In times of stress, peer support teams help Calif. officers cope
These teams are inclusive, drawing on officers whose encounters with stressful situations have been successful
By George Kelly
East Bay Times
RICHMOND, Calif. — When the call came in about a tragic accident one afternoon in January, Michelle Milam knew exactly what to do.
Milam is on Richmond Police Department's peer support team, which serves as first responder to officers who experience difficulty coping with traumatic events.
On that day in January, a 2-year-old girl was fatally hit when a family member backed a car out of a driveway. The officers went through the steps of processing the chaotic scene -- taking the police report and consoling the grieving family as they waited for the coroner and chaplain to arrive.
After the officers leave, though, the trauma lingers for some. That's when the department's peer support teams step in.
"Officers are human beings," said Milam, Richmond's crime prevention manager. "They see a high level of trauma so they have to get used to it to do their jobs, but that doesn't mean they aren't human and affected by it."
Back at Richmond's police headquarters, a quiet room is set aside for officers to decompress. The support teams are often made up of veteran officers, some who have dealt with similar trauma and struggles.
Beth Dansie heads the Brentwood-based Psychological Services Group, which contracts with law enforcement agencies in four Bay Area counties -- Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Solano -- to help them establish peer support teams modeled after standards set by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.
"They came up with this idea that when we know we're putting people in harm's way, we have an obligation to take care of them," she said.
The Psychological Services Group helps police departments set up peer teams, write best-practice policies, select members, and train for responses to traumatic incidents such as when an officer is killed in the line of duty. It also provides access to counseling.
"It's really a tool that should have been in law enforcement many years ago," said San Leandro police Lt. Robert McManus. "The way that cops dealt with stress was to go to the bar and get drunk, and that no longer happens. It's benefited a lot of people. Quite honestly, if we had had a program like that in law enforcement many years ago, we'd have seen many less stress-related retirements."
He recognized the connection between the highly charged and stressful nature of police work and the role support teams play.
"There's absolutely no way to predict how someone is going to react when forced into that traumatic situation," he said.
Milam said that alcoholism and divorce are key indicators some officers may be struggling.
"This kind of work takes a high mental toll," Milam said. "People say 'Oh, they're cops, they're well paid, we pay them to do this service.' Where do the helpers go to get help?"
Many East Bay police departments send peer support members to quarterly trainings on issues such as line-of-duty deaths, substance-abuse issues, and relationships, McManus said.
In the wake of Hayward Sgt. Scott Lunger's line-of-duty slaying last year, McManus said he attended one of those meetings some weeks afterward.
"We had police officers on their peer support team talk about how if it wasn't for other departments, Hayward police wouldn't have gotten through," he said.
These teams are inclusive, drawing on officers whose encounters with stressful situations have given them experience with overcoming stress.
For some groups, attending public events such as memorials and fundraisers helps harness the healing peer support teams offer.
"There's always a big need when officers pass away," Milam said.
When Richmond police officer Kaliah Harper died in a domestic violence incident in 2006, employee associations raised scholarship funds for Harper's younger sister.
McManus finds comfort in programs like next week's Police Unity Tour fundraiser ride, which draws hundreds of officers every May to cycle from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. and collect more than $1.5 million for a law enforcement memorial. He's planning his sixth ride, which also serves as a reunion with other law enforcement friends.
"It's something that, in my 25-plus years, is one of the most rewarding times, not to mention being able to ride," McManus said. "Just being able to be part of a group that honors those that aren't here."
Copyright 2016 the Contra Costa Times