TRANSCRIPT—Law Enforcement Self-Care
NARRATOR: Disasters, accidents, and violent crime expose law enforcement officers and other first responders to stress and trauma every day. While these first responders are well-trained to take care of the traumas, they may not have as much information about how to take care of their own distress. Welcome to the Achieving Excellence Podcast Series. In this podcast, William Petty, a Visiting Fellow at the Office for Victims of Crime and former victim services manager for the Austin, Texas Police Department, talks about self-care in law enforcement.
WILLIAM PETTY, VISITING FELLOW AT THE OFFICE FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME: One of the hallmarks of a law enforcement environment is go, go, go; put the job first, put yourself second. And that outlook pervades the entire culture of law enforcement, including emergency communications, including victim assistance, including forensics.
NARRATOR: This culture also delivers strong messages.
WILLIAM PETTY: Some of the messages—cultural messages—in the law enforcement community is that we're going to see some very horrible things in the course of our work. If I'm in the right field, then one way that I know that is I'm tough enough to where no matter what I see, hear, or feel, it's not going to slow me down, it's not going to affect me psychologically or mentally or emotionally, and I should be able to pick up the next day where I left off, without any adverse effects to me or to my relationship, to my home life, or to my ability to conduct my job. The culture says that you will do what needs to be done until the job is done, and then you can take some time off. And you should be strong enough, if you're the right person, the right fit for this culture, that you should be able to work the next case as it were your first, with a certain amount of freshness, as if you've never encountered this before other than the strength that you bring along with you. That there's not going to be any emotional baggage that accompanies what it is that you do for a living. In reality, what we know is that being exposed to continuous stories of misery and anguish—just from being healthy human beings—it's not a matter of if that's going to be distressful to you, it's a matter of when you're going to be overloaded in your ability to cope with this.
NARRATOR: Law enforcement officers are likely to hear messages discouraging negative coping strategies but may be less likely to hear messages that encourage positive coping.
WILLIAM PETTY: What a lot of people in the law enforcement culture are used to hearing from the outside is, "Gosh, you guys drink too much. You guys—a variety of things that you do routinely, which blow off steam, may not ultimately be the most healthy way of dealing with issues that come up with work." That's what they're used to hearing. What they're not used to hearing is their 30-year-on-the-job sergeant saying, "If this is bugging you, then let's find somebody that you can confidentially talk to, because this is a very natural part of being in this profession, it's a very natural part of being human, and I care enough about you, and your present, and your future, and your wife, and your kids, or your partner to where I will partner with you to find relief." That's what they're not used to. That self-care is as important as wearing your vest.
NARRATOR: Another message in law enforcement, says Petty, is that it's actually a sign of internal strength to be able to withstand the brutality seen on the job.
WILLIAM PETTY: A bullet can hurt me, a car crash can injure me, but the stories of other people should have no effect. I—my strength is my internal ability not to be affected by the things going on around me. And nothing could be further from the truth. We are affected by the things that we see, the things that we smell, the things that we remember, the things that make no sense to us, and things that overwhelm our ability to just cope with them. We have an amazing ability to do that but there will come a point in time where our ability to do that thoroughly will become interrupted. At the point in which our ability to cope with that has been exceeded, that is the classic definition of trauma—my coping mechanisms to handle this or similar issues has now been exceeded and I'm left without resources, internal resources. That means that I need to do something active in order to build those resources to restore my stabilization.
NARRATOR: Vicarious or secondary trauma refers to the impact of another person's suffering on a caregiver, listener, or law enforcement officer.
WILLIAM PETTY: Even though the particular incident didn't happen to you personally, the fact that you're listening to it, you're seeing the evidence of it, you're experiencing the pain of the person to whom it did happen, either because this is such a huge event and the trauma is so big or because there have been so many of them, that after a while, your ability to cope with the worries and the injuries of other people begins to have an effect on you as an individual. For instance, if your job is working with people who have lost a loved one to suicide and you do that day in and day out, or if your job is interviewing child victims of sexual assault day in and day out, if every continuous story that you hear or every crime scene photo that you see kicks you in the teeth each time, then some adjustments need to be made. That doesn't mean that you're in the wrong field, it means that you need to pay attention to what your needs are to live life with gusto and not just being the recipient of the pain of other people.
