Covid-19 pandemic: No more important time for resilience

It has been frequently mentioned that exposure to death and uncivilized brutality has an impact on wellness and personal resilience. Not a surprise. Especially in these pages, I make an effort to point out that the cumulative impact of traumatic exposure slowly whittles away one’s capacity for mental health, empathy and emotional efficacy. “There is a relationship between the severity, frequency and range of adverse experiences, and the subsequent impact on mental health.” (Dillon, Johnstone, & Longden, 2012). The conundrum has always come down to just what constitutes a “traumatic” event in childhood? Sometimes there is no single identifiable event that a child brings forth that may later become a trigger of serious emotional instability later in adulthood.

The Covid-19 virus has the potential for creating traumatic events depending upon the degree of exposure and a child’s understanding of the narrative brought forth by parents and other trusted adults during the pandemic. “Over 30 percent of Americans know someone who has died or been infected by the virus. The fallout to mental health from the coronavirus is real. I see it in my own family as nerves become frayed 8 weeks on.” according to the blog post from May, 2020. Trauma informed therapy supports the model of early traumatic experience being the underpinning of many mental health outcomes we see later in life. The biopsychosocoial model identifies physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to violence, chronic substance abuse as the substantive reasons for many mental and physical illnesses years later. When we look in the rear view mirror at this virus we will see the litter of emotional wreckage that may leave its hooks in many people around the globe.

Coronavirus. Ise.ac.uk

There is a relationship between the severity, frequency and range of adverse experiences, and the subsequent impact on mental health.

(Dillon, Johnstone, & Longden, 2012).

“The more adverse events a person is exposed to in childhood, the greater the impact on physical and mental health and well-being, with poor outcomes including early death” (Anda, Butchart, Felitti, & Brown, 2010; Anda et al., 2006; Felitti et al., 1998). There was a time in my training that I collected data on childhood fire setting and the psychodynamics of pyromania. I saw 50 children in my fellowship year who came because of fire setting. Without a doubt, there was marked early instability in the childhood homes in these kids that likely germinated into fascination with fire play and perhaps more directly, physically aggressive behavior. Many of the children I assessed were suffering from early onset trauma.

Depending upon the age of onset using fire as an expression of internalized conflict suggests a serious emotional disorder in need of expert assessment and treatment. The interest in fire may appear normal but slowly interest foments in homes where a prevailing emotional vacuum permits – decreased emotional warmth, access to fire starting materials, an absent parent, and frequent domestic violence.  

The inconsistent and unpredictable exposure to violence contributes to excessive and unpredictable behavior as children become adults. Often without direct knowledge of a specific trigger, trauma activates brain circuits that drive fear and emotional behavior including substance abuse, domestic violence, and assault. What is more, these absorb community resources as psychological needs grow.

The coronavirus has profound impact on the emotional stability of people around the world because of its unpredictability and lethality. It evokes fear, and uncertainty as it spreads unchecked. Later, the virus can serve to trigger long hidden memories in a way that can sabotage healthy human development leading to vague anxiety, physical symptoms, loss, and deep despair.

Scott D. Jones of Arlington, MA was a decorated paramedic who responded to a mass homicide in 2000 in which 7 people were shot in an episode of workplace violence. He would go on to kill his second wife and 2 children 14 years after repeated episodes of severe depression and suicidal behavior and domestic violence toward his first wife.  These behaviors were the first red flags of an impending emotional breakdown and terminal rage. Paramedic Jones certainly had problems but the repeated exposure to trauma – especially the mass shooting, activated his fight-flight response intolerably and may have been one of the demons he faced in the end.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Trauma can be triggered by loss due to Coronavirus in two ways. First, by direct contact with a family member who is hospitalized and may have died. Nearly every person who contracted the virus had someone left behind that was worried about their health and eventual recovery. Many had family members who communicated with patient via text messaging and FaceTime – until the loved one could no longer do so. Families relied on the updating calls of first responder nurses, chaplains, social workers, and physicians.

Next, through secondary exposure to similar cases and media coverage that assails efforts at closure and engrains the narrative of fear, guilt and shame by reporting ever increasing case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths survivors are left feeling numb and unable to mourn. Funerals were deferred or could not be held at all as some jurisdictions required the cremation of the remains of coronavirus victims. This has a negative impact on survivor health and well-being often evoking a religious and moral crisis of faith. Survivors have enormous guilt and sadness not being with a loved one who died from the virus or waiting to go for medical at the onset of symptoms. They mourn to mourn and are left feeling numb at the lack of closure.

So whether it is early trauma associated with domestic violence or trauma from repeated exposure to work-related experiences, there is a resilience that resides within most people that guides the rise from being overwhelmed again and again to move forward with courage and hope and feelings of hardiness. These are learned responses to high stress events like a pandemic, but people who are positive thinkers, optimistic, physically fit and emotionally insightful rise up, controlling the lives they lead.

We are offering a zoom platform event entitled The Psychological Impact of the Cornavirus Pandemic: Common sense answers on November 11, 2020 at 5:30 EDT and again in December 10, 2020 at 7 PM. It is free and to be sent the zoom link contact: jswiderski@whittierhealth.com or call the Whittier Rehabiltation Hospital at 508-870-2222 in the U.S. If you plan on attending the 12/10/2020 session please drop me an email at: msefton@whittierhealth.com

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Risky business: Faucci will not vote against the virus

The Corona virus has taken over 120,000 American lives since it began its tornadic viral defoliation of senior citizens and others with preexisting conditions in the Spring of 2020. The virus caught Americans unprepared. Everything has changed. The impact of the virus has been like a tsunami wave around the world whose point of origin is the giant industrial city of Wuhan, China. Only now are countries like Brazil being decimated and will soon top the United States in total cases and deaths. Countries who went into immediate lockdown were less effected like Norway, New Zealand, and Canada. The United States waited too long and the virus took hold. 

