IACP Quick Take: Mission readiness and family resiliency
Applying lessons learned from Operation Diligent Valor to help LEOs and their families cope with trauma
Federal LEO special response teams (SODs) are trained to respond to critical incidents at a moment’s notice, but family members are often left out of the picture. Families rely on the officer to communicate what these missions entail, though this is not always accurately portrayed. Over the past year, ongoing involvement with rapid response to events such as the riots in the Pacific Northwest has directly impacted officers’ families, with social media coverage, harassment like doxing, and targeting family members for retaliation causing unprecedented stress for loved ones at home.
At this year’s IACP virtual conference, a husband and wife team working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency gave a presentation regarding their work helping LEOs and their families in the aftermath of Operation Diligent Valor. The operation saw more than 100 federal agents and officers deployed to Portland, Oregon, amid escalating protests and riots during the summer of 2020. Ashlee N. Fisher is a certified clinical trauma professional and serves as the Trauma Incident and Event Response Team (TIER) clinician; Paul C. Fisher is a border patrol agent, peer support coordinator and TIER Team leader.
Based on this experience, the Fishers shared valuable insights that can help keep officers and their families strong, no matter which agency they work for.
“Our families are a crucial factor for whether a person is ready to deploy, how well they do when they’re deploying and able to carry out whatever their mission or orders are.” – Ashlee Fisher
“There’s still a lot of stigma to participating in [psychological first aid] debriefings, but people are wanting to know more information than we could have ever anticipated, too.” – Ashlee Fisher
“When we talked about having a [relationship] plan of action on deployment, [there were] a lot of blank stares from the guys. They had never thought about it before; it was just part of their job.” – Paul Fisher
“Resiliency building needs to start before deployment.” – Ashlee Fisher
Here are three key strategies for fostering resilient law enforcement families:
1. Involving families in psychoeducational debriefings gives them the right tools at the right time
For LEOs, traumatic incidents can happen at virtually any moment on the job, and when they do, family members can be vital sources of support. But when families are directly impacted by that trauma, as we saw in the aftermath of the Portland protests, each member’s potential for coping is unfortunately diminished.
By offering families psychoeducational debriefings along with officers, agencies can help ensure the entire unit remains resilient, the Fishers explained.
“When we started doing psychological first aid debriefs, we learned that we haven’t actually been covering as many people as we needed to in our responses,” Ashlee said. That’s when they expanded their approach.
The sessions the Fishers conducted, with the help of trusted SOD team members acting as facilitators, lasted one to two hours and were held virtually, though they could certainly be held in person as well. They included psychological first aid and other psychoeducational resources so family members could not only identify signs of crisis, but they could also start the important work of reconnecting while boosting resiliency for future events.
Families who participated in these voluntary sessions reported improvements in communication and problem-solving skills, as well as feelings of validation and compassion.
2. Developing a relationship plan of action before critical missions can mitigate additional stressors
Of the resiliency strategies included in the debriefings, having a family plan of action in place before the next deployment or critical situation is one of the most essential – and difficult. That’s because these plans require couples to not only analyze the strengths and problem areas of their relationships, but also necessitate discussions about worst-case scenarios.
“These are all hard things to talk about,” Paul said.
A successful family plan should include:
- The strengths of each family member, as well as external resources for assistance.
- Risk factors and problem areas (i.e., the areas of your relationship that need extra support).
- Communication needs, including off-limits topics.
- A plan for handling issues at home, including emergencies.
- Preferences for returning home after deployment (i.e., How can the officer best be supported after a difficult incident?).
These plans “give team members on the ground the freedom knowing things back home will be taken care of,” said Paul, but they also give couples an accessible framework for strengthening their relationship before the strain of a traumatic incident can push it to the brink.
3. Family resiliency takes ongoing work
While the family action plan can help set LEOs and their relationships up for success, it isn’t the only tool in the resiliency toolbox. In fact, if there’s anything the Fishers want LEOs to take away from their experience it’s that family strength is anything but a one and done.
“The final takeaway here is just to acknowledge that relationships take work,” said Ashlee. “By putting in the time to invest in the structure of your relationship, then you’re able to withstand” the stresses that come along with the job.
The action plan itself should be continually revised. Just as the job changes, so do individual needs and expectations.
There are other steps families can take to bolster these key relationships in between deployments. Something as simple as bringing your spouse into work so they can get a better idea of the job can significantly improve their ability to empathize and feel connected during difficult times.
Couples should consider taking advantage of any resources offered by agencies for this purpose. For example, CBP offers families Prep 8 Relationship Intelligence Training for Couples, which seeks to provide law enforcement families with the best tools for communicating, skill-building and problem-solving.
There’s no denying that LEOs need to be focused and ready for the mission at hand; helping their families along the way may just be the most effective way to make that happen.