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Rochester Police Dept. to launch wellness program, aiming to help officers experiencing trauma

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) —  There’s a new effort at the Rochester Police Department to address an often overlooked aspect of police work. It’s launching a wellness program next year to give officers the tools to deal with job stress and traumatic calls.

“We live in a culture where asking for help is frowned upon,” said Capt. Jeff Stilwell of the Rochester Police Dept. “Years of history, if you’re hurting in some way, rub a little dirt on it and move on. We’re realizing that’s leading to a lot of bad outcomes not only for the officers and their families but also the level of service we’re providing to the community.”

Capt. Jeff Stilwell: “Broken cops provide broken service to your community.”

Suicide claims more officers’ lives each year than violence in the line of duty, highlighting the problem of untreated mental health issues. The suicide rate among police officers is about 16 per 100,000, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wellness Initiative

The Rochester Police Dept. is hoping to change that with the wellness program which will take a holistic approach to mind, body, and spirit, by providing mental health support, physical training, and community engagement opportunities.

“We’re trying to take the stigma away. It’s going to be mandatory, you go to talk to someone once a year so we can see where you’re at. The body part of it, we have great partners in our community that we’re working with to work on physical fitness and tactical fitness. What we found is we have a good number of people in our profession who work out a lot but are they doing the things that prevent injuries on the job?”

The police department along with many other agencies offers employee assistance programs, and that helps, but there’s still skepticism that what officers say will be shared among their peers or that they’ll be ruled unfit for duty.

Debriefing after a traumatic event

Whether it’s a serious crash, a house in flames, or a homicide, when a 911 call comes in, people in distress can expect first responders to be there. Once the scene clears, traditionally, officers are expected to respond to the next call and the next, sometimes leaving them without much time to process what happened. Over time, some officers may feel isolated, and bottled up emotions. Clinicians call this ‘compassion fatigue’ and is associated with secondary traumatic stress disorder. 

RPD encourages everyone from dispatchers who answers a call to volunteer firefighters from rural areas, to participate in a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing. This provides first responders an opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings and understand that they are not alone in their reactions.

Dr. Steven Norton is a psychologist who specializes in law enforcement.

“There are probably two types of stressors officers deal with,” said Dr. Norton. “One is the very critical incident where something really major happens on the job. The other type of stress is the kind that kind of occurs overtime.”

He says acceptance that people are dealing with mental health issues is a major culture shift in the profession.

Dr. Steven Norton: “It’s really not a sign of weakness.”

“They have this, sense, sometimes this sense of utility about no matter what I do, bad things continue to happen and that can be very difficult for officers overtime, that lack of being able to make a more permanent impact…”Having a negative reaction to bad things is normal. It’s really not a sign of weakness, it’s not a sign of being a bad officer.”

“Officer Carrie Hartley: You cannot train hard enough for a job that can kill you.”

Officer Carrie Hartley has been with the RPD for 23 years and recalled an incident when she wasn’t able to rescue three people trapped inside of a burning car.

“Me and some of my partners basically watched them burn because we couldn’t get close enough to the vehicles. So, it’s always the calls where you couldn’t save the person…your own personal psyche can only handle so much.”

Hartley serves as a peer counselor for the department. She says after one of her colleagues took his life, there was a push for mental health support and debriefings, a long-neglected need.

“That really lit a fire under a lot of people…it really pushed for, we need to talk this out and we can’t hold this inside.”

Linda Ha

Reporter | @LindaHaTV | lha@kttc.com

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