States here in North America, like Georgia, Arizona, and California, who grew weary of the economic impact of the virus and put forth ambitious reopening plans are now seeing record numbers of cases for the first time. The rate of infection is now being felt among younger citizens without pre-existing infirmity. 

Concerns about negative secondary outcomes of COVID-19 prevention efforts should not be taken to imply that these public health actions should not be taken,” wrote the CDC in one of its briefing statements. Secondary outcomes include the broad range of emotional responses to the virus including depression from loss of loved ones, sudden unemployment, increasing substance abuse, threat of homelessness, anger and existential anxiety from loss of control and loss of purpose in life. “However, implementation of supports should include a comprehensive approach that considers multiple U.S. public health priorities, including suicide prevention.” 

The Psychological toll of pandemic is beginning to show after festering for 3 months. The loss of employment, fear of foreclosure, food shortages, price gouging, addiction, and family conflict each increase the bonifide stress associated with the disease and its impact on the human family. People are becoming rattled. The President understands this and wants to exploit the opportunity by holding a campaign event. Trump brushed off concerns about the virus ahead of his highly anticipated rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because the number of cases there “is very miniscule”, despite the state’s surging infection of according to a report in the Boston Globe.  Instead, the rally was miniscule and embarrassed the President. 

Top physician and epidemiologist, Anthony Faucci has stated that given the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of Covid-19 that lessening of current social distancing protocols, the use of masks in public, and contact tracing are the best hope for keeping the number of new infections trending downward and to lessen the number of people who die from Covid-19. States who reopen for business without these same precautions are at risk for spikes in cases and more death. Since mid May we have heard from Dr. Faucci less and less as the White House has tried to imply that these concerns are unwarranted and there is “very little of the virus left”. 

President Trump, himself something of a germophobe, has put the needs of the campaign before public health and safety for the sake of his raucous and fervent base. In doing so, he will create a campaign spike that will be measured by new cases and deaths in the next 3-6 weeks time. That is on him and the courts who failed to put limits on the event or cancel it all together in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday June 20. Since February, the president has not taken the pandemic with the kind of leadership that demonstrates his understanding of the virus and respect for those who have succumbed to the disease. 

Meanwhile states like Georgia, Texas, California, and Florida are having thousands of new cases because governor’s of those states have failed to heed the warnings of Dr. Faucci and others. The sudden conflagration of new cases is not the second wave that we have been warned about. The jump in cases correlates with opening businesses without any adherence to protocols. See Tulsa, OK. 

In Florida, the average age of new cases who are hospitalized has dropped to 37-years old. “Those thousands of new cases also signal that, in a week or two, some portion of those people will show up in the hospital, and, about a week after that, a number of them will be dead, even as clinicians have learned more about treating severe Covid-19” said the Boston Globe. For his part, albeit in a greatly reduced capacity, Dr Faucci predicts that a tidal wave of infections is coming unless we do what most medical experts agree starts with respect for social distance recommendations, sanitary hand hygiene, and mandatory quarantine for those who test positive for the virus or are feeling unwell.  

We all know this by now, and it is hard to swallow unless you are among those people who claim to have super immune functioning and refuse orders to wear a mask in public?  Sadly, many will become infected and go on to infect others, unwittingly, all the while they feel nothing and are emboldened by the President who insists the risk of getting the virus at a campaign event is miniscule. Perhaps some readers of this post or others like it do not believe the numbers and chalk it up to fake news.

The emotional impact of the virus has yet to reach its peak. But the racial unrest may be one indication that many are becoming unhinged including a small number of law enforcement officers who lack empathy and understanding of the human effects of stress on unconscious bias and veiled bigotry.  Faucci is getting on the virus. Let us leave the prognosticating to the scientists who are watching the numbers and tracking those who are carrying the virus without symptoms, and may not know it yet. 

 

Chaos, Fear and Death from Covid-19: The loss of trust in leadership

The Coronavirus has brought to bear chaos and fear among Americans from coast to coast. I am unsure whether any of us expected the virus would grow and infect over 1 million Americans alone in 6 short weeks. The death toll at the time of this post is just under 80 thousand lives. Personally, my aunt and my mother were both infected with the virus at their living facility. Sadly, my aunt has died from the coronavirus but my mother, has been without symptoms, in spite of testing positive 2 weeks ago. Over 30 percent of Americans know someone who has died or been infected by the virus. The fallout to mental health is real. I see it in my own family as nerves become frayed 8 weeks on.

The virus’s threat to basic needs and personal security has eroded the trust in federal leadership. This is due to the lack of an integrated plan to develop a vaccination, provide testing and contact tracing, support unemployed workers, and reconcile still-rising numbers of Covid positive cases while at the same time as some states begin opening businesses. In doing so, potentially asymptomatic individuals may unknowingly carry the invisible killer into a restaurant, laundromat, or tattoo parlor – all deemed essential services as states like Georgia begin coming back on line. This is a fact, whether or not they meet federal government mandates for “opening up” including 2 weeks worth of reduced rates of infection, decreased death rates, and lowering hospital admissions due to Covid-19.  Many epidemiologists believe that opening businesses too quickly will result in a rise in cases of the virus and an increased rate of death.

Now, the White House Task Force is finding itself in the crosshairs of the invisible and lethal disease as members of the White House staff are being diagnosed with Covid-19 and self-quarantined because of exposure to the virulent disease. Members of the inner circle have been tested and some have been diagnosed with the virus including members of the White House service staff and the Vice President’s personal secretary. In the west wing, there is chaos among the staff as to what precautions should be taken while potentially being exposed to the coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been the face of the response to the virus is now in a voluntary quarantine as a result of the spread of the virus in the west wing among staff members of the White House. Three physicians have gone into voluntary quarantine as a result of coming into contact with the virus as protocols recommend.

