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Cops returning from war zones: 6 keys to easing back to the street

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Cops returning from war zones: 6 keys to easing back to the street

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In Part 1, we explored the battlefield culture, the mental injuries war commonly inflicts, and the fact that returning veterans will inevitably be changed, sometimes in negative ways, by what they have experienced. Part 2 outlined a variety of post-combat symptoms frequently evidenced after vets reach home that may negatively impact their performance in policing if not recognized and resolved.

Most law enforcement agencies seem to have given little formal thought to how best to reintegrate combat veterans back into domestic street assignments. Those that have addressed the problem have put measures in place that run from the simplistic to the sophisticated.

At one end of the spectrum, a chief in South Carolina is alleged to have said that he simply doesn't bring any officer veteran onto his force until he or she has been back from a war zone for at least three years. Period. On the other hand, the Los Angeles County (Calif.) Sheriff's Dept. processes returning personnel through a four-day "repatriation" program, developed under the agency's chief psychologist, Dr. Audrey Honig.(For a day-by-day description of LASD's program, go click here.)

Another psychologist, Dr. Ellen Marshall, a traumatic stress researcher and criminal justice instructor at Delaware Technical & Community College and the Union Institute and University, attended the Washington symposium as part of her research in assisting the Delaware State Police to design a cutting-edge reintegration program. The symposium's organizer, Dr. Beverly Anderson, is updating and expanding procedures and services for the Washington Metropolitan Police Dept., which already offers confidential debriefing and therapy to returning cops and their families.

And a fourth psychologist, Dr. Laura Zimmerman, who researches police issues for the consulting firm Applied Research Associates/Klein Associates Division, is collaborating with the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police on a project aimed at fully exploring the issues involved in hiring or reintegrating combat vets. The goal is to make recommendations for future research and training and to provide resources to veterans and agencies confronting reintegration challenges.

"Reintegration procedures should be part of an on-going comprehensive plan that all law enforcement agencies put in place to take care of their officers," Anderson told PoliceOne. "Short-term strategies produce only limited results and high officer turnover. An effective, well-implemented, long-term post-deployment program is what's needed. Started today, it will help prevent problem behavior in the future."

Whatever the details end up being, the seminar presenters offered six fundamental concepts that should be considered when formulating a reintegration plan:

1. Pre-briefing/debriefing. Preparing an officer to return to the streets should begin even before he leaves for combat duty, advised Maj. David Englert, chief of the Behavioral Analysis Division of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Among other things, in addition on realistic information on what to expect in the war zone, the officer can be referred to CDs and websites that offer practical instruction on stress management. Family members should be included in pre-briefings so their concerns can also be surfaced and addressed.

On return, the officer should be debriefed in a process similar to that which occurs after a critical incident. ("If being in Iraq is not a critical incident, I don't know what is," one speaker observed.) "The debriefing should include specific education on post-traumatic stress disorder and on other potential problems encountered by returning combat vets," said Dr. William Bograkos, a colonel who heads the Warrior Transition Division of the military's North Atlantic Region Medical Command.

Capt. Aaron Krenz, a criminal justice-trained reintegration operations officer and Iraq veteran with the Minnesota National Guard, recommended discussing in detail what he called the "reintegration cycle." This consists of six phases that combat veterans may transition through as they adjust from battlefield to home front:

• The Honeymoon
• Disillusionment
• Alienation (including frustration and anger)
• Re-engagement
• Acceptance
• The New Normal.

While not every returning officer will necessarily struggle through this cycle, many will, and it helps to know that these are normal reactions to the abnormal circumstance of being in war.

2. Medical/behavioral screening. After some decompression time, during which the returning officer reunites with his family and begins to settle back into his former environment, he should get a thorough screening for any medical conditions and any mental or behavioral symptoms. In particular, health professionals should be looking for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Both conditions, not uncommon among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, can have serious implications for LEOs' professional performance.

3. Formal and informal talk sessions. Regardless of whether any psychological problems seem obvious, the returning officer should be offered — and probably mandated to attend — one or more confidential sessions with a mental health professional who is familiar with the cultures and issues of both military combat and domestic law enforcement.

Ideally, the agency should also support and accommodate the officer meeting informally with other combat veterans. Returning officers may be apprehensive about "being judged by people who haven't had the kinds of experiences they've had," explained Sgt. Patrick Campbell, legislative director of the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans Assn. "The best way for a veteran to deal with issues is to talk to another veteran."

He added that the need to talk to a peer "may arise at unexpected times," so an agency needs to be flexible in accommodating informal rap sessions "when the officer is ready to share."

4. Transitional refreshers. Returning to independent patrol on the street is probably best done gradually. Both the department and the returning officer will likely be reassured by some preliminary sessions at the range, under the guidance of a firearms instructor. Threat assessment and decision-making can be tested with role-playing scenarios and/or simulator exercises. And during a transition period, the returning officer can be assigned to ride with a partner on duty.

With all these toe-in-the-water steps, however, it's vital that respect is shown for the officer's professional status, so he doesn't get treated like an inexperienced rookie or a remedial problem case.

5. Continuing support. On an ongoing basis, Bograkos said, returning officers need "primary care (medical) support, behavioral health support, and social and spiritual support." He advised that officer veterans receive follow-up health assessments periodically, given that post-deployment problems may not show up until some time after a return home. "A small pain undetected and untreated can become a major pain," he cautioned.

It is not unrealistic, he suggested, to provide training in anger management, coping skills, communication, stress management, conflict resolution, even parenting in an effort to forestall problems and to ease the passage through rough spots on the street and at home that veterans typically encounter.

In addition, it's wise to educate fellow officers, supervisors, dispatchers and other personnel about the combat experience and post-deployment reintegration. Without making the officer veteran the subject of unrelenting and uncomfortable scrutiny, the more people who understand potential problems and symptoms, the stronger an agency's early-warning system.

When an officer shows evidence of adjustment problems, "he may need an intervention, much like happens with drug abuse," said Campbell. He had some severe reintegration difficulties after returning from Iraq, he admitted, and it wasn't until a friend said, ‘If you don't go to counseling, I'll never speak to you again,' " nearly a year after his return, that he finally sought help.

6. Affirmation. Veterans want to know that their service to their country is appreciated. With modern communications, it's often possible to maintain some contact with an absent officer even while he's deployed, letting him know that he is missed and supported. Concern can be shown to his family as well, through periodic notes and phone calls.

"Little things matter," stressed Chief Cathy Lanier of Washington's Metropolitan PD, a keynote speaker at the symposium. Keeping touch with officers overseas, she implied, can produce the same morale benefits she has found from maintaining close personal contact through phone calls and visits to officers who've been shot or seriously injured on the job. One seasoned officer who survived a suspect's gunfire was so disbelieving and touched when the chief personally reached out to him that tears ran down his face.

Department administrators and fellow officers may wonder what they can do on behalf of a military veteran returning to police service. Krenz offered what may be the ultimate answer:

"Welcome us home. Affirm what we did for you. Support us with patience, regardless of your political affiliation. Encourage us to re-engage. Give us opportunities to succeed."

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