No one disputes that it is a tragedy when a police officer is forced to pull the trigger and end the life of another. All of the situations presented in “A cry for help” (June 5-7) are horrific. But lost in these stories is the real, profound and long-lasting effect on the involved officers, their families and co-workers.
Very few people go to their jobs facing the potential of being named a homicide suspect by the end of their workday. But each day, officers arrive for work and don their uniforms expecting to safely complete their shift and help the citizens they swore to protect. Yet unexpectedly, the incident no officer ever wants to face can take place — they are forced to take the life of another to protect their own life or someone else.
Now the officers are whisked from the scene, stripped of their weapons and physically isolated until they provide a statement, which could be used against them in a criminal indictment. The officer is ordered to not speak with any others and is provided very little support or information in those first uncertain hours after they had to shoot.
The Metro Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISM) was established in 1987 to help first responders deal with post-critical-incident stress and try to mitigate the long-term consequences of horrific experiences like those described in your series. Many were not receiving any type of support after they were involved in a critical incident. This lack of help was leading to serious problems such as suicide, alcoholism and the destruction of families.
The Metro CISM Team is staffed by first-responder volunteers and funded mostly by private donations. Our volunteers are peers who facilitate a structured discussion to help officers and other first responders begin to heal and process such heartbreaking incidents.
We need to support the officers involved, as they also are victims of the same sad deaths the Star Tribune discussed in this series. No one wants to have to kill in the line of duty. But the oath to protect and serve is clear. Afterward, we ask them to return to patrol, move on, be professional and stay engaged in the community. This is quite a lot to ask without the support of their agency and their community.
This issue of wellness and good mental health for police is recognized nationally with the recent release by the Department of Justice’s “The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — Final Report.” The report was broken down into six pillars or topics. Pillar 6 focuses on officer “wellness and safety.” The summary for Pillar 6 says: The wellness and safety of law enforcement officers is critical not only to themselves, their colleagues and their agencies, but also to public safety.
Police hurt, too, when they have to kill in the line of duty. If we as a society expect exceptional public safety service, we must have emotionally healthy people take the oath. More important, we must recognize that police are first and foremost people and we must commit to helping them stay as healthy as possible over the course of a 25-year career filled with exposure to emotional harm.
Failure to do so is a breaking of the social contract made with those who volunteer to stand on the thin blue line between order and chaos — and that is a tragedy for everyone.
Mike Glassberg and Corinne Becker are co-chairs of the Metro Critical Incident Stress Management Team.