Former President Barack Obama harshly criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster” during a conversation with ex-members of his administration. Yahoo News May 9, 2020

Medical personnel across the country are on the front line and they are being recognized for their tireless bravery in the hot zones in American cities like New York, Boston, and New Orleans. The law enforcement and fire service have all shown their appreciation with 7 PM shows of support. This also includes members of newly graduated physicians who have been sent to the front lines of the virus in ICU’s and Covid-19 floors in America’s best hospitals. The stress of this is often overlooked. “Since the pandemic began, newly minted residents who normally wouldn’t take care of patients with severe respiratory illnesses, such as those training to be psychiatrists, podiatrists, or orthopedic surgeons, have been asked to volunteer to work in COVID-19 wards” across the country according to a report by Deanna Pan in the Boston Globe on May 9, 2020. These are teaching moments that have brought out the best in young physicians and the old seasoned veterans who supervise. But the cost has been great with increased rates of suicide since the shutdown began in March including those on the frontlines.

On April 27, Lorna Breen, a physician specialist in emergency medicine took her own life after being witness to dozens of patient deaths during the peak of the coronavirus and contracting the virus herself and surviving it. Dr. Breen was a professional and emergency service medical director of NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital and had no history of depression or mental health diagnoses. In the hours before her death her father, himself a physician could tell something was wrong.

Lorna Breen, M.D.

On the night when the nation’s top virus spokesperson physician Anthony Fauci, M.D. went into voluntary quarantine, the president of the United States had a meeting of his senior staff and none of the members at the meeting were wearing personal protection, like masks. Physicians and epidemiologists are calling for social distancing and personal protection yet the White House resists and engages in ongoing updates and meetings without the use of masks or social distancing. With two White House staffers testing positive for the virus, including Mike Pence’s secretary Katie Miller, the president is making light of the protocols set forth by the CDC and the WHO. This inconsistency and disingenuous message is not lost on anyone.

NBC News profile of Dr Breen

Delayed actions at the top have resulted in confusion about what steps the U.S. Government and the individual states must take to reduce the impact of the viral outbreak. The U.S. has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and the highest number of deaths in the world. The streets of America are empty and businesses are shut down and many will never reopen. The unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent. This is the highest rate of unemployment since the great depression. People are worried and in conflict over medical information they are hearing and what they see in the White House increases that conflict.

“It’s a terrifying, solitary, dehumanizing death that these people go through, and it’s going to leave wounds in our society for a long time,” Tara Bylsma, 30, a second-year internal medicine resident at Boston University Medical Center in Boston Globe May 9, 2020

Working on the front lines with patients who are dying is horrific. This is especially painful when there is seemingly nothing that can be done to help them. First responders and frontline hospital workers are trained to provide emergency care. When their training is not effective than feelings of helplessness will grow. These feelings can be overwhelming. At the same time, the rule of law comes into question and there is growing suspicion that the virus is man-made or an overblown scam. People are pushing for release from social distancing and using the argument that their constitutional rights are being infringed upon by forcing them to remain in their homes. Some are becoming angry and out of control.

In late January, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pubic health emergency because of the exponential growth of the virus in China and later in Italy and Spain. Trump has since denuded the WHO as being overpriced and undervalued as only he is capable of doing. Sadly, Americans were unprepared when it’s first case arrived in February and we were told not to worry the virus would soon disappear. But it has not gone away and the United States is in lock down as a result.

Human to human transmission of the disease was thought ‘not possible’. The pandemic was first publicized and forewarned by a physician in Wuhan, China who ultimately died from the virus. He had been arrested and warned by police against speaking publicly about the risk of the virus and threatened with sanctions.

Meanwhile, President Trump was publicly yammering about his trust in Chinese President Xi Jinping and the deals he was making to benefit the American economy. His focus was not on the growing fear of American workers but the vulnerable economy that President Trump needs to get himself reelected in 6 months. In the meantime, the virus has not vanished nor faded away with warmer weather but continues to claim over 1000 lives each day across the country. Now, with the coronavirus in the White House, the presidential spin over wearing masks and maintaining social distancing takes on new meaning.

How will the political narrative shift now that Trump and his team has been directly exposed to the virus and members of the Coronavirus Infectious Disease team have become quarantined leaving the president alone in the garden for his bite of the apple?

Benchmark behaviors for healthy police service

Law Enforcement flag

What are the bench-mark behaviors that are reflective of healthy police officer career development? How does a young man or woman go from a squared away academy graduate to an over burdened, irascible and embittered mid-career cop? There is a growing literature that suggests officer behavior and law enforcement culture become instilled in the field training process that takes place immediately following successful formal classroom training. The answer to the question about officer embitterment is a mystery but after spending time with members of law enforcement in Chicago in late March 2019 it begins to become apparent that police officers grow and remain productive in an environment of support: both within the organization and within the community in which they serve.

There are factors intrinsic to law enforcement that detract from career satisfaction like the risk of personal harm or death, career ending injury, time away from family, shift work, and forced overtime. This is a well known set of stressors that officers learn shortly after signing on. But things that may be unexpected include the quasi-military chain of command that often stifles education and innovative thinking, professional jealousy, arbitrary executive orders, the lack of opportunity to participate in policy making, nepotism among non-civil service personnel, and the lack of support for the sacrifice made by the field qualified troops for physical and behavioral health injuries. The period of field training differs from job to job. Field training picks up where the academy classroom education leaves off. Newly minted LEO’s all must undergo field training and are assigned to a single field training officer (FTO) who provides on-the-job training about the realities of frontline police work and closely monitors officer behavior and responses in the field.

