How a Conn. cop offers 'care to people' on their darkest days

Officer Jeremy Brewer has given about 25 death notifications, but he says he tries not to keep count


By Peter Hvizdak
New Haven Register, Conn.

HAMDEN, Conn. — Death notifications always start with a stressful walk, then a knock on the door or ringing of the doorbell.

While he has given approximately 25 death notifications, Hamden police Officer Jeremy Brewer, the crisis services liaison officer, said he tries not to keep count. It never gets easier.

A small part of Brewer's multifaceted job is to deliver those dreaded notices. A specially trained police officer, he works under the umbrella of the Neighborhood Initiative Unit and Special Victims Unit. He deals with mental health calls, deescalates life-changing moments, handles domestic violence, works with elderly in need, is a hostage negotiator and serves as a liaison with the Yale Behavioral Health Center.

Many law enforcement agencies are at a crossroads, faced with finding that middle ground between crime prevention, crime suppression and apprehending criminals as well as investing in the relationships with communities in which they serve. The Hamden Police Department engages in initial social work, letting the public know the department is built around a "customer service"-based approach to protect and serve.

'Not everybody can handle this'

On a particular night, a death notification brings wails of sorrow.

Summoned in the middle of the night, Brewer walked down a dimly lit hallway and enters an apartment to shares the bitter news with a woman that her husband just died of a drug overdose. According to Brewer, the husband reportedly had brought both narcotics and violence into the home, and had allegedly abused the woman and their child.

Still, the news hits the wife hard, a moment unlike any other she has had with an officer, he said.

Sitting with her, Brewer looks into her eyes while she grieves. He sits and listens. He doesn't give advice, doesn't share his opinion on her husband, who had a history with the police. He doesn't talk about how she should move on with her life. Brewer doesn't tell her that the death of her husband is an escape from abuse.

He treats the wife with respect, dignity and understanding.

"The eyes tell the story," Brewer said.

What Brewer remembers most from giving death notifications are the body language and expressions of the people that receive the bad news he brings.

"It makes me think back to a time I told a mother that her son had tragically died in a car accident," he said. "I remember the look on the mother's face when she realized her son's driving also caused the death of his best friend. It's a look on the mother's face you can't explain."

"When the recipients of people who get death notifications think back to the moment I came to their door, I hope I feel that I tried to handle the bad news in the most human and personal way possible. There is an art to this type of thing," he said.

"There is a sense of vulnerability that goes along with a police officer's job. I think the mentality, especially in my industry, has shifted from robotically sharing bad news with people," Brewer said.

Community work

Brewer trains police officers to maintain a neutrality during conflict and to help them make bias-free decisions when working with the community, according to his supervisor Lt. William Onofrio, who commands the Community Liaison and Neighborhood Initiative Unit.

"There are many different components of what Jeremy brings to his job. His responsibility on a daily basis is to respond to all the mental health calls, deescalating crisis, overdoses, sudden death, and domestic violence: any call where an individual could be in crisis and could need additional support that the average patrol officer can't provide," Onofrio said. "We can leave him on that call for four to six hours at a time, whatever it takes for him to finish the job and comfort a family."

Brewer also trains officers on the concept of "fair and impartial policing." It entails understanding how the brain processes unconscious bias and prejudice. The training is geared to helping the cop recognize personal biases that can affect perceptions and behaviors when engaging with the community and to be "present." He tries to reduce the defensiveness among law enforcement toward the approach of fair and impartial policing, as a way to address bias among the ranks.

The training is based on treating people with dignity and respect, conveying trustworthy intentions, professional competence and good character.

"Biased policing impacts the symbiotic relationship between the community and law enforcement agencies," Onofrio said. "The goal is creating a safe environment for effective policing."

"We have a community policing initiative in this department. On every shift the officer goes out and engages with the people, building relationships, and developing trust and partnerships," he said. "That's where deescalation and the customer service initiative comes in. We teach our guys how to approach different calls, talk to people instead of just 'showing up.' We show we care with empathy. We engage with people, let them vent and let the people know their complaint is being handled, no matter how major or minor it is."

"We are not reinventing the wheel. This stuff we have been doing for years," Onofrio added.

"We have been modifying it a little bit right now, changing it. Police officers have never marketed this stuff to the public on what we do and how we do it. Now we have to spell it out to the public," he said. "And you know what, a lot of times now our public knows what we are doing. We are getting feedback and we are changing as a police department based on the feedback. The feedback, the open communication, is evolving us."

According to Onofrio, Brewer " is offering care to people as opposed to investigating and enforcing the laws. It's part of what we do as a department. But Brewer is not the traditional officer by any means.",

"Sometimes it means meeting a person one-on-one in a coffee shop and talking to them. Sometimes you need to train officers in small talk, unfortunately," said Onofrio.

Onofrio gave an example of an officer who came across a teenager at a local convenience store.

"An officer came to me and said, 'Hey, some of this stuff is working. I was getting my coffee at the 7-11 and I see a kid there that I see every day hanging out with his skateboard. I say hi to the kid and he said he was suicidal. I said, "What do you mean, suicidal?" The kid says, "I am not feeling it today.'"

