How a SC sheriff’s department is combatting police PTSD on the front-end
The program is designed to prevent or lessen the effects of PTSD before it surfaces, and help identify the disorder even if it is hiding or lying dormant
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
For years, Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff Leon Lott had been troubled by the mental and emotional fatigue he feared his deputies risked as a result of the ordinary stresses of life combined with the often-harsh realities of patrol work and lack of awareness the public has about the challenges of police work.
Lott knew his men and women probably were not suffering any more or less than other law enforcement officers nationwide, but the risks to his officers nonetheless existed. He had, at times, witnessed those risks manifest themselves into emotional struggles for at least one or two officers serving within his near 800-plus-member force.
By 2015 – with the ongoing national discussion of how to help soldiers returning from overseas deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Lott knew it was time to take action.
“As I became increasingly aware of what these returning soldiers were dealing with and why, it became obvious to me that my deputies not only risked the same, but that some of them might probably be concealing what they were feeling,” says Lott. “That reality had to be addressed.”
And it was, in early 2016, but not in the traditional sense.
Combat stress, shell shock, battle fatigue or any of the other labels used to refer to PTSD, is one of the most debilitating yet least understood emotional disorders suffered by those living in the wake of experienced trauma.
The military services, military medical practitioners and a number of military veterans groups have only just begun to appreciate the risk of PTSD to combat veterans. But it’s still only a surface understanding, and the symptoms are as varied as they are problematic.
What struck Lott is that while myriad programs aimed at “putting a Band-Aid on the problem” after the traumatic experience(s), little if anything was being done on the front-end before soldiers crossed the line-of-departure or police officers hit the street.
That changed for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) in January 2016 when Lott instituted a pre-patrol period of pre-PTSD counseling and training all his newly hired deputies would receive during entry-level training. Experienced officers would also be required to go through the training.
“We hoped this would preempt and mitigate the onset of PTSD,” Lott said. “And I am convinced it has helped, and quite a lot.”
Program facilitates peer-to-peer dialogue
If nothing else the program has enabled deputies to talk about – and share – their experiences with other officers. That in itself is vital to the emotional and cultural well-being of the department.
“Anytime you can sit down among your peers and freely talk about what you are dealing with professionally and personally, there is a tremendous benefit,” said RCSD Major Roxana Meetze, a 23-year veteran of the force who also teaches a portion of the program. “A lot of those officers who have attended the course really appreciate us being very raw and upfront with them about the process and what they can expect, say for instance, if there is an officer-involved shooting or some other critical incident. I wish we had had this program years ago when I was first coming along.”
The program, titled Critical Incident and PTSD Awareness Training, was developed in-house by the RCSD with the help of at least one criminal justice professor, a few chaplains and psychologists.
The program looks at the physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms of PTSD. But it’s so much more. Instruction includes education on:
- Coping strategies;
- Myths and truths about PTSD;
- How to reduce, control or respond to stress reactions from critical events;
- The importance of family, friends, churches and support groups in dealing with PTSD;
- Department and extra-departmental resources for the impacted person.
Best of all, the program has everyone in the department talking.
Removing the stigma
Meetze says she believes “the RCSD’s pre-PTSD conditioning training removes the stigma or the perception that being a cop means you have to prove yourself, be tough, and not tell others how you feel.”
RCSD Lieutenant Larry Payne, a 22-year veteran and also a pre-PTSD conditioning program instructor, agrees.
“In the past, there was this misperception that you would be thought of as weak if you admitted you were struggling emotionally,” said Payne. “That thinking was and is the biggest problem.”
Another instructor, RCSD Staff Sergeant Kellye Hendrick, who has served for 14 years, says she believes one of the program’s strengths exists within the dynamic of the students observing and listening to the experiences of veteran officers.
“When the students see us standing before them and sharing real-world experiences that they too will likely encounter, the student will often say to himself or herself, ‘Hey, if that person dealt with what they have seen and since lived with and yet they are okay, so will I be,’” Hendrick said. “That’s key.”
“Most civilians cannot relate to the effects of a critical incident or repeated incidents on a person. PTSD is real. It’s damaging. And I want to ensure my deputies are able to recognize it in themselves and others,” said Lott. “It’s best we begin the process of understanding the risk and the disorder at the front of the pipeline as opposed to dealing with it post-trauma.”
The RCSD program is not only designed to prevent or lessen the effects of PTSD before it surfaces; it helps identify the disorder even if it is hiding or lying dormant. Moreover, there is an accountability factor, as better-informed deputies will be able to identify the onset of PTSD in fellow officers, helping the sufferer identify and cope with the symptoms.
For more information, email the Richland County Sheriff’s Dept. Office of Public Information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a special deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Dept.