March 18, 2002
Melbourne Reinstates SWAT Team Member
by J.D. Gallop and Tony Manolatos, Florida Today
MELBOURNE - A senior Melbourne SWAT team member treated in January for threatening to kill himself and others was reinstated about two weeks after receiving treatment, police said this week.
Florida Today decided to withhold the name of the officer to protect his privacy. Numerous efforts to contact him were unsuccessful.
The case highlights increasing concerns within the law enforcement community about the need to improve stress training and set up peer support groups to aid officers in decompressing emotionally, on and off the job.
It also prompts the question of when officers should be allowed to return to work following intense psychological treatment or stressful on-the-job encounters.
The SWAT team member made his threats to another police officer on Jan. 14, followinghis breakup with a live-in girlfriend. It led Melbourne police to quietly alert another agency's SWAT team to be ready to step in if necessary.
The following day, the officer was handcuffed by fellow officers and taken into custody under the Baker Act after walking into the police department and speaking with a commander. Afterward, he was taken to a treatment facility.
The Baker Act allows for a person making threats to themselves or others to be placed under observation for 72 hours. Following his observation, the officer was placed on administrative leave with pay for two weeks.
"We said, 'You're off until the doctor says you can come back,' " Deputy Chief Jim Reynolds said.
The officer returned to work Jan. 28 following a fitness-for-duty examination by an outside psychologist, Reynolds said.
"He was given a full medical release to return to duty and he did," police Chief Keith Chandler said. "If I was concerned about him, he wouldn't be out there."
Without studying the case, there is no way to know if Melbourne police made the right decision, said Dr. James Oelschlager, a psychologist and director of counseling and psychological services at Florida Tech.
"Is two weeks too quick or not?" Oelschlager said, pausing. "It would depend on the case. If a person is medicated for depression, it takes longer than two weeks for the medication to fully benefit the person."
Oelschlager said he's conducted about 200 fitness-for-duty evaluations and psychological screenings of prospective police officers. Fitness-for-duty evaluations are rigorous, he said. They usually include interviews, reviews of personnel files, interviews with coworkers and supervisors, reviews of medical history and psychological tests.
Generally, additional supervision and a relaxed workload are options, Oelschlager recommends. "But it really depends on the severity of problems the officer has," he said.
Because there's a stigma attached to mental health treatment, especially in male-dominated professions, it's difficult for officers to reach out for help, Oelschlager said.
Those who do don't always open up.
"The job does have a lot of stress, but I wish more of them were willing to get help," Oelschlager said.
Although there is no psychological testing required to join Melbourne's SWAT team, a highly trained and highly equipped unit that responds to the severest of situations, all officers undergo psychological testing as part of the hiring process, Reynolds said.
The testing usually involves a written personality test, followed by an interview with a psychologist trained in law enforcement issues.
Additional treatments, like the services the SWAT team member needed, are a fact of life for a small percentage of officers, Reynolds said.
"Maybe once or twice a year we refer an officer for treatment," Reynolds said.
SWAT personnel with the Brevard County Sheriff's Office also only undergo psychological training when they're sworn in as officers, said Chief Deputy Bob Sarver. Although several deputies experience stress-related problems that require treatment, Sarver said that shouldn't surprise anyone.
"Law enforcement is the most hazardous occupation there is," he said.