, truck driver Charles Carl Roberts took hostages in the small one-room school in Nickel Mines, Pa., eventually killing five young girls and wounding six others before turning the gun on himself.
Martin said the peer system works because troopers tend to develop a distrust of the public for a variety of reasons. And no one understands better what a police officer goes through than another police officer, he said.
"A person outside of law enforcement would not understand seeing what a dead body looks like or what's involved in getting into a chase or an investigation that involves a dead child," Martin said.
But officials in West Virginia see a downside to the peer-counseling method. They say they're worried about the potential for troopers to gossip about coworkers' problems.
"If the department designated an individual to act in this capacity and they breach confidentiality, obviously it drags the State Police as an organization into the mix," Tucker said.
Tucker said having employees serve as peer counselors also takes away from their other duties.
Martin said his agency has never had a case of a peer contact breaching confidentiality.
Potentially loose-lipped applicants to the peer contact program are weeded out through the interview process, Martin said. Specialized questions tend to expose applicants who might be getting into the program for the wrong reasons.
"Little by little we've gained the trust of most of our membership that they can come to us," Martin said.
Tucker said the West Virginia agency has discussed the peer contact method but hasn't really looked at implementing it.
He said any changes to the way the agency currently handles the mental health of its officers would wait until the study requested by the governor has been completed.
"I think the study will uncover all the things that are right and anything that can be improved upon," Tucker said.
Copyright 2007 Charleston Daily Mail
West Virginia helping troopers deal with stress