Field training usually lasts between 12-18 weeks and was first initiated in San Jose, CA in 1972 according to research published in 1987 by McCampbell of the National Institute of Justice at DOJ (1987). “The primary objective of the Field Training and Evaluation Program (FTEP) is to ensure that all probationary police officers receive optimal field training, predicated upon staffing the Field Training Officer position with qualified officers, and to ensure through proper training and evaluation that only competent, motivated, and ethical individuals become Chicago police officers” as published in the Chicago PD Field Training Program and Evaluation Standards (2018). Field training officers have specific training in mentoring with an understanding of the demands of “street work” and the transition from classroom recruit to patrol officer. The FOR training process lasts several weeks as seasoned veterans learn how to be mentors and evaluation the training needs of individual probationary officers. 

The selection of FTO’s differs from department to department and has implication on long-term officer success. Attrition rates exceed 25 % under the FTO’s leadership and tutelage in many agencies. FTO’s can be expected to experience training fatigue and should be permitted time between assignments. “Dworak cautioned about agencies falling into situations in which they over-work their FTOs, resulting in diminished quality of work, and subsequently, decreased value delivered to the recruit being instructed” Wyllie, 2017

“The FTO is a powerful figure in the learning process of behavior among newly minted police officers and it is likely that this process has consequences not only for the trainee but for future generations of police officers that follow.” Getty et al. (2014) There is little standardization of training protocols aside from FTO catechizing war stories day after day with tales from the street followed by endless inquiry over possible decisions based on department protocol as the sometimes defiant FTO sees fit.

“New officers can be taught when to legally arrest and use force, but the academy cannot instill in each trainee the breadth of intangible, community, value-based decision-making skills that are necessary to manage unpredictable incidents in varying situations.” Getty et al. (2014)

FTO’s are closely monitored by the department training hierarchy and are required to provide daily observation report as to the demonstrated progress of probationary police officers toward developing competence in over 10 areas of police-related duties including decision making, judgment, court testimony, use of force, etc. At the end of each 28-day cycle FTO’s submit a detailed review of progress and potential deficiencies that arise. In Chicago, IL a probationary police officer (PPO) must complete a minimum of 3 28-day cycles with an FTO. It is known that FTO’s help to instill the police culture in PPO’s including policing by the book and prevailing beliefs and attitudes as they exist within individual agencies. I strongly believe that FTOs play a role in reinventing the police service and lowering the stigma associated with behavioral health and response to exposure to trauma.

Job satisfaction is greatest soon after the law enforcement officer is taken off field training and designated “field qualified”. Following the 12-18 week field training officers remain on probationary status for up to 2 years from date of hire. There is some thinking that FTO behavior rubs off on PPO’s and can impact career identity including misconduct later on long after field training has ended. Officer resilience depends upon solid field training with adequate preparation for tactical encounters, legal and moral dilemmas, and mentoring for career development, job satisfaction, and long-term physical and mental health.

Chicago Police Department (2018) FIELD TRAINING AND EVALUATION PROGRAM http://directives.chicagopolice.org/directives/data/a7a57be2-1294231a-bf312-942c-e1f46fde5fd8c4e8.html taken March 29, 2019.

Wyllie, D. (2017) Why the FTO is one of the most important police employees. Police One https://www.policeone.com/police-products/continuing-education/articles/338249006-Why-the-FTO-is-one-of-the-most-important-police-employees/ Taken March 30, 2019 Sun, I. Y. (2003a). A comparison of police field training officers’ and nontraining officers’ conflict resolution styles: Controlling versus supportive strategies. Police Quarterly, 6, 22-50. Getty, R, Worrall, J, Morris, R (2014) How Far From the Tree Does the Apple Fall? Field Training Officers, Their Trainees, and Allegations of Misconduct Crime and Delinquency, 1-19. McCampbell, M. S. (1987). Field training for police officers: The state of the art. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

Officer distress in Bangkok, Thailand

“Today police morale and emotional health have hit rock bottom, he said, because of a number of factors, including botched policy-making when it comes to their career path that doesn’t take into consideration the officer’s needs and desires.” Bangkok Post December, 2019

And the year 2020 was not any better and very likely triggered added stress and tension among the working wounded in Bangkok and beyond. Shortly after I visited Bangkok, in early 2020 a member of Thai Army service in the Northern Province went off and killed his superior officer and over 20 people in his community. Very rare in the Thai history. My former Chief and I had met another commander from the Northern Province detail and liked him a lot. He smiled and seemed confident before returning to the Northern Province. Gun violence in Asia is rare and mass shootings are more rare still.

Next came the virus. Thailand got out in front of the contagion and closed things down and required both social distancing and masks. The total number of cases per 100,000 souls is much less than here and most other places.

Meanwhile, Thailand is offering a softer, gentler service to those officers who sign on to be law enforcement officers trying to accommodate the needs of the police service.

