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Why care for injured cops shouldn't stop after a debrief

After interviewing surviving officers, I’ve learned that sometimes they are deemed or perceived as burdens, not heroes


By Karen Solomon and Jimmy Brown, PoliceOne Contributors

When we speak of survivors in law enforcement, we often speak of the families that are left behind after an officer is killed in the line of duty. It is our duty to honor and memorialize the ones who are lost and support their families, but it’s also our duty to honor and care for the ones that continue to live.

I’ve learned through interviewing surviving officers that sometimes they are deemed or perceived as burdens, not heroes. Agencies don’t see them the way they saw them before their injuries. If the surviving officers are retained, they often receive less pay, benefits, medical coverage and respect. As a community, law enforcement needs to bring this issue into the forefront and begin to deal with the increasing number of mentally and physically injured survivors.

Receiving assistance from an external source, or peer support, is often the only way they will open up about their trauma.
Receiving assistance from an external source, or peer support, is often the only way they will open up about their trauma.

Critical incident stress debriefing

Critical incident stress debriefing is often used after an incident to assist first responders with their emotional responses and, sometimes wrongly, replaces full scale critical incident stress management. CISD is also often modified by the implementing department. When Jeffery T. Mitchell, Ph.D. developed CISD in 1974, his intent was to use it “with numerous crisis support services including, but not limited to, pre-incident education, individual crisis intervention, family support services, follow-up services, referrals for professional care, if necessary, and post incident education programs.”

Too many departments believe that CISD ends with the debriefing; there is little, if any, direction toward non-agency mental health resources. Most officers will resist agency driven mental health; they want to feel anonymous and safe when reaching out for help. Receiving assistance from an external source, or peer support, is often the only way they will open up about their trauma. They are mindful of how dysfunction will affect their job and have become adept at hiding it.

Critical incident stress management

CISM and peer support teams are safety nets, and EAP is the first safety net available. When officers fall through these nets, what happens next? What non-agency nets will catch them? Note that other resources need to catch the people that fall through, not replace existing agency resources. Not everyone will buy what you are selling and alternatives need to be offered.

CISM is often used as merely a checkbox to mark off the following:

•    Nothing presented itself at the CISD.
•    Everything looks good. 
•    You are fine. 
•    Go back to work. 

Most of the time, it takes longer to settle in after an incident, and trauma affects officers in different ways at different times. There needs to be a well-rounded, well-defined protocol for follow-up. How are the officers doing two weeks later, a month later or six months later? Are they affected by other issues? How is everything going with the officer’s family? Are there any concerns for addictions or depression? Who checks on the officers after the CISD is complete? The list does not end with a debriefing.

For departments with a CISM team, there are not always mandated call outs for the teams. Certain incidents require a CISM team on-site, and they should be clearly defined and deployed. Knowing that a team is available to tend to the officers will break down the stigma attached to the desire for help.

Supporting our officers

What are officers' needs after a critical incident? How are we addressing them? Are we throwing money at them, setting up a Gofundme? There are needs well beyond short term bills. When an officer is shot and paralyzed from the waist down, sworn status is taken away. He or she may be viewed by other officers as angry or grumpy; we see the surface and don’t address the underlying issues. The officer’s identity is taken away with the gun and badge, getting around becomes time consuming and frustrating, and family life changes dramatically. That officer and his or her co-workers need to understand and cope with their new reality, and this is only accomplished through long-term care.

Leadership will second-guess their actions, but they need to accept the need for change because it affects them too. Agency heads should be volunteering to become peer supporters; chiefs can talk to chiefs or sheriffs to sheriffs. Not only will they have true peer support, but they will also begin to break down stigma as they see their peers struggle. When change comes from the top, the rank and file will become more accepting of the suffering of their brothers and sisters, and they will begin to accept that they too are suffering.

Support must begin in the academy and training must occur yearly and well into retirement. Law enforcement careers carry a lot of baggage; once the job is over and they have too much time on their hands, officers are often haunted by ghosts and there is nowhere to turn. There is also a need to incorporate post-career counseling and resume assistance. Not only for the retirees, but for those who will be unable to work due to mental and physical injuries.

Fortunately, we are becoming increasingly aware of the need for mental health care and support of physically injured officers. Organizations like POPPA and Wounded Officers Initiative are making inroads on a local and national scale to bring these issues to the forefront. But we need to do better; we need to open the discussion, accept the reality of the damage and begin a campaign that will significantly improve the lives of injured law enforcement.


About the Authors
Karen Solomon is the wife of a Massachusetts police officer, author of Hearts Beneath the Badge and the Price They Pay, co-founder of www.1Alliance.org and creator of 1stHelp.net. Her primary goal is to remove the stigma associated with mental health and first responders. Karen is a member of ILEETA, the International Public Safety Association and the Public Safety Writers Association.

Jimmy Brown is a former US Marine, and police officer with NYPD. Jimmy also served as a firefighter with the FDNY and was assigned to the famed Tenhouse at the WTC. He is a survivor of the 9/11 attacks and credits his training as a volunteer Peer Support Officer with POPPA with giving him the necessary tools and resources to overcome his 9/11 traumas. Jimmy now resides in Central Florida and works full time for the Orange County Sheriff's Office in the Evidence Unit. He is one of the co-founders and current Vice President of the Wounded Officers Initiative as well as the Director of the BlueLine Peer Support Program of WOI. 

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