After trauma of mass shooting, Nev. sheriff prioritizes officers' mental health
"I just felt like it was time for law enforcement to be bold and to have a real conversation about the fact that this job impacts us in ways that are so negative," Clark County Sheriff Kevin McMahill said
By Casey Harrison
Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS — Clark County Sheriff Kevin McMahill had just returned from seeing a show on the Las Vegas Strip with his family on Oct. 1, 2017, when the flood of phone calls began.
Metro Police dispatchers were inundated with calls starting about 10 p.m. from people reporting gunfire on the Strip. There were reports of dead and injured people up and down the casino-lined Las Vegas Boulevard.
McMahill, then undersheriff, and other top Metro brass were convinced Las Vegas was under a coordinated terrorist attack.
It was not until hours later that they would realize it was the work of a single gunman firing from the Mandalay Bay hotel tower into a crowd of some 22,000 people at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival below.
The unprecedented attack led to the deaths of 60 people. More than 400 were wounded by the gunfire, and over 400 others were hurt in the ensuing panic.
"We literally believed we were under attack for about a solid three hours into that event," McMahill recalled. "You gotta imagine — 22,000 people ran in every direction, right away from where we were having reports of multiple shooters, elevated shooters."
Virtually every officer, on-duty or not, in Metro's force of 3,000 responded to what would be the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.
It ended when the gunman killed himself as police closed in. No motive was ever officially established.
"Everything was just pure chaos," McMahill recalled. "Fire trucks that were responding to the scene had to stop, because how do they go past this person who has a sucking chest wound or a head wound, to go to the scene when someone is in dire need right now?
"All our resources that were coming in were getting stopped, and we could never get to where we really wanted to be."
Amid the mayhem, McMahill, the top deputy under then-sheriff Joe Lombardo, decided to send groups of 25 officers to each casino along the Strip and downtown. It was outside normal protocol of establishing a single command center.
Still believing a terrorist attack might be underway, McMahill hoped the small teams could clear each building of potential shooters, get valid reports of how many people were injured and report back when the coast was clear.
"It's a heavy burden," McMahill said. "I'm getting ready to deploy these officers into what I think are multiple active assailant situations. And I'm trying to figure out in my mind if that's the right thing to do or not."
Eventually, as officers reported back and more information came in, a clearer picture of what was happening began to emerge.
"I really didn't think about it that much while I was doing it, because I knew I needed to get people to where they were, and it was taking way too long for me to get those questions answered," McMahill said. "I went outside the norms, and I'm glad I did it. It was the right thing to do."
Going all in on mental health
Less than a year into his tenure as sheriff and nearly six years after the attack, McMahill has made the mental health and well-being of officers a top priority.
To combat post-traumatic stress and other issues officers face, Metro is teaming with other agencies to establish a wellness center open to all first responders in Southern Nevada.
Studies have found first responders and emergency dispatchers suffer depression and alcoholism at rates disproportionately higher than the general population.
"While we were taught to deal with it in my generation ... it just doesn't work," said McMahill, who was elected sheriff and took over in January, after Lombardo became governor.
"That's evidenced by the fact that we have higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, divorce," McMahill said. "So I just felt like it was time for law enforcement to be bold and to have a real conversation about the fact that this job impacts us in ways that are so negative."
The goal is to streamline access to services such as psychotherapy, nutritional guidance and financial planning.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that if we take care of our first responders better than we ever have, they're going to take care of this community better than they ever have," McMahill said.
With Metro's Wellness Bureau established, McMahill's larger ambition is to create a Southern Nevada First Responder Wellness Center.
"Our hope is that everyone in some way, shape or form will participate in this huge project, which is so important to our community," said James Kilber, Metro's chief administrative officer.
"The first phase we're doing is mental health, but down the road, the other phases that we've mapped out already are physical fitness and health and wellness, nutritional health, family health as far as child care and daycare, financial health, spiritual health and training, education, career development and mentoring."
Metro has been soliciting donations for the project, but officials might seek funding at the city, county and state levels.
"We're at a very crucial part right now," Kliber said. "These different entities need to step up and say, 'Here's how we're going to fund this,' and go to their respective people to ask for the money."
McMahill says he's hired two clinical social workers to complement Metro's employee peer assistance program. He has plans to hire three more social workers and a doctor to act as the director of the bureau, he said.
Under McMahill, Metro has made it a condition of employment for new officers to undergo periodic mental health counseling "so we'll eventually get to a place where everybody will have it."
The sheriff has also invited other Clark County police and fire agencies to pool resources. The response has been well-received, he said.
Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Chief Fernando Gray said there have been several meetings with the sheriff and other elected officials. "What we're looking for is just a collaborative approach to make sure that our responders, both police and fire, are taken care of," he said.
It's only been within the past few years that agencies have really started to emphasize the importance of mental health, said Jeff Dill, a retired firefighter and founder of the North Las Vegas-based Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. The nonprofit group helps firefighters in mental crisis.
Dill is also a member of the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue peer support team that works with firefighters after traumatic responses.
Dill, a licensed counselor, said it's not unusual for first responders to develop forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Sufferers can relive an especially traumatic event through flashbacks caused by certain triggers, such as loud noises like gunshots.
Another issue is cumulative trauma, which adds up over months or years of responding to gruesome scenes, be it a house fire or fatal wreck. It can be exacerbated by large-scale events like the Oct. 1 mass shooting.
But perhaps an even larger threat is a relatively new concept called moral injury or callbacks to actions that conflict with a person's moral compass, officials said.
The problem can weigh on a person who is reluctant to open up people who aren't first responders, causing personal relationships to deteriorate.
"That's where we see a lot of our people struggling," Dill said. "So, we're really looking at everything overall, and that means we start at our academies. We're training our counselors and chaplains, we're educating our family members, we're writing guidelines and policies — all the way up through retirement. Because here in Las Vegas, we want people to have a great career, but we want you to have an even better retirement."
Crystal Patterson, the peer support coordinator at the North Las Vegas Police Department, has also been attending those meetings led by McMahill to get the wellness center off the ground.
She leads a team of eight people who offer support to department employees, from picking up their children from school to delivering snacks while officers are out in the field.
Agencies across the valley have had peer assistance programs for several years. But what McMahill has excelled at, in establishing Metro's Wellness Bureau, is training clinicians to understand the life of a first responder so it's easier for police officers, firefighters and medics to open up to them about the ups and downs of the job, Patterson said.
"We all love him for putting this together, and he's done a lot since it was established," Patterson said.
McMahill said he has taken advantage of therapy himself.
"Here I was thinking about this stuff, not sleeping, challenged in your own thought processes sometimes, and what you saw and what you felt, what you smelled," he said. "It was time just to do something. And so that's been a huge part of what I've decided to do here."
McMahill said he wanted to address issues affecting the "heart, mind, body and soul" of each first responder in Southern Nevada. Those efforts have included the addition of Metro's first emotional support dog, Jimmy.
"If you would have asked me 10 years ago, if I'd be buying a dog if I was a sheriff, I'd have laughed you out of the room," McMahill said. "But that damn dog walks around here and people love that dog. ... (It's) just a little bit of comfort."
McMahill emphasized the importance of building the Southern Nevada First Responder Wellness Center in a way that makes the rank-and-file genuinely believe departments have their backs.
"I'm a person that likes to get things done very rapidly," McMahill said. "I have been intentionally, deliberately slow on what I'm doing because, if I don't get it right and I lose the faith and the trust of the people that I lead, they're never going to take advantage of this."
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