Investigating domestic violence, predicting danger, and containing the anger

image_502116fc-2724-4fe0-bba0-c375c3c85c13.img_0646
Dr Michael Sefton
Domestic violence homicide results when victims decide to move on with their lives and inform a jealous, insecure spouse that they no longer want a relationship. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. The risk is greatest when victims decide to leave. At first glance one might say “Lots of people break up and do not murder their spouse and family” according to Michael Sefton shown in the photo above. That is a fair statement, but it happens enough in the United States and elsewhere that domestic violence homicide must be considered in the most egregious cases of DV. Last week in Massachusetts a family was murdered because one spouse asked to be let go and people were stunned that they saw nothing to warn them of what was brewing.
“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton (2016).
At what point does a potential victims begin to wonder whether she and her children are safe? We are lead to believe that abusive intimate partners cannot be held in jail unless they are in violation of an order of protection, AKA: restraining order. This is untrue. But time and again, violent and abusive partners stalk and ignore orders of protection – especially using social media tracking software and trolling social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and What’s App to find victims and watch their activity. It is all about control, pathological jealousy, and instilling fear and terror. Restraining order’s are authorized by a district court judge who is on call night and day in most parts of the country. Restraining orders are not authorized unless substantial threat to the victim exists.  These orders are carefully crafted by investigating police officers whose reports highlight the exact nature of the violence and the reason the victim needs protection. “Protection orders are offered to the victim after the first sign of physical violence. It has been espoused that the police are not called until after the 6th or 7th episode of domestic violence” according to Sefton, 2016.  DV is a secret affair between members of a family who are often ashamed or embarrassed to come forward for help often until things gradually get worse – sometimes years into a pattern of violent dysfunction. Research is clear that separating spouses for the night does not positively impact the level aggression and risk in the household as much as the formal arrest of the aggressor.  What usually happens is the police break up the fighting couple by sending the aggressor off to the home of a friend or family member – less often to jail unless there are obvious signs of abuse. Arrest is mandated by law when physical signs of abuse are apparent. It has become all too often the case that hindsight – taken seriously – may have saved a life. It is when they are attempting to leave that abuse victims are at greatest risk of death due to domestic violence as in the case of Amy Lake, a victim of domestic violence homicide whose case was carefully studied in the Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide (Allanach, et. al. 2011) that occurred in June 2011. Lake’s husband and murderer was heard to state that “if you ever try to leave me I will kill you”.  In research conducted by this author and colleagues we learned that as soon as police leave the scene the risk for violence is increased. We interviewed a man who served 18 years for the murder of his wife and he described in vivid detail how he used nonverbal coercion to manipulate his wife while being interviewed by sheriff’s deputies in Maine. He admitted that as soon as the police were out of the driveway he strangled and drowned his wife for calling them. In our interview, he claimed that she was his best friend. In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. Whether this unwitting duplicity stems from the cultural belief that what happens behind closed doors is “nobody’s business” or the conscious result of intimidation should not change the proper law enforcement intervention in these cases. Early incarceration provides opportunity to draft a viable safety plan for potential victims and in some cases, will instill a desire for change in the violent partner. In the meantime, substantive buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and society needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work and violent partners to be contained. 
Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011 Sefton, M (2016). https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/the-psychology-of-bail-and-alternatives-to-incarceration/ Blog post: Taken October 9, 2019

Another look at self-destruction in law enforcement and its septic underpinning

This is a photograph produced by Dave Betz who lost his son (pictured) in 2019 to suicide.

Officer Dave Betz lost his son David to suicide in 2019

The code of silence.  It surrounds the culture of police work and always has.  I was once told there are two kinds of people: police officers and ass holes.  If you were not a police officer then you were an asshole.  It was a brotherhood with a formidable blue line that defined the police service as a singular force against all that is bad.  Some have said that law enforcement offers a front seat to the greatest show on earth.  Until what is viewed in the front row cannot be unseen and slowly chips away the veneer of solidarity by threatening the existing culture.  For police officers to have long term career success the organization must come to grips with its membership and relieve them of the stigma they feel that prevents them from coming forward. Who would go for that?

If the organization devalues its rank and file for experiencing the natural, neurobiological reaction to repeated, high lethality exposure to violence and death, then who would join such an organization?  Fewer and fewer applicants are signing on in 2019. If a police officer is emotionally denuded by the job why would he or she step up and break the code of silence and be labeled a “nut case” only to lose his badge, firearm, and police authority?  No one will sign on for that kind of treatment.

Each time a member of the law enforcement community takes his or her own life the unspoken silence becomes a lancing wound to the festering emotional infection that is from repeated exposure to traumatic events. The reappearing wolf in sheep’s clothing cuts his teeth on the souls of unwavering academy graduates now paired with senior field trainers who promise to teach the tricks of the trade. Academy graduates come forth like professional athletes with all the confidence and enthusiasm of an elite athlete.  They need experience and mentoring so they know what they are up against.  I was asked to speak at the annual Society of Police and Criminal Psychology meeting in Scottsdale, AZ in late September, 2019 on the importance of the field training program on long-term officer wellness and career satisfaction.

Country music blared from the car radio as Dave, dressed in pajama pants and a t-shirt, stood over his son and realized he was dead.

Father of 24-year old police officer David Betz, 2019

The psychological autopsy may provide insight into the manner of death and must include prior exposure to trauma.  How many first-in homicide calls had the decedent handled? How many unattended SIDS deaths?  How many death notifications? How many cases of domestic violence where the victim was too frightened to speak about the nightly horrors in the marital home? How many times did he witness the remnants of a violent motor vehicle crash with ejection?  Each time he bears witness to this inhumanity he risks never coming back. Some spouses will say they remember when they lost a husband or wife. “It was after the 4-alarm fire – sifting through the rooms for possible causes and finding the old woman who rented the place in an upstairs bathtub” or “the time the addict threw his newborn son off the 14th floor balcony because his baby mama did not return from work when she was expected.” Many espouse the use of the psychological autopsy as a way of honoring an officer who died by suicide as a means of linking the suicide to their tour of duty. 

High lethality calls must be tracked allowing for paid psychological defusing time in the aftermath of these calls.  Defusing and psycho- education can be provided for the entire group who handled the high lethality call rather than identify a single officer.  Aftermath check-ins and peer support should follow. An officer who begins to exhibit changes in his normal work routine, e.g. increased tardiness, citizen complaints, or substance abuse should be referred for psychological follow-up that is linked to annual performance reviews and recommendations for corrective action.

In truth, the reader may wish to put himself into the position of the first arriving police officers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a place called Newtown.  In December, 2012, twenty seven people were violently murdered – most were first grade students. I have read the Connecticut State Police report of the Sandy Hook shooting and was left feeling numb and physically sickened. It is over 1000 pages of grueling detail.  Now, when I see TV images of LEO’s running on campus toward the sound of gunshots, I know they must step over the desperate victims, some of whom take their last breath reaching for a pant leg or a blue stripe or a black boot covered in blood all the while begging to live.

