Aug 29

Police Department Mandatory Evaluations of Police Officers with PTSD


Charles 08/29/2012

In order to properly answer your question we need to preface a few variables about how a department would do this.

First, as you know departments are required to have documented regulations and manual of procedures that dictate every aspect of officers behavior and standard of operation.  This includes the mental and physical aspects, not just for employment, but for his condition outside of his job (non-duty) This sets up a baseline for any mandatory department evaluation of police officers with or without PTSD.

In 100% of the departments that we inquired or have personal experience with the department tended to error on side of personal responsibility of the officer when it comes to standardized mandatory maintenance.  The departments in one sense wants to (and do) make available EAP (employment assistance plans) that include outside counseling that is supposed to be confidential.  This was designed and believed to encourage mental health of officers  at the time of need.  Unfortunately for the department and officer, as you are well aware,  the  breakdown in the system occurs because the officer (and others) fails to recognize or ignores the symptoms making intervention more difficult or impossible without creating embarrassment, friction and more stress.

Most departments then, either by whisper or procedures, by default pass the responsibility on to the command staff.  It ultimately becomes the responsibility of commanders to understand, identify and initiate any state of mind that compromises the officer, the public, the department or the government agency whom employs them.  Most departments will debrief the officers involved in critical incidents and will try to loosely “monitor” those personnel who have been exposed and rely on the officers peers to report odd behavior or problematic issues believed to be stress related.  But unfortunately officers are good at masking symptoms of stress from co-workers and management until its usually too late, unless the officer is strong enough to reach out before it is recognized.  The police culture does not respect weakness and this is the biggest deterrent to detection than anything.

This leads to a “fail to train” issue or worse if commanders are unable or unwilling to identify and offer or in some cases mandate officers seek help for “perceived” Stress related symptoms. It also creates problems for commanders and departments who have abused this power in the past.  This abuse being using the department psychologist as a disciplinary measure rather than a mental health resource.

Most departments do not specifically mention PTSD as a condition they readily recognize.   We were previously interviewed for our opinion by the Memphis News and CBS out of New York about last years officer shooting that involved the city of Memphis policy of not recognizing PTSD without a physical bodily injury.  Our opinion is that PTSD can occur without a physical injury depending on the severity and conditions of exposure.

It is important to have commanders and officer peer groups trained in early detection as most officers fear that coming forward and asking for help will be held against them and is extremely embarrassing.   Most likely if the officer is removed from duty status the department psychologist will recommend Internal Affairs to collect the officers badge and gun.  This severely affects the officers psyche.  Therefore, some therapist will recommend the department returning at least, the officers badge and ID.

With officers that have already been clinically diagnosed by a doctor and have been returned to work they will present a very real challenge in some cases.   That challenge may manifest itself in the first day, or a year.

The officer will return as light duty status or full duty.  If he is light duty he maybe assigned to a desk in traffic, training, records or another non-combatant environment if the department has those resources.  If not most likely they go straight back on the road whether the officer is ready or not.  Trust me, it happens all the time and you know it.  In this case assigning the officer to a 2 man unit if possible or other responsibilities where the officer can be monitored would be prudent.   In some cases the Police Psychologist wanted to ride with the officer in the patrol car.  As far out as that is, I have seen it happen.

Some departments use “The Front Desk” as a light duty status.  I have personally seen this used by departments as a form of discipline as well.  Removing from the officer his weapon and assigning them to interface with the public next to interns taking reports without being armed, or in civilian clothing.  This in itself puts the officer in a precarious and emotionally uncomfortable position.  Not just with himself, but his peers and the public.

Once back on duty the office is usually left alone by peers and the command staff because of fear of offending the officer or appearing as they are “Nurse Maiding” the officer to his peers.  If the officer has the respect of the department and his peers he will usually get adequate support and attention.  If the officer is not popular or for some reason brought the incident upon himself the support and attention is less genuine and tends to be harder to accept for the officer and superficial for peers and command staff.

There is a inconceivably important relationship between the officer, his vehicle and equipment.   This fact alone is one major setback to a returning officers ability to resume his duties at near 100% over time.  Make sure you reissue new equipment should there be any sense of failure or confidence in its operation and let them train with it after a critical incident.

With all this being said it boils down to this.

  • Understanding Most Departments DO NOT know how to handle officers with PTSD therefore try to compensate by reassignment  only
  • Have an OUTSIDE Expert come into the department for mandatory training on POLICE STRESS to eliminate or reduce FAIL TO TRAIN excuses
  • Having a trained volunteer peer group and command staff that can monitor and assist in any intervention is key.
  • Monitor and correct department abuses of the Department Psychologist so trust can be afforded
  • As a matter of Policy, several follow up timelines of all critical incident personnel
  • Use Outside Therapist or Psychologist to allow officers to trust those who are there to help them
  • Evaluate and address the officers relationship with his peers, command and equipment.

Please let me know if this helps and if there is some point that you would like to discuss more in depth.