6 considerations for PDs looking to start a peer support group

A peer support program can enable a police department to actively work to prevent and treat the crippling after-effects of trauma

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A peer support program can enable a police department to actively work to prevent and treat the crippling after-effects of trauma. Here are six considerations for police departments looking to start one.

1. Leadership ‘Buy-in’
How do you get your agency’s stakeholders and policymakers onboard with the program? First, leadership must be made aware of what the program is for and what it is not for (it’s not to collect secrets, or to find ‘problem children’ within a department, for instance).

Be honest about liability issues, but sell the benefits — comparing risk versus reward will help leaders better understand a peer support program and begin the dialogue necessary for creating the program’s policy. Dorie Jones, a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Specialist at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) and a co-founder of Crisis Support Solutions, suggests that creating a pilot program may help ease an agency’s concerns or hesitation. This can be a test program that is approved for a small section of the department or a limited, agency-wide launch. Use the test run to gather data about the program’s effectiveness and involve attorneys in order to further shape the program’s policy and protocol.

Jones also suggests presenting the program’s benefits in monetary terms. She wrote, "What is the cost to the agency if one (or some) [officers] could no longer produce and perform at an acceptable level? A peer/crisis support program does not have to be presented and/or argued on ‘moral’ grounds…To achieve ‘buy-in,’ consider presenting numbers and demonstrating that these programs add value (and potential ‘cost-savings’) to the organization."

2. Policy
It is crucial to identify early on what your program is designed to be and what it’s not designed to be. Policy must be written to determine how far your agency’s peer support program reaches and where it stops. Every program has limits. Create clear confidentiality guidelines. Have standards of practice — identify the personality traits that go into being a peer supporter. Not sure how to write a policy? Call other agencies that have one in place and ask if you can borrow theirs to use as a template!

3. Protocol/Procedure
What is the extent of availability of peer support in your agency? This will be decided in part by the size of your department. Will they be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Only during working hours? What is the process when the level of treatment required is beyond a peer supporter’s ability and requires a referral? When is it time to refer someone?

4. Recruitment
Decide what traits (empathy is a huge one) you are looking for in volunteers.  Determine how your police department will market that they are in search of volunteers for the program. Create an application — it should not be a program that just anyone can join. Candidates should undergo an interview or several interviews before being selected. Conduct character checks — don’t just take the applicant’s word for it; vet their character through their friends or colleagues.

5. Training
Because there is no standardization, it’s entirely up to agencies to decide what peer support training should consist of. The training can be in-agency or outsourced to companies like Crisis Support Solutions. When someone completes their peer support training, they should be able to effectively help individuals or groups in need through listening and assessment skills.

6. Ongoing Peer Development
Who 'peers' the peer? What ongoing service/training updates does your department need to provide? Peers require refresh training — once they’ve received the basic training and have gained some real-world experience, ongoing development helps them refine their skills.

For more information to get you started on a peer support program,  check out the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Peer Support Guidelines or visit Crisis Support Solutions

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