Dallas police leaders planning long-term mental health care for officers
In the month since the shooting, the trauma response has shifted toward creating a long-term counseling plan for officers grieving those killed
By Tasha Tsiaperas
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — The three Dallas police counselors jumped into "triage" mode in July after a lone gunman opened fire on officers as a protest was ending downtown, killing five and injuring nine others and two civilians.
But in the month since the shooting, the trauma response has shifted toward creating a long-term counseling plan for police officers grieving those killed in the downtown ambush.
The Dallas Police Department has partnered with the mayor's office and Mental Health America of Greater Dallas to offer counseling services to police officers and their families.
There is no national standard for how a law enforcement agency should handle long-term mental health care after a mass shooting like the one in Dallas.
The department has three full-time counselors on staff and 35 employees trained to offer peer support. Counselors were sent to the southwest and north central division, where the four Dallas police officers worked. The fifth slain officer worked for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
But three counselors aren't enough to help the entire department, which includes 3,400 sworn officers. Those counselors have been vetting outside counseling services to help officers and their families.
For many officers, though, help has come from their peers.
"A lot of what you do is establish a culture that it's OK to talk about this," said trauma surgeon and Dallas police Lt. Alex Eastman. "Emotional reactions are normal. It's OK to be upset. It's OK to cry."
Supervisors are trained on the warning signs when someone is having an unhealthy emotional response or could develop post-traumatic stress disorder, though those cases are rare.
"It crosses the line when you can't eat," Eastman said.
But even the top boss needs to be checked on. Eastman said he has asked Police Chief David Brown how he's coping.
"You don't get a pass because you're the boss," he said.
Brown told the Dallas City Council at a briefing last week that he was considering requiring all officers seek counseling. But Eastman said the department is not going to do that.
Department policy requires all officers who use deadly force to meet with a psychologist, but they are not required to go to counseling.
Counselors also are available via phone 24 hours a day. Department psychologist Trina Gordon-Hall said many of the calls come overnight, often when people can't sleep or have had nightmares.
All counseling services are free and confidential, and department officials don't know how many people have sought help. Gordon-Hall said it's important for officers to understand that what they tell her or the other counselors won't be shared with anyone.
"I do not have a direct batline to Chief Brown," she said.
At a mental health meeting last month, Gordon-Hall said her team was letting the reality of the loss of five officers sink in before reaching out to the families and friends again to offer help.
"Now it's time for the families to process," she said.
The Dallas Police Association's Assist the Officer Foundation also offers counseling services to officers and their families.
"We just want everyone to be healthy," said DPA president Ron Pinkston. "That means mentally healthy, too."
But it may take awhile for people to realize that they were even affected by the shooting. An officer might respond to a call or hear a loud noise and be emotionally transported back to that night.
And cops are notoriously bad about sharing their feelings, Pinkston said.
"We don't want to show our emotional sides," he said.
Though no dates have been set, the department and mayor's office are planning to host community meetings to talk about what happened downtown. Officials want to show that it's not taboo to seek emotional and mental support.
"We need to talk about it," said Deputy Chief Christina Smith.