NARRATOR: During his tenure with the Austin Police Department, Petty developed stress management programs for staff.
WILLIAM PETTY: What I have seen, when I begin to suspect that my staff was suffering from vicarious or secondary trauma, the things that I see first is a change in behavior. Whereas I am talkative, outgoing, I'm starting to isolate now. Whereas I had multiple interests that were outside of work and outside of home, now what I do when I get off work is I sit in a chair and I don't talk to anybody. I'm the person who will be at work 5 minutes early every day and I start to call in a lot, and my excuses are a variety of ailments. What may be emotional ups and downs, I start to call, "I've got a stomach ache," "I've got a headache," "I'm just feeling tired like I have no energy." So my body is telling me that something is going on on the inside that's not being addressed. What I look for and what people talk about is the change in what's normal for them, to where their ability to enjoy and engage life has taken an adverse turn. And that can come on suddenly or it can come along gradually as well.
NARRATOR: The first step to self-care, says Petty, is to recognize the strain and to talk to someone.
WILLIAM PETTY: The one silver bullet that every individual that works in a law enforcement community—whether it's large, medium, or small size; whether it is across town or in the next county or by telephone—is you have the ability and the responsibility to consult with someone else who you don't have to work with on a daily basis, where that person can be a good mirror in order to make sure that your job is not taking life from you and has the ability to give life to you. It has to be someone or somewhere that understands the culture in which you work. So the one thing that I would strongly recommend—And, again, even if you're in the most remote part of the country and it has to be telephonic, do some research, ask the people around you, "Where can I go?" I need first of all to talk with someone who can objectively listen to me with how I'm integrating what I do for a living into the healthy aspects of my life so that I can be on the active side of self-care rather than hoping it just happens to come along.
NARRATOR: One of the most effective interventions in law enforcement and other emergency services, says Petty, is peer group support.
WILLIAM PETTY: There are a couple of organizational ways that self-care can be supported. One is the development of peer support programs that teach the people that you work with who understand the culture best and who you may trust very, very well and have strong relationships with, with a good set of boundaries in place to be listening ears for their co-workers and people within their agencies without forming a therapeutic or a clinical relationship, can just be from a peer to a peer someplace that you can go and talk about, "Well, I'm not even really sure how significant this is. All I know is, when I'm driving home every night, I'm crying. So what do you think about this?" So a peer-to-peer support program can be and has proven to be very, very valuable for emergency responders around the country—whether it's law enforcement, fire, EMS—in a variety of different settings.
NARRATOR: The basis of effective self-care is daily attention.
WILLIAM PETTY: You have interests that are outside of work, you have things that you find very life- and energy-giving as opposed to life- and energy-depleting, so that you've replenished the joy of life in between the stories that you have to hear, the tears that you have to see every day. Then you're exercising in a variety of forms good healthy self-care. Those are things that actually have to be worked on actively. They don't just take place by themselves in a vacuum.
NARRATOR: The model standards include guidelines on staff stress assessment and management. Such support of staff can prevent burnout and turnover.
WILLIAM PETTY: Coming from a background in law enforcement, victim assistance, I am particularly grateful that the standards do address good health, wellness, and self-care. Why this is so important to me is, having worked in a police department that was in transition in its understanding of the need for self-care, and having taken on some personal responsibilities of building self-care into the culture with a peer support program, with the use of an employee assistance plan, with the folding in of the chaplaincy program, these are things that I saw as being accessible, not particularly at high cost. And then working through with the individuals at the ground level and also with their supervisors, what they thought about the significance of this, and watching that change, that metamorphosis take place slowly over time, has made me a true believer that good solid law enforcement work and self-care are complimentary terms; they're not exclusive terms. You just have to recognize the need for both.
NARRATOR: The model standards help create a strong and supportive environment for staff and help you advance your mission of justice for victims and survivors of crime.