SPRINGDALE — The holidays can add stress to the already stressful job of police officers. Their families open presents while the officers deal with others in crisis.
Springdale Police Chief Mike Peters gave his 212 officers and employees a gift this year: a law enforcement wellness program led by a full-time, licensed, mental health worker.
The past few years have been hard on the department, with covid-19, reports of protesting against and physical threats to police officers nationwide and deaths and traumatic injuries of their brothers in blue across Northwest Arkansas, Peters said.
“Law enforcement is a pretty rough job,” he said. “They can struggle with what they see and experience.” Peters requested $70,000 in his department’s 2021 budget to buy tactical equipment for officers to respond to protests, $155,000 to buy new patrol weapons with an advanced red-dot sighting system and $15,000 to add another dog to the team, making a dog available to each patrol shift.
He also requested $30,000 to start the wellness program and hired Kade Curry, a department chaplain and newly certified counselor, full time to develop and direct the program.
Curry doesn’t take credit. He insists he merely facilitates the program. He praises officers serving on the department’s Peer to Peer Support Team. In addition to working with Springdale officers, the team has helped in reviewing incidents with officers in other cities.
“It’s bothersome, a lot of trauma,” said Milisa Steiner, a school resource officer and member of the peer team. “We see, hear and even smell things the everyday person wouldn’t in their day-to-day.” Peters and Curry agreed the impact of the program might never be realized as all interactions must remain confidential by state law. Curry and members of the peer team face misdemeanor charges and could lose their jobs for breaking confidence.
Peters and Curry said they expected pushback from some officers. Professional therapy could be a stigma, they acknowledged.
“Some were not ready for help, but there were a lot that were,” Peters said.
Justin Ingram, a detective and member of the peer team, said he wished the department had the program when he started his law enforcement career 22 years ago.
“It’s opened a lot of eyes to the issues we did not know we had,” he said.
Matt Ray, a school resource officer and member of the peer team, also has seen progress.
“We help others, but forget about ourselves,” he said. “A lot of officers, who have said, ‘We don’t need anything like this.’ They are confiding in us, too.
“We care about each other,” Ray said. “It’s cliche, but we really are a brotherhood.” The International Public Safety Association in 2015 found that law enforcement officials experience 188 critical incidents during their careers. These experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, the association’s website reads.
Steiner listed critical calls: a death, domestic violence, sexual assault, the use of force against or by an officer.
Bobby Hammontree, a detective and member of the peer team, listed other critical calls: an accident, a homicide, and all types of issues with kids.
Critical stress is a significant effect of work in law enforcement, says the Fraternal Order of Police. A 2018 survey by the fraternal organization defined critical stress as “a strong emotional reaction that overwhelms usually effective coping abilities.” The survey on critical stress said 69% of respondents reported stressful experiences as a police officer caused lingering emotional issues. These led to a range of impacts on their lives, including sleep problems, relationship problems and thoughts of suicide.
The peer team includes 15 members of the department who are now certified through the state as peer counselors, Curry explained. The team includes patrol officers, school resource officers and detectives of every rank to lieutenant from every shift; two members from dispatch; and one report specialist, he listed.
“We all see the same things,” Steiner said. “We come from different backgrounds, and we all bring something different to the table.” Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said the Arkansas Department of Public Safety started a program similar to Springdale’s earlier this year. The program includes an in-house wellness leader based in Little Rock. Sadler said the program also serves local police departments across the state.
The Springdale Fire Department contracts with two counselors who lead programs on mental health and wellness several times a year and are available for crisis counseling, said Fire Chief Blake Holte. The department includes its own peer team that debriefs firefighters after critical cases, he said. Peer team members also can refer individuals to the counselors.
Bentonville Chief Ray Shastid said his department soon will present to its officers the service of the Cordica Shield app for wellness with many topics about daily mental health: anger management, burnout, chaplains programs, financial fitness and more.
Officers also have access to mental health counselors through the city’s Employment Assistance Program.
The department has a team of officers trained in critical stress talking with officers and staff after a critical call, Shastid said.
“We want to take care of our officers, who are out there doing the job,” he said. “But we also want to use (the app) as a retention and recruiting tool.” A typical day for Curry begins with reviewing shift summaries and reports and checking in with officers on a tough call. He also speaks to new hires before they head to training at the police academy and again before they go on the streets. And every detective in the department must meet with Curry for one hour a year.
“Even if it’s just to acknowledge that the job can be difficult,” he said.
Officers have asked Curry to check in on a colleague who might be displaying different behavior or need better coping mechanisms. As the program has developed, Curry has spent a lot of time vetting outside resources. He has found counselors who specialize in trauma therapy and a nurse practitioner who can prescribe medication as needed.
Curry has created a book on wellness available for officers to download and an app through Lighthouse Health and Wellness similar to the one to be offered by Bentonville. The app’s content is specific to Springdale and provides a self assessment and 24-hour helpline answered by Curry or one of the peer team members.
“We feel what a difference we’re making when someone approaches us — especially from people you don’t think will be interested,” Ray said.
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