Peer Support Team Brings Calm and Concern to Crisis
No one understands the things you see each day on the street better than those wearing the badge beside you.
Law enforcement is about serving. Sometimes service means being the man who tells a wife her husband isn’t coming home because he was killed in a traffic collision. Sometimes it means being the woman who holds the hand of a crying child who doesn’t understand why mommy is being taken away in handcuffs. Sometimes it is saluting the flag-draped casket of your best friend who took his last breaths serving the community he loved.
Unless you’ve been there, unless you have closed your eyes and seen those traumatic images replayed in your mind, you can’t truly understand. But your brothers and sisters in blue do.
That is the mindset behind the Kentucky Law Enforcement Assistance Program — a team of officers who are trained and available 24-7 across the commonwealth to support fellow officers in times of crisis.
“This whole profession, a lot of times is about fraternal bond,” said Owensboro Police Sgt. Brandon Sims. “We are all police officers, and we are always there to help the citizens we serve. We are always there to help any other law enforcement officer. That is very evident when you look at how many officers will travel distances for another officer’s funeral whom they don’t even know.”
KYLEAP is a program created by the Kentucky Community Crisis Response Board. They, too, understand law enforcement culture is unique and that serving officers takes a unique approach.
“There isn’t another profession that has the same culture as law enforcement,” said Deborah Arnold, KCCRB executive director. “An officer responds, usually by themselves, and there is a perception that they always are in control of themselves. Every decision they make will be critiqued and they have to make the correct decision 100 percent of the time. Nobody tolerates them making mistakes. How else can you find credibility in someone supporting you and understanding that atmosphere than through a peer?”
KCCRB launched the KYLEAP program in fall 2015 and already has conducted training sessions for volunteer team members. The program is entirely free to officers and their agencies, and the training is offered free to those who volunteer.
“KYLEAP provides the entire spectrum of services from pre-incident training, acute crisis response and post-incident support to law enforcement officers across the commonwealth,” the program materials state. “KCCRB recruits, trains and credentials experienced law enforcement professionals to be peer members of the statewide KYLEAP team. The team receives training in providing multi-component, critical-incident, stress-management interventions and suicide intervention and prevention training.”
Sims, who serves as the local Fraternal Order of Police president in Owensboro, said a chaplain there had suggested establishing a similar team to the FOP once before and Sims was interested in the idea. The benefit of KCCRB operating as the foundation of the team is that an existing structure already was in place.
“We already have the logistics,” Arnold said. “We have a 24-hour response line and are linked with emergency management. The response request and coordination already is in place. Our team members are covered under the privileging statute, which basically is what counselors and clergy are covered under for confidentiality. That helps protect officers when they are responding to us to feel confident in talking with a peer without worry of it not being confidential.”
KCCRB also is committed to providing standardized, professional and consistent training to volunteers, employing best practices to ensure the quality of response services and providing the best care to officers.
There are a number of volunteer requirements for those who want to become team members, said Kelli Robinson, KCCRB deputy executive director.
Officers should have a minimum of five years’ experience in law enforcement and be in good standing with their agencies. They must demonstrate appropriate conduct and be respected within the profession, she said. They cannot have any type of disciplinary action or negative performance issues on record, and should have a letter of support from their agency’s leadership that they are eligible to participate in both the training and response activities.
“We prefer someone who is seasoned and we are looking for someone who has experienced a critical incident,” Robinson said. “It isn’t a disqualifier if they have not, though. Ideally, we want people volunteering on their own and not being made to attend because it does require a commitment.”
Attendance at quarterly team meetings and training also is required, Robinson said. A selection committee will review and consider each team member’s history and credentials. For complete program information and an application packet, interested officers can visit the KCCRB website.
Because service to others is a unifying thread among officers, there may be many like Sims who had a desire to serve their fellow officers in a similar capacity before. In reading reviews from team members who have already participated in KYLEAP training, Arnold said many have expressed an appreciation for the solid foundation the training provides.
“They get excited about it because they have the tools they need now,” Arnold said. “Some have unofficially been doing this untrained and say now they feel more capable and confident in being able to support their fellow peers.”
Trauma leads to anxiety. Post-traumatic stress leads to depression. Bottled emotions can lead to explosive and dangerous behavior. Some officers may not have a support system in place to talk through those feelings — or feel like they can discuss them at all.
“Certain times, officers go on calls and experience things that, for a lot of other confidentiality purposes, they can’t go tell anybody,” Sims said. “They may not be able to go home and tell their spouse or another friend anything about it. But especially with other officers who have had like-experiences, it can really help to be able to reach out to somebody who you know understands exactly what you’re saying and can say, ‘I dealt with something just like that.’”
In many cases, an officer’s only avenue for getting help is through their agency’s Employee Assistance Program. Many EAPs, however, are contracted and are not specially trained to deal with the law enforcement culture, Arnold said.
“We have found from research and best practices that peer programs, where CISM services are delivered immediately following a critical incident, are more successful than formal mental health interventions. However, for officers whose symptomology rises to needing professional help, a referral to a trained and licensed mental health professional is necessary,” she continued.
Arnold and Robinson hope that by getting the word out about KYLEAP and growing the team, more officers will have more options to get the help they need.
“If you have a law enforcement officer who has gone through a critical incident, sometimes if a department is smaller they may not be able to afford to send that person home,” Robinson said. “It is good to have other law enforcement be able to come in and work with them. And the other part of that is when they are done responding, sometimes they go home alone, too. That is where peer support can really help.”
While the KYLEAP team is focused on crisis response, Robinson said it is important to note that crisis can involve any number of things. KYLEAP team members are trained to help officers with any crisis, even if it is not a line-of-duty, work-related incident.
“Officers have events in their lives that cause an increase in stress just like anyone else,” Robinson said. “It would be appropriate if they were having financial difficulties, personal issues, marriage problems — or it could be work related such as disciplinary issues. It doesn’t have to be a critical incident that involves something tragic or traumatic. It can also be an accumulation of multiple factors that is causing an officer to pursue unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
“This is about changing the culture,” Arnold said. “When a rookie thinks everybody is doing fine and is handling their stress well because they don’t see them upset, they think it’s not OK to ask for help. So if you have a peer program, they see that more seasoned folks — the people they respect and look up to — have the same struggles, concerns and reactions. When somebody has been through the same thing you have, asked and received help, it makes it OK. It breaks down some of those barriers.”