It’s 1702 on a Friday afternoon. Suddenly, the call of “officer down” blares across my police radio. I am several miles away from the incident, having dinner with some officers. We drop everything and run out the door.
As a non-sworn employee, I know it’s not my place to respond immediately, but I also know I’ll be needed. I don’t want the scene jeopardized in any way. So my trainee and I drive as fast as we can to get there. Traffic is a nightmare. At one point, we drive on the sidewalk; it’s the only way to get through, and nothing is more important than getting there. I know the officer; he’s on my team. He’s a friend.
Despite my lack of lights and siren, I arrive just after the officers from my group. The suspect is gone; he’s taken the officer’s gun and car. A manhunt is underway. The scene is secure and the officer has been transported. We lock down the crime scene and wait, knowing we will be spending the next 8 to 10 hours there. At first, I think the worst part is not knowing whether the officer has survived. But then word spreads that he has died, and I discover the worst part has just begun. For the next several hours we work the most difficult scene I have ever faced. The emotions are overwhelming. Many times we have to stop to find a private place to cry before continuing.
Well after midnight, we return to the station, exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally. We had been told peer support and the counseling team would be available for anyone who needed someone to talk to. But when we inquire, we’re told they have all gone home.
How could we have been forgotten? Everyone was exhausted no doubt, but how could they forget those of us who just spent several hours at such a difficult crime scene? I wanted them to care about what I had just been through. I wanted someone to listen to what I was feeling about the things I’d seen, smelled and heard. I had touched his blood, seen the evidence of a struggle—I had visions I knew I would never forget. But instead, I had to go home, alone, with it all built up inside me.
I’m sure my department did not intentionally forget about us. Perhaps it was the “out of sight, out of mind” perspective, or maybe everyone was so exhausted they just weren’t thinking clearly. I knew they cared about us, but I felt lost and very unattached. Unfortunately, my experience is repeated all too often in departments across the country. Even as law enforcement continues to improve critical incident stress management for sworn officers, we are in danger of letting all our other employees fall through the cracks.
Trauma Affects All Personnel
It’s easy to understand why peer support responds after an officer-involved shooting, a serious firefighter injury or a fatal collision. But what about the effects on members who were not on scene but knew the personnel involved? What about those unsung heroes who wait on the sidelines doing whatever they can to help, but feel helpless just the same? What of the dispatcher who is trying desperately to get assistance to an officer struggling with an assailant? Or the evidence technician who is processing the scene in which an officer she knows was critically injured or killed? What of the clerk or custodian who was a close friend of the firefighter killed in a fire? Or the records clerk who must process reports and photos of a child abuse victim or department employee? Or the volunteers pressed into service to direct traffic at a grizzly crime scene involving an officer they know?
These and many other incidents occur all too frequently. And just as frequently, many non-sworn personnel are left out of the peer support process as well as the incident debriefing.
Sometimes, we create divisions between sworn and non-sworn that seem to make sense, but can have unintended painful repercussions. A few years after the incident that began this article, an officer at a neighboring city committed suicide. As a supervisor, I encouraged my team to attend the funeral if they wanted to, and I went with them. I had been through a police funeral and I knew all too well the feelings of loss and heartache at losing a fellow officer.
In the church, I noticed the non-sworn members from the agency were not sitting with the sworn officers in the front row. When I asked one of them why, she told me they were not allowed to walk in with the other officers and sit with them because they were not sworn.
My heart sank. The employee went on to tell me their department did not treat the non-sworn the same way; they were routinely left out. She expressed the feeling of being forgotten or not as important. The officer who had committed suicide was a friend of hers. She was devastated he had taken his own life and that even as a close friend she had been unaware he was so sad. The feelings of guilt and shame overwhelmed her—and here she was in the back of the room, feeling as though she didn’t matter.
Although I had only met her a few moments earlier, I felt connected because I knew these emotions all too well. I told her how my department had grown so much in how they treated their non-sworn and I encouraged her to speak to someone to let them know how she felt. These situations are usually the product of leadership being oblivious, rather than intending to hurt someone. Until someone speaks up, things will never change.
There is definitely a brotherhood among officers, firefighters, paramedics and the like. But those in a support role are part of that brotherhood because every day they are there beside them. Just because their role is different does not mean traumatic events don’t impact them in the same way. Non-sworn employees aren’t looking for recognition or special treatment; they just want to belong because they are part of the team.
What You Can Do
What can your agency do to ensure all affected personnel are taken care of following a tragic event? Here are a few practical suggestions:
- Ensure your critical incident checklists include identifying non-sworn employees involved in the incident. Critical incidents are chaotic and complex; it’s easy to overlook those who are not first responders or who were not directly involved. Providing incident commanders with a simple checklist to jog their memory can go a long way.
- Include a non-sworn employee on your peer support team. Incorporating the civilian employee perspective early on will help you better address the mental health needs of your non-sworn members and position you to better respond following a critical incident.
- Ensure non-sworn employees know how to contact peer support and mental health resources. Reach out to employees who can’t attend debriefings or support sessions to let them know how to access hotlines and other resources. Better yet, consider all employees when planning such sessions, and hold multiple sessions until everyone is reached.
- Follow up with chaplains and peer support team members. Helping your colleagues deal with mental and emotional stress takes a tremendous toll. Who cares for the caregivers?
We are becoming much better at taking care of our civilian employees and volunteers, but we still have a long way to go. We need to look out for one another. Critical incidents affect us all. If we value our co-workers and we are serious about the investment we have made in their lives, we need to be serious about providing them care following trauma. Let us commit to leave no one behind.
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