Why departmental PTSD therapy is needed but will not help as many as it should.
There are a lot of deep issues in the police culture that should be examined to understand why it should be done, but how 80% of officers with PTSD, that need help will fall through the cracks with a one-sided departmental approach.
Before we look at my reasoning let’s look at the causes that most people know about PTSD and police work. Where the departments fail the officers and where the officers fail themselves. I do believe that the departments hold a responsibility to take care of their own but, the officers themselves hold a responsibility to themselves as well.
In police work you must be strong, you must be a hero and stand as a rock. If you do not present yourself that way to the citizens, and criminals alike, the citizens will have no faith in your ability and the criminals will not respect you. As a police officer, it’s about being strong and in control, of not only a situation but in control of yourself.
Once an officer begins to develop PTSD, he or she begins to lose control of things in life. They being to look for unhealthy outlets to deal with the depression and stress. In police work, being in control is very crucial on the street. Once officers start to lose that control, they push harder in all areas of their life to assert control.
My dealings with PTSD
An officer might recognize these things or they might not. In my case, I had never even heard of PTSD past the military and it was foreign to me. I only found out about it after my counselor told me about it and said I had it. First I had doubts about it but I did a lot of reading and soul searching.
I remember times in the department growing up in the ranks. Some officers took leave on stress and the first line supervisors and command saying they were faking it; saying they were weak and using it as an excuse so they don’t have to work. I heard this from a police commissioner about me as recently as 2012 when I retired.
I do find it amusing that in the first 17 years of my time in the Police Department I took zero medical days. During my time with the department I was awarded a silver star, 6 bronze stars, and 18 letters of commendation. I worked 18 of 20 years in specialized units from drugs, the DEA task force, a Sergeant in charge of a shooting squad and I developed the city’s Gun Trace Task Force.
As with anyone in any job, it’s always: ‘What have you done for me lately?’. After my shooting, I did what all good cops do. I was back to work the very next day on the streets of Baltimore. It was not until three years later and my life spiraling out of control, sitting in a bathtub with a gun in my mouth, that I realized something was wrong. At that point, I went on my own to see someone; at the same time, sealing my fate with many of my brothers and sisters in blue. Not to my face mind you, but the whispers.
Anyone working in any police department across the country knows the whispers. The “He’s just trying to play the system”, and “He’s weak if his mind is broken”. Those are the same people that will stand up and proclaim to be your brother or sister to your face. The same ones that I still love to this day, even after the hell I put myself through with the choices I made, the choices that were my responsibility during the time of my life when I had PTSD.
How departments will fail
So back to the topic of this story of how departments will fail to deliver on helping the police family. Even with all their good intentions, it will not be successful. They may tout success and they could have the best programs that can be offered.
As an officer, you must have control and you must have face. Most officers facing stress, when they think of seeing someone about it, will avoid it. Not because they don’t want help, but for two main reasons.
Reason one, time heals all wounds mentality. While this is true to an extent, PTSD is not only a condition that’s brought on only by one action, but it’s also cumulative, it builds up. If the officer does not get help in some way, this condition will not heal. It’s like having a cut, it may heal over time but continual cuts will not allow it to heal.
Reason two, they think they will look out of control and lose face. How many of us have had interviews for specialized positions at our jobs? Many officers don’t want to push a patrol car their career. Some do, and I applaud them as they are better than I, to put on that uniform all day and answer 911 calls.
Police departments are the biggest gossip place I have ever found. If I were to be pulled over for speeding two jurisdictions over by the time I could drive into my jurisdiction the entire department would know what I did.
Same goes for seeing a counselor. If you see a counselor through the department, someone knows. A supervisor always knows, and if they know their boss knows, and then their friends know, and before you know it you are the crazy or lazy guy- you’ve lost face and your control.
Now you are fully recovered and back to work, and you want to get into a specialized unit. You meet the requirements, you have the time on, you have the stats and skills to do the job. You go to your interview and after you leave- the whispers start: “I’m not sure we should take him, what if he stresses out? What if he can’t handle this?” or “If he goes out sick again, we will be short someone”.
The excuses are endless, like all police work, you can do the right thing a million times but falter once and that’s all you are ever remembered for. Same goes for a damaged mind. It will not matter if it’s fixed to others, you will always be that damaged person.
Additionally, departments have no way of recognizing cumulative PTSD and no plan on addressing it past their yearly in-service training on the issues, and how to deal with them if they come up past the departmental counseling that couldAdditionally- no matter how it’s presented.
The cost to the department
So, the question is what are we left with? What can the departments do to help the officers at the same time encourage them to seek help? Everyone loses if the officer develops PTSD. The officer faces losing his mind, his family, his finances, his job, and sometimes his life. The department faces losing an officer, that costs money to train, and civil liabilities through workman’s compensation.
What if the officer becomes aggressive at work because of PTSD that’s not managed? The sky’s the limit for the taxpayer and the city budget. If the officer is aggressive it could be a lawsuit, to even riots that could cost the city tens of millions of dollars. In the Baltimore City riots of 2015, the city’s cost was estimated at 20 million dollars and that’s not accounting for damages to individuals.
So what can be done?
We are left with what can be done if the departments can’t solve the issues. The issues need to be addressed on multiple fronts. The departments need to have mandatory counseling after shootings; this should be the normal routine. Departments should also understand that the officers will not trust this counseling because it’s all reported back to the command.
It reminds me of the psychological test I took when becoming a police officer. A few questions amused me: “Have you ever been abducted by aliens?” and “Have you ever fantasized about killing your parents?”. I’m not sure any reasonable person, even if they believed they were abducted or fantasized about those things, would admit to it on a police entrance test. Same goes with counselors. Many officers will say what they need to say, to be cleared back to work and with the least amount of damage to their reputation. It’s human nature.
Yes, initial counseling is good, but the emphasis should be placed on what signs to look for and how to address any issues that may arise. The officers need to be trained in different coping skills concerning PTSD. Police Departments should not expect them to reveal too much in counseling. Officers need to be told of outside resources available to them, should they need it. While the department may not like this because they lose the control aspect, it’s better than the alternative both personally and financially.
There needs to be more groups like ours, CopStress, that works with officers anonymously. We let them know that what they say is kept in confidence like other protected relationship. At CopStress, we use models to first talk to the officers; if we feel that they need more assistance, we have independent counselors that they can talk to. If the counselors feel they need a more structured approach, we encourage the officers to then seek help through their department.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping officers with PTSD. Ignoring it and trying to control how it’s addressed will only lead to failure for not only the officer and their family, but the department, municipality, and society. There may come a time that PTSD is looked at as you would look at a broken leg, but I don’t see that happening in today’s culture for at least another 20 years.
About the Author:
Rick Willard is a retired 20 year Detective Sergeant from the Baltimore City Police. Rick Willard with others started CopStress. He is currently the Chief Operations Officers in charge of Peer Support, Training, and Critical Incident Response.