So, Onofrio said, "The police officer hits the 'time-out' button and sits and talks with the teenager. If the officer just walked right by the guy and didn't talk to him, nothing would have been done. That kid might be another statistic. We eventually had to ship him off to the hospital for services."

Listening

Brewer said a shift is taking place with police administrators, understanding that certain level of calls are just going to take time. "I can't speak for other agencies. But at least for my agency, if you are on a mental health call, it's assumed that it might take a little bit of time. That man or woman that has the mental issue is important to us."

Over 19 years on the job, Brewer understands the cumulative stress that lingers with fellow police officers, he said. Besides training officers in deescalating conflict, he facilitates peer-to-peer support among officers who need emotional support from the impact of trauma in their lives or from the day-to-day issues that bring stress into an officer's life.

"I came onto the police department right after 9/11/2001. During that time, police said, 'Suck-it-up, that's what you signed on for, you signed on to be a cop. Deal with it.' No police officer out there would really, openly, say, 'Hey, I am going to meet somebody who is a specialist (counselor),'" Brewer said.

"I think we are at the crossroads in policing where the stigma of admitting the need for psychological counseling has gone down. Officers are taking up 'mindfulness' and are actually admitting that they sit down with counselors," he said. "Just like in the military, police are now willing to talk about the trauma that impacts their life and are more willing to try techniques that helps minimize the stress of the job."

"Today, the public understand that people in the military who go to war may experience mental issues. I don't think the general public understands the job we do and the level of stress and anxiety that police can have similar to someone who served in the military," Brewer said. " ... I am not trying to draw a parallel between us and the military. But I believe a lot of people don't understand the job we do.

Brewer said he has had "people in the military tell me, 'I did 16-months, you are dealing with 20 years. Your job is so hard. At least we knew who our enemy was. With police, you don't know who your enemy is,' they say."

Onofrio said said peer-to-peer support is important among police.

"It helps up to identify officers who are struggling. Cumulative stress is difficult to see. It's not one incident that is going to dwell on somebody. Cumulative stress is not the big incidents that impact the cop," he said.. "It's often the small stuff that repeats itself over and over while on the job. Experiencing repeated domestic, or seeing women get beat up, it doesn't bother you then, but you go to a hundred of them, it starts to have an impact.

"It could be an officer who has worked long hours and seen too much," Onofrio said. "Our peer-to-peer support gives officers a good outlet to talk to somebody that is not a supervisor or counselor. So, Jeremy helps facilitate that for us."

"Jeremy is part of a group of officers that offer peer support," Onofrio added. "It's very informal. Sometimes an officer reaches out and sometimes that officer is approached someone in peer support who knows that officer is struggling or a supervisor has referred it to someone in peer support. Peer-to-peer support doesn't have to be in a conference room or laying down on a couch. It can just be a conversation over a coffee. It is lending an ear, and that is all it is. To listen."

Relationships

"It's all community relations, teaching officers to communicate with the public, how to treat them better and how to treat them outside of investigations," Onofrio said. "We try engaging the customer service end of it. We don't want our officers to be rigid and structured. ... We want our officers to be approachable."

There is no place in modern policing for a condescending and poor attitude toward the public, Onofrio said, and the rigid, unapproachable persona of police officers doesn't work. If a police officer can't walk around and engage with , talk to joke with people — be able to sit down on a porch and have coffee or water with people — they are not going to get anywhere, he said: Nobody will talk to them or help them solve crimes.

"There is a whole lot to policing. To define any one particular element is impossible," Onofrio said. "Law enforcement is not a good definition and accurate definition of policing. We are doing community relations work, social work, doing crime prevention, crime suppression, investigating crimes, and apprehending offenders."

"Brewer's skill sets are very valuable for the Police Department and the community," Onofrio said. However, "We couldn't operate a police department with 100 Jeremys — it would be great for more people to have that skill set, but we also need to be doing traditional preventive crime suppression, enforcing laws, and responding to calls in service. Other officers are specialized in other policing jobs that are important."

Policing, however, remains a potentially dangerous job, Brewer said.

"The idea of deescalation is important, taking down the heightened emotions of a bad situation and starting to bring it down," Brewer said. "But in doing so, you can't sacrifice officer safety.

"As police officers we can't take the gun belt off and leave it in the car. But as police officers we need to slow down and think about understanding the emotion and connect with the situation," he said. "It's not to say a police officer is going to be safe and it is not to say a police officer is never going to have to use force. It is also about a police officer using listening skills, using time and distance as an advantage that might save the life of a police officer.

"You can still confront a guy who just stabbed two people, who is still holding a knife, and the police officer can still ask himself the same question: 'Can I connect with this guy in a hot situation and slow down the violence?' But if you see the guy come at you with the knife, it's 'go-time,'" he said, when it comes to using lethal force.

And while fair and impartial police training is the proper approach, the community has a role to play as well, and some may have an implicit bias toward police.

"It's not just about us," Brewer said. "A cop can't be everything to everybody."

(c)2021 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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