Recruits enter the police service with high hopes of making a difference but quickly learn that their purpose in life is being sucked out of them like embalming fluid moving though the lifeless remains of a brother or sister officer who could endure no more. Coming forth and asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, resilience, and heroism. There should be no penalty or secondary administrative sanction when an officer comes forth.  They must be provided behavioral health treatment and a pathway to return to the job.  

Police officer suicide impacts police agencies everywhere in America and across the globe. Many officers feel abandoned by their agencies and become marginalized because they struggle with depression, substance abuse, and PTSD after years of seeing the worst life has to offer. It is time to lessen the expectation of shame among the troops who serve communities large and small. No father should be first in at the suicide death of his own son and be expected to stand with a photo and share his story at the same time he remains stoic and brave.

The Field Training Officer: Important things they may not know

Most departments has active field training protocols that recruits must pass after leaving the academy.  This means they ride along with the FTO until they are ready to function independently as LEO’s.  The specific time line for this depends on FTO daily observation reports during the phases of field training.  These begin with close supervision where the trainee does little of the daily work. In the latter phase of training the FTO may pull back and provide intervention only if needed by allowing the trainee to be the lead on all calls.

Officer resilience depends upon solid field training with adequate preparation for tactical encounters, legal and moral dilemmas, and mentoring for long-term physical and mental health.  Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018

Law enforcement officers begin their careers with all the piss and vinegar of a first round draft pick.  This needs to be shaped by supervised field training and inevitably will be effected by the calls for service each officer takes during his nightly tour of duty. Much like competitive athletes, law enforcement officers at all levels exhibit “raw” talents, including leadership abilities and the cognitive skills to go along with them.  Moreover, like competitive athletes, these raw abilities have to be honed, refined and advanced through a combination of modeling, coaching and experience in order for the officer to develop the skills needed to improve performance, as well as prepare them for career advancement according to Mike Walker.  This important task falls upon the field training officer (FTO) and is a critical phase in probationary police officer’s development.  “The FTO is a powerful figure in the learning process of behavior among newly minted police officers and it is likely that this process has consequences not only for the trainee but for future generations of police officers” according to Caldero and Crank (2011).  In 1931 the Wickersham Commission found over 80 percent of law enforcement agencies had no formal field training protocols for new officers entering the field of police work described by McCampbell (1987). In 1972, formalized field training protocols were introduced by the San Jose, CA police department that became a national model for post academy probationary field training.

Just before I was promoted to sergeant while working for a law enforcement agency, USCG Vice Admiral John Currier, a friend of mine said to me: “Michael, move up or move out”.  I wasn’t sure what he meant by that but given my 9 years as a patrolman, I started to lobby for a promotion to sergeant.  The agency at which I worked had little turnover in the middle ranks so I was never sure I would get a chance for promotion.

All law enforcement officers should have a career path when they graduate the academy that lays out a career path based on officer interest, career improvement goals, on-going training interests, and agency needs.  Training opportunities offer new officers the chance to gain experience in anything from specialized investigations i.e. sexual assault and child abuse, firearms instructor, domestic violence risk assessment to bike patrol and search and rescue.  Our chief believed strongly in incident command, active shooter response, and emergency medical technician training.  I went on to take the paramedic technician course at a local college in 2011-2012. In many ways my former agency was well ahead of the curve in training opportunities and tactics including use of body worn video cameras, taser training, stop sticks, and individually deployed patrol rifles.  I was encouraged by my chief to participate in a research opportunity I was offered in domestic violence homicide from a case in northern Maine, a community much like the one I served. From this research we introduced a risk assessment instrument developed by  Jacquelyn Campbell.

The chrysalis for me came in August, 2012 when I was appointed by the Select Board to sergeant at the recommendation of my chief.  Before this could occur, I had put in a significant amount of time developing a field training program, domestic violence awareness and lethality assessment protocols, and police-mental health encounter training. I learned the hard way that most police officers do not like working with citizens with mental illness and hate attending training classes on mental health awareness and crisis intervention training. I realized that I needed to become a leader and in order to do so I needed to become better in communicating with the troops and with those up the chain of command. In order to develop leadership I was sent to sergeants school but what I learned was the importance of being a role model for those in training and to teach by doing, teach by example. I also learned that field training is demanding, exhausting work if done with the precision needed to fully socialize the trainee and provide needed modeling while gradually offering greater independence for the trainee.

cropped-images.jpgField training involves months of practicing ‘what if‘ scenarios, learning the ropes of the police service, use of force, and writing reports. Early in the phase of training the tough discretionary decisions faced by a probationary officer are made by the senior training officer based on prior judgement, experience and what is most prudent for the specific incident and conditions on the ground.  “Agencies should thus maintain a greater degree of FTO supervision, not just trainee supervision. Such an effort would go a long way toward improving FTO programming and better informing the needed research base” Getty et al. (2014, pg. 16). Field training is often time limited with special consideration for officers who need additional training in specific skills or personal areas of concern. Some officers are put on career improvement plans and extended field training, when needed, and some probationers are discharged from the agency because of skills or behavior that are not compatible with police work. Law enforcement agencies want active police officers who represent the core beliefs of the agency and individual community needs.

Field training has perhaps the most potential to influence officer behavior because of its proximity to the “real” job according to Getty, Worrall, and Morris (2014).

