Training Police to Handle Trauma

Jun 6, 2019, 1:00 PM, Posted by

This 2018 Culture of Health Prize winner helps officers and the people they serve deal with the ‘bad things’ they witness and experience every day.

A veteran police officer in Cicero, Illinois, is quick with an answer when the therapist asks him: “What’s the worst thing you’ve witnessed on the job?”

Instantly, it’s 2010, an icy Valentine’s Day, and Officer Joseph Melone is staring in horror as flames engulf a three-story house. Melone is an arson specialist, and when the fire subsides, it’s his job to pick through the rubble. Seven people are missing. The oldest is 20; the youngest is that man’s newborn.

Melone finds the remains of the three-day-old baby.

“The 911 call from inside that place will haunt me until the day I die,” the 47-year-old Melone, now a sergeant, recalls. “You can hear the fire crackling around the caller and nobody could get in there.”

The story spills out from Melone as part of a training to give officers with the Cicero Police Department better tools for dealing with trauma in the lives of crime victims, as well as their own. The 8-hour course was built from scratch and tailored to the needs of the Cicero Police Department by local nonprofit staff from Youth Crossroads and the domestic violence agency Sarah’s Inn, as well as a psychologist from the local school district.

The idea for the course arose from a conversation the two of us had in early 2017 about the high suicide rate for members of the Chicago Police Department, which was 60 percent more than the national average, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. While the police department in Cicero is a tiny fraction of neighboring Chicago’s—160 versus 12,000—the pressure bearing down on officers is the same.

We recognized that in a community like Cicero, which is recovering from a history of gang violence, police need the tools for dealing not only with their own exposure to trauma, but also for helping community members overcome the effects of adverse experiences. It’s a way of shifting how law enforcement approaches and interacts with the citizens they are sworn to protect.

From those conversations, we worked together to put in place a trauma training course for every officer. And officers appreciate what they have learned.

Police officers are exposed to bad things every single day. They get used to it and don’t realize it, but over time the effects accumulate.

Learn how Cicero, Illinois—a Latino-majority town—is empowering residents of all ages to improve community health.

“It’s very important for police to understand the community,” says Cicero Police Superintendent Jerry Chlada, Jr. “If we’re going to be a partner, we have to understand everything.”

In one-on-one sessions, police officers gave direct input on what the course should cover. They talked about the types of situations that had the deepest impact on them, the supports they had, and the people they felt they could talk to.

The course focuses on three areas: what is trauma; how can an understanding of it shape how police do their jobs; and how police can manage trauma in their own lives.

In the first part, the trainers give words to situations the officers have observed in the line of duty—like adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). They explain how repeated exposure to stressful or violent events can affect someone emotionally, developmentally, and physically. They walk through particular situations, like dealing with victims of domestic violence who may not want to cooperate. 

In the second part, officers are guided through how to better interact with crime victims, using a technique developed by the military known as the forensic experiential trauma interview (FETI), which aims to calm a victim or crime witness in order to draw better information about an experience.

The last part of the course turns the table and looks at how trauma affects police. When they witness violence, trauma, and death, they can develop PTSD of their own. They often think, “I shouldn’t feel like this” and brush their feelings off. To give officers somewhere to turn for help, the training ends with information on resources, including counseling services and a 24-hour crisis hotline (Serve and Protect, 615-373-8000).

The positive feedback we’ve gotten from officers after trainings is overwhelming. Now, we have a therapist on call to help officers after intense, stressful incidents, and the department has created a wellness committee and peer support program to address stress and ways to improve the health of its officers. The group would like to train officers to help each other after traumatic events, so they’ll always have someone to tell their stories to. Someone who’ll understand when they say, “I’m not feeling right.”  

Training police is just one way we’re dealing with community trauma and building resilence in Cicero. We’re also engaging parents and school personnel to help transform Cicero public schools into welcoming, safe environments for their children. In the years-long effort to build a healthier community, everyone—including police—has a role to play.

Learn more about Cicero’s efforts to build a Culture of Health.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, an RWJF project, hosted a webinar on June 18 about how Cicero is addressing community trauma. Learn more.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORs

Vincent Acevez is a 20-year veteran of Cicero, Illinois’ police department, where he is deputy superintendent of the Patrol Division. He is a member of the department’s wellness committee.

Jaclyn Wallen is a licensed clinical professional counselor at Youth Crossroads, a nonprofit that works with young people in Cicero, Illinois. She helped design Cicero Police Department’s trauma training for officers.