In the aftermath of a traumatic event like a line-of-duty death of an officer, experts say police and deputies lean on each other more than ever.
Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman would know. After last weekend’s shooting death of 29-year-old deputy Justin DeRosier, Thurman said the county’s other police chiefs immediately rushed their officers in to cover for the sheriff’s office without even being asked.
It let his deputies catch their breath and process what happened. Now, Thurman said, his deputies are back on the job, “trying to go back to normal.”
“It’s going be a new normal, working through something like this,” he said Thursday. “It’s going be difficult. I don’t know what all lies in store for us. But we’re going to stick together and go through it together … and hopefully come out stronger in the end.”
From group debriefings for deputies and their spouses with a police psychologist to one-on-one interventions as needed, the sheriff’s office will keep doing its job while helping its staff cope, he said. Federal research, psychologists and chaplains all say traumatic events carry special challenges for the departments that respond to them.
In the short term, DeRosier’s coworkers and friends will need to adjust to their loss, Lead Cowlitz County Chaplain Doug Fields said.
“For those who worked with Justin on a daily basis ... there’s that reminder, that loss on a daily basis. Just figuring out what that new normal looks like on a daily, weekly basis is going to be challenge. ... As most people know, it’s not over with after the funeral.”
And in the long term, officers who isolate themselves or choose unhealthy coping mechanisms can run into more mental health problems down the road, Fields said.
Fields said that while officers and deputies might be more vigilant and check in on each other more in the aftermath of DeRosier’s death, they’ll continue to do the job well.
“These guys are highly trained, but they’re human, too,” Fields said. “They’re not overreacting or anything, but there is a heightened awareness, and a reminder that there’s no guarantee that any situation or call they go to (won’t) turn into a bad situation.”
A roundup of research by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2018 reported several factors that make EMTs, firefighters and cops more resistant to mental health problems during disasters. Some aren’t surprising: a longer career, more specialized training, and confidence in one’s personal and team capabilities can protect against burnout and stress.
During traumatic events, first responders who stay longer on scene report higher levels of mental health trouble, as do those who are given “extra, unfamiliar or conflicting” duties or who have poor leadership or inter-agency communication, the report said. But social support, especially from one’s coworkers and leaders, can promote mental well-being during a disaster.
Fields said the chaplaincy has been checking every day with the officers and other responders to the DeRosier shooting to help them process emotions and recover.
“What I teach kids is we’re just a professional teddy bear,” Fields said. “That’s my job, to be a teddy bear in the name of God. I open my arms and I hug them, listen to them.”
Deputies and other responders need a chance to take a break after they’re exposed to trauma, Fields said.
“Now first responders, being who they are, ... they hate to be given breaks,” Fields said. “Because of their loyalty, dedication, they want to continue, … but in the mental health sense of things, it’s important for them to have those breaks, and to know and trust there are other first responders stepping up and supporting them.”
Ronald A. Lehto is the director at Community Integrated Health Services, which provides individual and group debriefing for first responders who handle difficult calls.He said 911 dispatchers and other responders who work primarily over radio waves face their own kind of trauma in those cases: “I think that’s human nature, that if we’re not there to see it and we’re just hearing it, we put something in that space. Sometimes that can even be worse, if that’s even possible, than being there and seeing it. That’s something that I think plays out for a lot of first responders.”Monroe, Wash., police Sgt. Brian Johnston, who is also the board president of a law enforcement support group called the Behind the Badge Foundation, said that through family support, critical stress debriefing, memorial planning and other programs, Behind the Badge will be involved with the Cowlitz sheriff’s office for years to come.
“Any kind of stress, any kind of trauma is cumulative,” Johnston said. “We have stressful jobs. Anybody and everybody in emergency services certainly has an amount of stress … and now (DeRosier’s coworkers) are, for lack of a better term, participants in this trauma as well.”
Chaplain Fields concurred: “Anytime an event like this happens, any previous losses, any previous issues often are exaggerated and made fresh again.”The report also said that after a disaster, public response plays an important role: publicity and news coverage of the event can trigger PTSD and emotional distress for those who responded to it, the report said. But the Health Services Administration report also said that disaster relief workers who receive acknowledgment or thanks tended to suffer fewer mental health problems.
“We’ve been blessed by the positive support,” Fields said. “I know that’s had a very positive impact on the deputies and their families, their sense of pride. … Just to hear that thanks and hear that support has a really positive effect. … It increases the retention of officers, because they’re in a place that cares for them and what they do. There’s a greater sense of loyalty and pride, connection with their community. That is something Cowlitz County can be proud of.”