IACP 2014: Mental health interventions in the aftermath of a mass casualty event

2 surprising strategies for dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty event were gleaned at an afternoon seminar session in the Police Psychological Services Section Track

At IACP 2014 in Orlando, Laura Usher — Program Manager for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Crisis Intervention Team — described how her organization worked with the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Newtown (Conn.) Police Department to gather lessons learned about mental health intervention and other issues observed in the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

When NAMI went to Newtown, they asked Chief Kehoe what they could do in terms of assistance, and he replied back that the department (and the community at large) had ample access to mental health services. What he needed was assistance in documenting lessons learned. 

Their work will result in a guidebook for other chiefs to use when faced with similar tragedies in their communities. The book is not likely to be available until at least the middle of next year, but from Usher’s comments we can glean some key takeaways.

An Unprecedented Event
“We went in to talk with the chief and other community leaders to see if there was a role that NAMI could play. We found out two things really quickly. First is that there was no lack of mental health services available. There were lots of avenues for officers to get support, which is great. The other thing we learned that access to mental health services by itself wasn’t really sufficient to make sure that everyone got the assistance they needed.”

These incidents have a lasting and widespread effect on the whole community — officers included — which must not be measured in days or weeks or months, but in fact, in years and even decades. For example, leaders in Newtown are planning to address mental health — and other — consequences of that event 16 years into the future. 

“Chief Kehoe said that he — as well as other chiefs — need guidance and support on how to make decisions in the aftermath of that kind of an event to best ensure the mental health of his officers. He said he wanted NAMI to document the hard lessons that he had learned and make it easier for the next incident,” Usher explained. 

One of the things that the chief told Usher and her team was that the event was truly unprecedented for the department. The immediate need to manage the scene and to assist victims that day was just the first part of it. The ongoing — and overwhelming — amount of people coming into town caused problems. Emergent volunteers came from all over, and while well-meaning, ended up not necessarily helping at all. Think about the fact that the local post office was completely overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of more than 40,000 stuffed animals and you get a sense of how well-meaning gestures can actually end up having negative consequences. 

Nobody could really get a break. Stress was increasing. Furthermore, there were officers from agencies across the state who descended on the town to assist. Assistance is great, but that additional manpower added to the level of chaos and stress on the chief and the department. As you can imagine, tempers were begging to get short. 

“The sum of this was that all of this assistance and all of this help were sort of a mixed blessing for Newtown. It made it very difficult for the department to manage policing services and manage the mental health of the officers,” Usher explained. 

Innovative Strategic Maneuvers
As Usher explained her discussions with Chief Kehoe, two things he and the town leadership stood out as truly innovative and immediately implementable for police departments across the city. 

1. Ask for the right kind of assistance to meet your needs. Chief Kehoe readily recognized that the amount of activity as outlined above was quickly overwhelming the department and the town — the flood of people and things arriving to the small town was actually adding to the stress. What they really needed was a team of managers to help manage things.

Fortunately, GE — General Electric Corporation — has an office near Newtown, and a lot of their employees live there. When the company said they wanted to donate money to aid in the assistance, leaders there were courageous enough to essential say, “What we really need is your expertise.”

Four skilled corporate executives went to Newtown to help organize emergent volunteers, deal with the media, set up funds for the influx of cash, and other things which were burdening the police — and not really a police function anyway. 

2. Deal with the media head on. Chief Kehoe and the other leadership in town worked to create a unified, community-wide media strategy and they put out their message so all the citizens living there could be relieved of at least some of that stress. 

Recall that the media presence swamped the whole community and the department and increased everyone’s workflow on the department. The mere presence of all those massive satellite trucks was emotionally traumatic — especially for the kids of the town — because they served as an ever present reminder of the attack. 

The strategy was to put a layer between survivors and victim families and the press — sort of a fence with a sign that says, “Stay Away.” And it worked! 

Interestingly, when the one-year anniversary of the incident was approaching, the department and town leaders were very proactive in telling the media were not welcome on that somber day. The strategy was to 

“On the one-year anniversary, the town was extremely worried about being flooded again, so they put word out to all the media outlets, ‘We don’t want you here. We’re not going to answer any questions. We’re not having any kind of events that are going to need any media attention. And the media stayed away.”

“What does this all have to do with officer mental health? The message that we got pretty clearly was that managing the workload and the stress of the chief and the officers was sort of the first step to take advantage of mental health services and sort of recover and recuperate. We heard from officers that they were constantly working overtime, when they’d rather be at home with their families.” 

A Sandy Hook type of event is a chief’s worst nightmare, and we’re so grateful to Chief Kehoe has been generous in sharing his experience and wisdom on this project. The hope is that the project will give chiefs the tools they need to get through a very difficult period in the immediate aftermath of a mass-casualty event, while protecting the wellbeing and mental health of their officers. 

At the end of the day, we cannot fail to protect those who protect our communities.

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