Police officers seek methods to deal with trauma

June 26, 2016



GROTON, Conn. (AP) - Working in one of the rooms at Groton Flagship Inn & Suites recently, three Groton Town police officers desperately administered CPR, hoping they could get the 17-year-old girl to revive after her overdose.


But neither their efforts nor the two doses of Narcan administered by emergency medical personnel worked.


The girl later was pronounced dead at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.


“That has an effect on people,” Groton Town police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. said recently. “Police officers are parents. Police officers are human.”


Situations like that are part of the reason his department and others are working to equip officers with strategies for handling the mental health issues they can experience after dealing with traumatic events.


“There are officers that haven’t gotten help, and sometimes it leads to very catastrophic results,” Fusaro said. “I’ve worked with officers that have done bad things (to cope), some of whom have even taken their own lives. I don’t want to see that anymore.”


A couple months ago, Fusaro explained, he tapped an officer to head Groton Town’s Officer Wellness Committee, which is working to set up a program that models the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Officer Safety and Wellness.


In short, the program would create an established network of Employee Assistance Programs and mental health providers to which officers in need could turn.


It also would seek out proactive training opportunities for officers, Fusaro said.


It’s all part of what Fusaro said is a shift in law enforcement toward understanding and appreciating the stressors that come with the profession.


He pointed to “Preparing for the Unimaginable,” a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, as an example of the changing conversation.


In its 140 pages, the report focuses heavily on the issues officers can face after dealing with mass casualty incidents such as the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.


Filled with tips for police leaders on how to prepare departments for such an event and what to do in the weeks, months and years following it, the report also features heartfelt, first-person stories of overcoming PTSD.

It mentions, too, that PTSD can come on gradually rather than as a result of a single event.


“The cops aren’t the victims, but they have to investigate the crimes and deal with the victims and the suspects,” Fusaro said. “Sometimes PTSD comes from a big mass casualty incident. But other times these things add up over time.”


“If you keep putting water in the bucket, eventually it’s going to overflow,” he added.

He said he hopes the report can give departments a roadmap to follow in terms of boosting officer resiliency and health.

In Ledyard, police Chief John Rich, who’s been at the helm since Feb. 1, said such publications are important because they “keep the conversation going” locally, regionally and nationally.


“There are hundreds of active and retired police officers every year that commit suicide,” Rich said, adding that he knows of three officers with whom he worked who committed suicide in their retirements.


According to The Badge of Life, about 126 police officers across the country committed suicide in 2012, the last full year for which data are available.


In 2011, the death of Groton City police Lt. Thomas Forbes, who shot himself in the head while at the station, shocked the region.


“I think we need to keep talking about it,” Rich said. “Police leaders need to get out in front and create a climate where their officers can thrive and manage the impacts of what they’re doing every day.”


Formerly with the state police, Rich spent time in 2007 developing STOPS, or State Troopers Offering Peer Support.


Through the program, troopers are able to talk to other trained troopers about their struggles, which can include despair, insomnia, nightmares and even intrusive daytime thoughts about the gruesome things they see, from fatal car crashes to cases of child sexual abuse.


A resident state trooper in Ledyard at the time, Rich brought the program to Ledyard that year by having two officers there trained in peer support.


“Peer support is very effective because police officers are more comfortable with talking with other police officers about the issues that impact police officers,” Rich explained.


Now, he’s contacting local health care providers, as well as working with organizations such as the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement and Believe 208, to establish a game plan for both potential mass casualty incidents and for individual officers who need assistance.


Being proactive, Rich said, is of the essence.


Without programs in place and the knowledge to understand what’s happening, officers - especially because of “image armor,” or the belief that they should be impervious to any kind of psychological pain - may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms.


“My philosophy is that we need to be proactive about maintaining our health and wellness in every way - not only mental, but also physical, emotional and even spiritual,” Rich said.


“Any first responder should be looking at himself or herself and understanding what’s going on with them and how to proactively manage it,” he said.


For Rich, that could mean scheduling a much-needed workout, spending quality time with his family or taking time to get a massage.


“I’ve had to learn from my own stress and the impact it had on me,” said Rich, who spent years working with the state police Major Crime Squad.


“I want my people to be healthy and well,” he said, “and when they retire, I want them to be in one piece and ready for the next step.”

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