Guest Blogger: Laura Usher, Manager, Criminal Justice and Advocacy, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Arlington, Virginia
This week, the COPS Office and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released a major report on officer mental health after mass casualty incidents. The report, which draws on the experiences of chiefs involved in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (Newtown, Connecticut), the Aurora Theater shooting (Aurora, Colorado), the Sikh Temple shooting (Oak Creek, Wisconsin) and many others, provides guidance for chiefs on the unique role they play in safeguarding officer wellness while managing the aftermath of these incidents.
To help us understand the importance of this report, I talked to Redding, Connecticut, Police Chief Doug Fuchs. Chief Fuchs is a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, site of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting and was on-scene shortly after the incident supporting Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe. He saw and felt firsthand the impact of the event on officers and the wider community.
Laura Usher: After the Sandy Hook incident, you and other Connecticut chiefs called for a guide to dealing with these incidents. Why?
Chief Doug Fuchs: We did not know what we did not know. And we know that there are so many other chiefs, especially in medium-to-smaller agencies who also do not know what they do not know. For example, it was so important to have one person to stand up and become the incident commander for all first responders’ mental well-being, and it was challenging to make that happen in short order.
Very early on, we received many offers of help from around the country. People just showed up and said, “We are law enforcement mental health providers and we are here to help.” We dismissed them because we had no way of knowing what their background was, whether they were legitimate, and what their expertise was. It took us a few days to identify someone for that role – someone we knew and trusted to tell us what we didn’t know.
Those of us who have experienced this want to make sure people are able to learn from our experiences. Even though you might be impacted by an event, maybe you won’t be impacted in the same way in which we have been.
Usher:Can you tell me about some of the negative impact on officers who responded to the Sandy Hook shooting?
Fuchs: It was unfathomable. Going in, many responders had no idea of the impact the event to which they were responding was having on the outside world. Once that was realized, the impact it had on individual responders was exacerbated. It never goes way. When you deal with one of the smaller and not heavily covered events, it impacts the officer or the agency, but there’s not constant media attention. The fact that this guidebook is coming out three years later – like so many other triggers ─ means these emotions will come back. Don’t get me wrong – everything about this guide is positive – but know that those of us who have contributed to it will feel differently than most every time we look at it. Each time there’s a mass shooting, the two words “Sandy Hook” get mentioned as a benchmark and it brings it all back again. It’s hard to explain, it’s difficult to imagine, and tough to figure out exactly where to “put” it. But we all do – and we do it to keep it a part of our world and not a part of those whom we serve. And for that, we should all be extremely proud.
Usher: What is the most important message chiefs should take from this guide?
Fuchs: So many things! Understand the importance of caring for your officers and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Know your neighboring chiefs and know them well enough to be able to show up without thinking you need to ask. Identify who in a crisis is going to be your point person for mental health. You can’t be building relationships during the incident; you need to be building them beforehand.
Usher: If the likelihood of these incidents is rare, why should chiefs focus on officer wellness?
Fuchs: Unfortunately, the likelihood of these incidents is not so rare anymore. And it doesn’t need to be a big event that gets media attention to have an impact on your officers. Officers are dealing with difficult calls and other peoples’ sorrow that impact them every day. As we now know, those types of calls build up and weigh on officers. Learning how to deal with that on a daily basis will help you if you are ever confronted with your own mass casualty event – you’ll have figured this out already.
Usher: Do you think chiefs have a special role to play when a neighboring agency experiences a mass shooting?
Fuchs: We have a huge role because we control resources outside of that community. It’s our job to make sure that the affected police department has what they need, manpower-wise, equipment-wise and that officer-to-officer, supervisor-to-supervisor, chief-to-chief, everyone has what they need emotionally to get them through to the other side. I think in part it is because of our role in society; we are not the most trusting of others who are not also law enforcement. So having a brother or sister law enforcement officer show up and say “I got this” is far more significant than one could ever imagine.