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Paul Clinton

Paul Clinton

As the POLICE Web editor, Paul Clinton contributes posts about patrol cars, motorcycles, and other police vehicles. He previously wrote about automotive electronics as managing editor of Mobile Electronics. Prior to that, he was an award-winning newspaper reporter.



William Harvey

William Harvey

William "Bill" Harvey is currently serving as chief of police in south central Pennsylvania. He retired from the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.
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The Gift of Forgetting and Helping

Learn how to deal with the horrors of police work by leaning on colleagues.

October 09, 2012  |  by William Harvey - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of William Harvey.
Photo courtesy of William Harvey.

I was asked by a citizen the other day about how cops can hear about or witness so much sadness and grief in life and how do we deal with it. This was a very good and deep question, so let's talk it out. Granted, the average cop will see far more of humanity's horrors than the average person ever will. Some of us handle and go on, some do until a breaking point and a few leave this profession for that very reason.

I spoke to my chaplain about this very question while preparing this article. Father John told me that most priests and clergy who hear confessions and conduct other counseling have a gift given to them.

Police chaplains have training in this area, but their gift is to forget and clear their mind. They also have other similar clergy around them to help them in dire times. Many in the psychological helping fields, he said, have similar methods of depersonalizing to help them assist others. One important thing is that all of them have a life support system; they seek the assistance of others and don't hold this tragedy inside.

There have been many lessons learned in our vocation, and this is one that we have to repeat over and over. You're not alone. There's always some help, and we have your back. As a police officer, you will see horrors second only to those who have been in combat. You can suppress some of the most horrific days of your life for a while. But at some point a similar incident can create a recall and these memories will come roaring back.

When I came on you did not ask for help. You internalized it, you kept your feelings and business to yourself. Far too many officers have retired who to me are walking wounded. Too many had demons that haunted them, and they took their own lives.

What was repeated to me is that even those gifted chaplains who deal with it all the time seek help from their colleagues. Why should cops be any different? If you are coming on the job be sure you know the phone numbers to call for your employee assistance program and how to access the system's benefits. Know your department's critical incident protocols. Debriefings are a key part of this. If you have a crisis management team or a peer counseling program, be aware of it and be ready to use it when need be. I'm not talking about when the sergeant chewed on your butt and your feelings got hurt. I'm speaking of the shocks in the vocation that come back like bad horror movies at Halloween.

My goal today is to stop the hurt on my brother and sister officers. Between all the normal stressors of life such as family, kids, and career you have to work a call that shocks your inner conscience. It can and will overwhelm you. I don't want to see any more psychological casualties and wounded in our ranks. Seek help and, more so, be there for your partner and others. You no doubt always tell them that you have got their back, but sometimes all they need is your shoulder to lean on. Be there for them and yourself.

Related:

Police Chaplains: Helping Hands

Tags: Officer Psychology, Emotional Health


Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Lucy Kahl @ 10/9/2012 6:09 PM

So very true but one must also realize that reaching out for help doesn't show a sign of weakness. Because it takes courage so that's where fellow police officers play such an important role to be able to identify tale tale signs that one of their own needs assistance. Just be there in their time of need with encouragement and praise because that will go a long way.

Morning Eagle @ 10/11/2012 6:57 PM

Excellent advice. My own two decades of experience in law enforcement was many years ago but the mind-set remains. There are still scenes and incidents that can and do come slamming back into the conscious mind without warning, triggered by sometimes very innocuous things: A chance remark; report of a similar situation; sights, sounds or smells, etc. The memories can be so real it is as if you are there again. I have found it helpful to write a detailed description of the event, maybe read through it a few times until the related emotions have subsided, then just let it go. I might share it with others from my era that would understand but many of the guys I knew from back then have checked out ahead of me.

Trigger @ 10/12/2012 3:36 AM

Take advantage of what the Chaplains have to offer, this suggestion is coming from a voice of experience

Libby @ 10/12/2012 6:49 AM

There are outstanding non-profit support organizations who offer critical incident stress debriefings after events, but there are also seminars to deal with events weeks, months, and years later. VALEAP (Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program) is one, modeled after SCLEAP and NCLEAP. Hit the website. Any officer, spouse, significant other and telecommunication officer is welcome, we do not host just for our state.Outstanding PEER-DRIVEN program, cops helping cops. Scholarships available. Stay healthy and whole doing what we do.

FLC @ 10/14/2012 7:53 PM

I sometimes wonder how meny in the general population know that those on the front line of the street war in this country often see casualties that are so similar to those seen over seas by combat vets.
I have waited for burned bodies to cool down so I could check for ID, I have held infants less than 2 months old that were starting to go cold while trying to encorage parents to hold on to hope, I have looked into faces of the dying as they looked into my eyes for reassurance.
I could go on and on and on with examples......
I retired at a point when departments were just starting to realize that there was a thing called post partem depresion.
Before I retired officers were expected to "do thier job" and "get over it"
I now realize that I am a prime example of why it is so important to talk to someone about traumatic experiences as soon as one can after they occure.
After thirty years of dealing with peoples woes and disasters, ten years of retirement still hasn't shut out some of the scenes branded into my memory banks.
Don't be too macho to ask for help.

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