6 ways to assist an officer in crisis

If your agency does not have a plan in place to help an officer in crisis, the following six tips can provide some basic assistance

Many officers have dealt with civilians in crisis, but how many have dealt with an officer in crisis? If you haven’t, you’ve been lucky. If you have, were you adequately prepared? Does your agency have a plan in place to deal with an officer having a mental health crisis?

A crisis can occur at any time and can include: receiving word of the death/unexpected death of a loved one, a line-of-duty death, peer suicide, a terminal diagnosis of one’s self or loved one, termination, indictment, investigation, arrest, etc. Crisis intervention training is geared towards the civilian population and may not be readily available or necessarily appropriate when dealing with officers.

First off: never assume it cannot or will not happen to you, a fellow officer, or in your agency, because it can and it does. If your agency does not have a plan in place to help an officer in crisis, the following six tips can provide some basic assistance.

1. Train all agency personnel and volunteers on suicide awareness and prevention. Everyone should know what to look for and be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of an officer in crisis. Beyond the signs and symptoms, it is imperative to know what to ask and how to ask. The following four questions are essential in deciding how to proceed:

• Do you have a suicide plan? (PLAN)
• Do you have what you need to carry out your plan (pills, gun, etc.)? (MEANS)
• Do you know when you would do it? (TIME SET)
• Do you intend to commit suicide? (INTENTION)

Once each question has been asked, listen to the entire response. Remain calm and do not give the impression that anything said is alarming. There is a misconception that asking someone if they are suicidal will “plant the seed.” This is false. In fact, asking if someone is suicidal often opens up a line of communication that the person in crisis is either unable or unwilling to initiate.

2. Identify available resources to assist a fellow officer during and after a crisis (such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), suicide hotline numbers, physicians, chaplains, wellness organizations, peer support teams, family, and friends). 

There is another misconception that someone threatening suicide won’t go through with it — they just want attention. This is also false. Most people who ultimately take their own lives don’t want to die; they just want to stop the pain (e.g., physical, emotional, psychological, etc.). Take any and all threats regarding suicide seriously.

3. Have the names and phone numbers for all of your local hospitals and make them available to all officers. Get several confidential points-of-contact to allow access into the hospitals through back/side doors. Unless absolutely necessary, officers should never go through the Emergency Room/Emergency Department as they may see others they know or have arrested. Doing so may increase stress and anxiety.

4. A safety plan should be made to keep the officer in crisis safe and to secure any and all weapons on the person, in the department, and in the home. The officer’s personal residence should be checked for guns, knives, ropes, and drugs. Authorization may be required from the officer in crisis or the family in order to eliminate any additional issues.

Remember, anything can be a weapon, so check around in the house, garage, and outside areas. In addition to securing weapons, I suggest the removal of the outer duty shirt and duty belt or any identifying information such as “police” or anything with the department name (shirt, hats, etc.). An officer in full duty gear without a duty weapon will only draw attention.

5. Relaying information is on a “need to know” basis and not everybody needs to know. Relay only pertinent information to those deemed mission essential (shift sergeant, supervisor, etc.). The idea is to treat your fellow officer as if they were your child, brother, sister, friend. Show respect and remember sharing needlessly can compound the crisis and add stress and resentment.

6. If you are the initiating officer on scene when the crisis occurred, do whatever you can to stay with the officer in need. If an officer is suicidal or has insinuated such, never leave them alone . If you join them in the hospital you may be asked to step in and out of the room when confidentiality (HIPPA laws, personal privacy) issues arise, but having a fellow officer around may help ease the stress.

A crisis can happen at any time and to anyone. Start preparing now to gather resources and knowledge about how to best handle these situations should they occur. Physical and emotional wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility and it’s not just about going home, but going home as healthy as possible. 

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