Seeing the light when it comes to dealing with PTSD

by SHERIFF LEON LOTT January 31, 2018

sheriff Lott _ full by tc 600 px

A recent article my department had written and published in again reiterated the absolute necessity of front-of-the-pipeline conditioning training for those who are the most-susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); what the military services had in previous decades referred to as combat stress, shell shock, or battle fatigue.

It wasn't so much the article itself as it was the number of emails I received from other law enforcement agencies around the nation, which - within 24-to-48 hours of the article's publication - recognized the existing need for similar training for their own law enforcement officers.

They saw what we were and are doing as a way forward.

The Richland County Sheriff's Dept. (RCSD) has for years conducted in-house training for patrol officers dealing with or needing to mitigate or lessen the sometimes emotionally debilitating symptoms of PTSD; the little-understood disorder suffered by those living in the wake of experienced trauma. We have always had PTSD awareness classes. We have had an on-staff psychologist, chaplains, and my deputies have always known that my door was and is always open for them whenever the need arises to talk about whatever it is they are dealing with.

My approach to them has always been non-judgmental, because I know that real world trauma - what we refer to as critical incidents - can rattle the human psyche. But it doesn't have to be personally ruinous.

Like deployed soldiers operating in combat zones, what my deputies have always dealt with - officer-involved shootings, child suicides, grisly murders and fatal-accident scenes among others - are experiences most people will not experience in three lifetimes. Consequently, we've always tried to create a culture of openness within the department so that my officers - nearly 800 of them - might feel free to talk, share, and commiserate with peers.

But it was never enough. The problem was that our response to someone suffering with PTSD was always reactive, not proactive.

That dynamic changed several years ago while I was flying to an out-of-state meeting. It was during that flight that it hit me: PTSD must be faced head-on before it strikes.

I began researching the idea. It seemed a simple idea, and I thought surely other departments and agencies were conducting similar training on the front end.

But as I was quick to discover, no one was conducting pre-PTSD conditioning training.

No one was preparing young police officers and sheriffs' deputies for the huge emotional weight that would be placed on them once they hit the street. And with no guidelines going forward, no models to review, I realized we were about to plow new ground.

The first thing I did was look to those within the RCSD who had experienced and suffered the symptoms of PTSD, those who had lived with it and were still coping with it successfully. They would be the ones I would select to help develop and launch this new program.

A focus group was established. Among the members were a captain who had engaged and killed an attacker in a shootout. This captain developed PTSD some fifteen years later. Then there was a lieutenant who had been wounded in a gun-battle and who believed he was going to die before being rescued. He developed PTSD immediately following the incident. Then there was a sergeant who lost his eye in a gunfight in which he shot his attacker. Lastly there was a sergeant who not only witnessed the suicide death of her law-enforcement partner, but 90-days-later was forced to shoot and kill a suspect who attacked her with a knife. All four were dealing with PTSD daily.

This group also included the RCSD's director of training, the victim services commander, the lead chaplain, the departmental psychologist and the mental health practitioner.

In formulating the curriculum, I asked the PTSD-impacted officers what might have been done on the front-end to better prepare them for the "critical incident" they experienced, and what might have helped them to prevent or minimize the onset of PTSD.

I also selected these four officers for their rank. Because - if nothing else - one of the greatest barriers to any successful PTSD program is the recognition and support by ranking officers. Subordinate deputies have to have an assurance in this regard in order to build personal trust both within themselves and for more-senior officers. Deputies have to know that it's not only "okay" to talk; it is essential to their emotional well-being.

We quickly established seven elements that the focus group deemed "essential" for any pre-PTSD conditioning training.

The elements included:

  • Understanding what constitutes a critical incident.
  • Understanding and recognizing PTSD.
  • Recognizing and accepting one's own reactions and feelings.
  • Learning ways and methods in which to deal with those reactions and feelings.
  • Becoming aware of departmental policies and the department's role in a critical incident.
  • Understanding the legal process that may be initiated.
  • Knowing the resources available to the officer involved in a critical incident.

After six months of program development, the training was set. Today, all new officers are required to attend the training as part of their new officer orientation. All existing officers must attend as part of their yearly recertification training. And all officers are required to complete a post-training evaluation form.

If nothing else, this has transformed our culture of open and non-judgmental communication within the ranks of the RCSD. We are even deploying PTSD-training officers to the scenes of traumatic events to immediately assess the situation and the well-being of the responding officers.

Is this program perfect? Hardly. I am constantly asking myself how we might make the training more effective.

PTSD is real. It is a debilitating disorder; though it doesn't have to be. PTSD can impact the sufferer both psychologically and physically. It's far too-often pushed aside. And without adequate understanding, treatment and pre-PTSD conditioning, the problem will only manifest itself in ways that can prove tragic both for the suffering officer and his or her loved ones. As I've said many times before, putting a "band aid" on the disorder after the fact simply will not work.

Leon Lott _ thumb 2016Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff's Dept., one of the largest law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, and one of six regularly featured LE agencies on A&E's hit TV series, LIVE PD. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq - at the invitation of the Iraqi government - to assist in the establishment of, planning for, and training at the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.    

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