Law enforcement officers face many dangers throughout their lifetime. On average, a police officer is killed every 56 hours in this country. (Central Florida Police Stress Unit inc.) Yet, police officers often pay another price that still destroys lives: STRESS.
Stress is law enforcement’s hidden assailant. Job stress among police officers often means divers- an annual rate nearly three times that of general population. It often spells trouble with alcohol abuse. Stress causes disruption of normal sleeping and eating patterns, poor nutrition, paranoia, fear, or as a last resort, suicide. It does not matter how the officers express themselves or how officers react to it they need help. However, the way most men grew up with an attitude that men are tough and though men:
shall not cry,
shall not display weaknesses,
shall no need affection or gentles or warmth,
shall be needed but not need,
shall touch but not to be touched,
shall be steel no flesh,
shall be inviolate in their manhood,
These are the reasons many why police officers do not feel comfortable to go to psychologists for help. They rather keep it to themselves, which brings to the very terrible outcomes. So police departments were looking for other ways to solve problem and one of them was peer support.
History of Peer Supporters
In the very beginning the experiment was called peer counseling which began in the 1950’s when the Boston Police Department modeled after the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. Fellow officers who were themselves recovering alcoholics helped officers in police departments. New York City established an alcoholic program in 1966. The principle of these programs is to help officers to recover from alcoholism. They tried to change these people to highly motivated people, a more compassionate officer and a grateful parent or spouse. However, although the program helped individuals with various problems, its primary was still alcoholism. (SGT. Robin Klein, Ph.D. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin)
The Los Angeles Police department, under the direction of Dr. Martine Reiser, established an in-house behavioral science unit. This department was one of the firsts to develop and implement a fully department-supported peer-counseling program using officers and civilians as volunteer counselors.
In 1982, Dr James Linden and Robin Klein conducted the first peer counseling training program for the Long Beach Police Department. Later that year this program was certified by POST (the Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training’s).
Purpose of Peer Support Program
Today, the purpose of the peer supporters in law enforcement is to train police officers to help others deal with stressful situation in a more positive way. Peer supporters serve two major functions. First they provide a source of help for officers who are unwilling to bring their problems to mental health Professionals because they mistrust “shrinks” would feel stigmatized for not being able to handle their problems on their own, or afraid that entering therapy might hurt their carriers. While peer supporters cannot provide the level of service professionals can, they still can help considerably.
Second, peer supporters can refer receptive officers to professional counselors. Many officers are more likely to take advantage of professional counseling services when referral comes from a trusted peer than if they have to make an appointment on their own or follow suggestion of a family member. In this matter peer supporters act as a bridge to the professional help.
In addition, because of their daily contact with fellow officers, peer supporters are in better position to detect incipient problems before they are full blown. Therefore, peer support programs are proactive and preventative in nature. (Robin Klein, Ph.D., Critical Incidents in Policing, pp. 159-167.)
+ Listening-peer supporters provide an opportunity for officers under stress to express their frustration, fears and other emotions to another person who understand from personal experience how they are feeling and why they are upset.
+ Assessing-by listening, peer supporters can assess whether the officer’s problem is a nature or severity that require professional and immediate help.
+ Referring -with proper training, peer supporters can note the signs that may indicate if an officer is suicidal, homicidal, severely depressed, abusing alcohol or other drugs, or has other serious problems. If the officer has a serious problem, the peer can refer the person for professional help.
Peer support can occur through a variety of settings. Peer supporters may respond to other officers’ request to meet and talk. Connecticut Police Department officers can page peer supporters of their choice 24 hours a day. Some peer supporters always wait for officers to come to them, but many will approach a fellow when they observe the person having difficulties. Usually their approach is subtle. Rather than announcing, ” I am a peer supporter, and I am here to help you,” they say something like a ” it seems like you have been coming on duty late for the last few days. What’s up?” (Finn P. & Tomz E. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 1998)
Disadvantages of Peer Program
Police officers cannot provide the professional care that licensed mental health practitioners can. Just as some officers are reluctant to seek professional help, others unwilling to talk with peer’s supporters because they want to be counseled by professional.
They may avoid by employees because of the fear their information will not be kept confidential. Unlike to professional psychologists, peer supporters do not have to keep the information confidential. Sometimes they even go to a commissioner if the officer is in great stress and can cause danger to others and him.
Finally, some police departments do not establish peer support programs due to legal liability while others require officer to be certified to work as counselors, what also takes time, effort and patience. (Peter Finn and Julie Tomz, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 1998)
Professional stress services will remain essential for helping law enforcement officers to cope with the pressure of police work. However, peer support programs provide release for officers who are unwilling or not yet ready to seek professional help. Peer support groups can also make professional services acceptable to reluctant officers, and furnish assistance that only peers may have the time or understanding to provide. A number of law enforcement agencies already have demonstrated that officers will welcome -at least over time- the help peer support programs can provide. If officers feel better, they function better. If they function better, they are benefit, the department is benefit, and the citizens are benefit as well as their families.
Finn P. & Tomz J. (May 1998) Using Peer Support to Help Address Law Enforcement Stress. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin pp. 10-18
Horn J. M.F.S. (December 1987) Critical Incidents for Enforcement Officers. Critical Incidents in Policing pp. 143-148
Klein R. Ph.D. (October 1989) Police Peer Counseling. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin pp. 1-4
Klein R., Ph.D. (1991) The Utilization of Police Peer Counselors in Critical Incidents. Critical Incidents in Policing pp. 159-168
Central Florida Police Stress Unit Inc. http://policestress.orga/index.htm