Bill would address officers' mental health

Area cops are praising the recent work of Indiana’s two U.S. senators to improve mental health care for officers

By Jeff Parrott
South Bend Tribune, Ind.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — South Bend police patrolman James Burns is one of several area cops praising the recent work of Indiana’s two U.S. senators to improve mental health care for officers.

“The TV shows portray officers as being hard, like robots,” Burns said. “In reality we’re regular human beings like anybody else.”

Indiana’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Todd Young, have worked to improve military veterans’ access to mental health care. Donnelly issued a statement applauding President Donald Trump's executive order Tuesday directing the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security to ensure service members transitioning out of the military and back into civilian life receive mental health care for a year.

Donnelly, realizing police officers also regularly witness traumatic events, early last year wrote the police bill, and asked Young to join as a sponsor. Their Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act unanimously passed the Senate in May, the House in late November passed a companion bill sponsored by Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Carmel, and the bill awaits Trump’s signature.

The bill would:

• Make federal grants available to police departments that want to start peer mentoring programs;

• Direct the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to develop resources for mental health providers based on the specific mental health challenges that officers face;

• Study the effectiveness of crisis hotlines and annual mental health checks for police; and

• Direct the Departments of Defense, Justice and Veterans Affairs to share their existing mental health practices and services for veterans that might be adopted by police departments.

Burns, the South Bend Police Department’s chaplain, said he’s seen some traumatic things in his 19 years on the force, such as “suicides, bad car accidents, having babies die in my arms.”

To help its officers deal with the emotional effects of those experiences, the department for at least seven years has deployed a Critical Incident Team, comprised of officers and civilian department employees. The Tribune asked Burns if that service is adequate.

“Yeah, we’ve done OK, but in our line of work, you have to strive to improve and this bill could improve what we have,” he said, noting confidentiality for officers who seek help would be critical.

St. Joseph County Sheriff Mike Grzegorek agreed.

“The big thing with law enforcement officers is we don’t like to admit we’re having issues,” Grzegorek said. “We’re supposed to be the strong ones who are here for everybody.”

Grzegorek said sometimes officers will try to handle things on their own rather than seek help. Or they will talk to other officers who they know have experienced similar things and say, “’Don’t tell anybody.’ We try to talk to those people on our department when something happens, like, ‘Look, if you feel like you need help, that does not make you weak.’”

The sheriff said it makes sense to offer police some of the same mental health care that combat veterans receive.

“The (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) stuff you see with military (veterans), we’re seeing horrible things on a daily basis,” he said. “You might see the same thing over and over with traffic crashes, and experience that thing, and just one day that next crash is what really triggers that for you.”

Mishawaka Police Department spokesman Lt. Tim Williams said officers have mental health care options available if they’re willing to “step forward and seek that help.” But if Trump signs the bill into law, he looks forward to seeing how those options could be improved.

In particular, Williams said he hopes his department will apply for the peer mentoring program grants. He said Mishawaka officers see a range of traumatic things regularly, from administering CPR to people who have overdosed on heroin with needles still sticking out of their arms, to notifying the loved ones of people killed in traffic accidents.

“We see the hurt on their faces,” Williams said. “That look you get when you give a death notification, that never goes away. Anything we can do to improve the health and safety of our officers and help them through tough times is very important.”

©2018 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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