Probationary officers can be taught the how and when of effecting an arrest but the intangible discretionary education comes from FTO guidance and socialization that takes place during the FTO training period.  Research has revealed that officers’ occupational outlooks and working styles are affected more by their FTOs than formal “book” training, Fielding, 1988.  The selection of who becomes an FTO is not well defined.  In a study at Dallas PD probationary trainees were exposed to multiple FTOs over 4 phases (Getty et al. 2014).  The study revealed a correlation between new officer behavior – in the 24 months after supervision, as measured by citizen complaints and the FTO group to whom they were assigned. It is conceivable that the results in the study may be due to the relative brevity of training at each phase may have stopped short of instilling good habits or extinguishing bad habits in many new police officers. I have worked in agencies where only the sergeants were the FTO’s by virtue of rank and supervisory acumen long before systematic field training programs were introduced.  In Dallas, results showing officer misconduct via high citizen complaints may too have been associated with unprepared FTO’s who were drafted to supervise the trainee and who were not prepared for that role.

“Bad apple” and/or poorly trained FTOs may thus have a harmful influence on their trainees. Getty et al. (2014)

Choosing successful FTO’s is of critical importance for new officer development and for future generations of law enforcement officers. The values espoused by the FTO have enormous impact on the behavior, habits, and professionalism of new police officers. It has been shown that the quality of this training belies post-supervision job behavior and success.  Haberfeld (2013) has offered a supportive assessment of the assessment center approach to FTO selection suggesting there are qualities that may be quantified in the selection process. This may be helpful in the selection of FTO’s who are professionally resilient and emotionally hardy as they lead the new probationary officer into his career. If officers are randomly assigned to provide field training without forewarning or preparation this may staunch career growth in the probationary LEO.  If this becomes the norm then FTO’s may have provide more of what probationary officers need such as correct values, discretionary wisdom, and perhaps less negative socialization that can lead to embitterment, misconduct, and citizen complaints.

At times of high officer stress when high lethality/high acuity calls are taken the probationary LEO is apt to require greater support and guidance from the FTO. It is during these critical incidents that post hoc peer support and defusing may take place.  Training LEO’s should be permitted to openly discuss and express the impressions they experience to calls that may be more violent, and outside of the daily norm for what he or she has been doing.  In doing so, the impact of these high stress exposures may be mitigated and emotional resilience may germinate. The responsibility of FTO’s to reassure and invigorate trainee coping skill and mindful processing of critical incidents cannot be under emphasized.  FTO’s understand that healthy police officers must be permitted to express horror when something is horrible and feel sadness when something leaves a mark. They will become better equipped in the long run if allowed to fully appreciate the emotional impact that calls for service will elicit in them.  The stigma of high reactive emotions from high stress incidents, i.e. homicide or suicide, is reduced when officer share the call narrative and its allow for its normal human response.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.
2019

REFERENCES
Caldero, M. A., & Crank, J. P. (2011). Police ethics: The corruption of noble cause (3rd ed.). Burlington, MA: Anderson.
Fielding, N. G. (1988). Competence and culture in the police. Sociology, 22, 45-64.
Getty, R, Worrall, J, Morris, R. (2014) How Far From the Tree Does the Apple Fall? Field Training Officers, Their Trainees, and Allegations of Misconduct. Crime and Delinquency, DOI: 10.1177/0011128714545829, 1-19.
Haberfeld, M. R. (2013). Critical issues in police training (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
McCambell, M. Field Training for Police Officers: The State of the Art (1987). DOJ: NIJ, April.

Law Enforcement – M.H. encounters – New documentary April 27, 2019 in Somerville

A new documentary featuring the law enforcement CIT model of police-mental health response is being featured as part of the 2019 Boston Independent Film Festival.  This entry won a prestigious award the SXSW in its film debut.  As I retired from police work my interest in law enforcement mental health interactions deepened.  As a result I met these officers in San Antonio was was taken for some days of first hand observation of their work.  The documentary took 2 years to complete and gives the viewer a front row seat in the model from San Antonio PD and Bexar County that works. The film debuts here in Boston at the Somerville Theater in Davis Square on Saturday April 27, 2019.  I strongly urge readers in the area to attend.

In many police agencies the call volume for mental health encounters is at or above 50 percent. That means that every other call for service requires that officers dispatched to the call have an understanding about encounters with citizens experiencing a mental health crisis. Many LEO’s lack training and are uncomfortable with these calls. Importantly, this does not mean that 50 percent of all calls involve mentally-ill citizens but those individuals experiencing some behavioral health emergency – like a job lay-off or impending divorce or financial problems. They are not mentally ill and should not be treated any differently than any other 911 call for service. Police are often called when bad things happen to normal individuals who become emotionally overwrought often made worse by chronic use of alcohol or drugs.

Training for encounters with citizen’s experience a mental illness is part of the early career academy education. Many officers are provided 40 or more hours of crisis intervention training (CIT). In-service programs are being introduced across the country because of the importance of having expertise and understanding in basic de-escalation. Agencies around the country are playing catch up in learning how best to deal with abnormal behavior. Police in Albuquerque, NM are using a monthly supervision model where the department psychiatrist case conferences specific calls and officers learn techniques for de-escalation and process details about how better to respond to future calls.

Crisis intervention training teaches law enforcement officers what to expect and allows them to practice using role playing to see for themselves how to intervene with people in crisis using de-escalation techniques. “Law enforcement officers’ attitudes about the impact of CIT on improving overall safety, accessibility of services, officer skills and techniques, and the preparedness of officers to handle calls involving persons with mental illness are positively associated with officers’ confidence in their abilities or with officers’ perceptions of overall departmental effectiveness. ” Bonfine, 2014. “When a police officer responds to a crisis involving a person with a serious mental illness who is not receiving treatment, the safety of both the person in crisis and the responding officer may be compromised especially when they feel untrained” according to Olivia, J, Morgan, R, Compton, M. (2010).


Bonfine N, Ritter C, Munetz MR. Police officer perceptions of the impact of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs. Int J Law Psychiatry. 2014 Jul-Aug;37(4):341-50. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2014.02.004. Epub 2014 Mar 11.PMID: 24630739

Olivia, J, Morgan, R, Compton, M. (2010) A Practical Overview of De-Escalation Skills in Law Enforcement: Helping Individuals in Crisis. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, 10:15–29.
While Reducing Police Liability and Injury

Into the darkness and away from the blue line

Most departments have officers trained in CISD whom provide peer support to brother and sister LEO’s who are in crisis. Key among these relationships is the hand-off to mental health professionals when indicated according to Sefton in a recent blog (2018).

The factors contributing to law enforcement officer suicide vary from one to the other but LEO resilience may be lost as a function of emotional embitterment that occurs over time. Police job-related stress is well-identified and reported in the media daily and the rates of suicide nationwide are being debated by Aamodt and Stalnaker. Rates of suicide among LEO’s are actually less than one is led to believe but even one law enforcement officer suicide is too much. A closer look at the precipitants will help future generations of LEO’s to modulate trauma and process trauma in real time. The perceived stigma of depression, emotional vulnerability, and the cumulative impact of the worst of all human experience may lead LEO’s into the darkness. When suicidal officers are identified there must be a planned or intervention response using a peer support infrastructure that provides for a continuum of service depending upon the individual needs of the LEO and the supports available. In many agencies, especially smaller departments lacking resources, officers’ languish and sometimes spiral downward without support and without somewhere to turn.  Police officers must have support available to them long before they are expressing suicidal urges (Sefton, 2018).

Prevention of law enforcement suicide is paramount according to Sefton (2018).  As recently as early November, 2018 a former police chief died by police assisted suicide killed by his former officers after charging them with a kitchen knife.  And in Baltimore County, MD, School Resource Officer Joseph Comegna, a 21-year veteran of the force, took his own life at his desk in the public school.  “And unlike line-of-duty incidents, which tend to receive a great deal of media coverage, law enforcement suicides rarely get much press, says Al Hernandez, a 35-year veteran of the Fresno Police Department (FPD) in California. Hernandez helps connect officers to mental health care.” according to Jack Crosbie writing in Men’s Health (2018).

Embitterment grows out of frustration and the build-up of chronic negativity, perceived helplessness, and resentment over lack of support according to Leo Polizoti a police consulting psychologist in Massachusetts. It stems from chronic discontentment within the ranks and grows with the strong belief that nothing will change. It may start with a single officer and grow to additional officers on the shift or within an outlier division or district. It is derisive to the camaraderie brought forth by the thin blue line. It is a cancer affecting what is the embodiment of a healthy law enforcement agency by trust and commaraderie. The corrosive perturbation of embitterment strips away trust in the “job” among individual officers leading to a darker reality and sometimes destructive inner narrative. Gradually, LEO’s grow weary over perceived lack of support from members of leadership and the community. In becoming alienated they often lose the support of peers growing increasingly marginalized.

Without light there is only darkness without hope

“The “typical” officer who committed suicide was a white, 36.9 year-old, married male with 12.2 years of law enforcement experience. The typical suicide was committed off-duty (86.3%), with a gun (90.7%), at home (54.8%).” Aamodt, 2001


In 2018 the Chicago Police Department went the extra step of releasing a video titled, “You Are Not Alone!” to put a spotlight on police suicide prevention and mental health. The video production is shown below and makes an effort to reduce alienation among officers suffering from the cumulative impact of trauma by reducing the stigma associated with seeking help for behavioral health afflictions. The cumulative stress associated with a career in law enforcement cannot be understated. 

In the setting of police stress and stress support there is an intervention protocol that relates to the peer-support program continuum as I cite in a recent blog (2018).  Depending on where officers enter the peer support network will impact the level of intervention they may require in the P-SIC program.  Peer support is not psychotherapy but officers occasionally must hand off the officer in trouble to a  higher level of care.  These hand-offs are key to linking at-risk LEO’s with range of professional support needed to keep them on the job and must be done in real time with the lethality of LEO distress being the guiding intervention.  


Officer suicide in Chicago represents strongly felt stigma associated with
behavioral health crises

There have been notable cases in which an officer brings himself to his station house and chooses to end his life in a place where colleagues will surely find him. In a single agency, an officer hanged himself in the department parking lot while peer support officers raced the immediate neighborhood after a ping of the officer’s phone led them to his whereabout in an effort to find him before he died. In another agency an officer killed himself while parked in the district station lot before or after his shift. A female recruit recently committed suicide at the police academy after the halfway point in her training.

These acts will have a formidable impact on LEO’s everywhere in terms of the cumulative impacts of acute stress – especially those men and woman who were exposed to the individual cases or knew the officer involved and his family. Are signs of imminent suicide missed? In general there are signs of depression and anxiety that precede an attempt of suicide. Sometimes more than one. The severity and lethality of these depends on multiple underpinnings including coping strengths and weakness, co-occurring illness – including substance abuse, alienation from peers and family members, and other significant stress, e.g. impending divorce, loss of job, age, and serious financial trouble. History of heightened emotional response to stressful events is predictive of subsequent stressful responses later on.


Aamodt, M. G., & Stalnaker, N. A. (2001). Police officer suicide: Frequency and officer profiles. In Shehan, D. C, & Warren, J. I. (Eds.) Suicide and Law Enforcement. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Sefton, M. (2018). From anonymity and stigma grows resilience. Blog Post Taken January 10, 2019 https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/msefton.wordpress.com/5294

Sefton, M. (2018) Police Stress Intervention Continuum: An introduction for LEO’s and command staff to reduce officer suicide. Blog post taken 1-23-19

Polizoti, L. (2018) Personal correspondance.

Ortiz, E. (2019) Chicago’s cluster of police suicides. NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/chicago-s-cluster-police-suicides-raises-alarms-heroes-need-saving-n954386 Taken 1-23-18