For as long as Capt. Shellie Seibert can remember, the Tulsa Police Department has had a support team that responds to critical incidents, but officers burdened by chronic exposure to trauma or everyday stresses kept quiet.
Officers often see “the worst of parts of society,” and they can experience abrupt transitions from terribly volatile situations to those more run-of-the-mill, Seibert said.
“Officers are strong people, but every person gets worn down,” Officer Susannah Ralston said.
After the department lost an officer to suicide in 2016, patrol officers on up to Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks began calling for a support system, Seibert said. Process groups, nominations and selections later, Peer 2 Peer was born.
The movement falls in line with the Tulsa Commission on Community Policing recommendations submitted to the department in March 2017, and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommendations offered in May 2015.
Eighty-eight peers, comprising officers ranking to deputy chief and a few retirees and dispatchers, recently regrouped about a year after the program was implemented to review guidelines and discuss feedback, the Tulsa World reported.
Overall, Seibert said, the response was positive.
Peers are basically trained to be a friend to officers in need. Officers can self-refer, choosing from a list of peer names, specializations and contact methods, or supervisors can ask a peer to check on an officer, Seibert said.
Peers swear confidentiality barring illegal conduct, and they do not keep detailed records of contacts, Seibert said, keeping only a tally of officers contacted and checking a box on a form to denote which general topic was discussed, such as finances or relationships.
Collectively, there’s little the peers have not been through, Seibert said, which helps officers know they’re not alone.
From November 2017 to February 2019, peers reported making more than 1,100 contacts, Seibert said.
The No. 1 issue discussed? Work-related stress.
In the past two decades, community demands for law enforcement to fill gaps in social services have risen significantly, Vince Hawkes, a director for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote in the organization’s May publication.
“These pressures are compounded by the expectations for an officer to have the skills of a doctor, psychologist, teacher, and referee — and witness the best and worst of humanity while maintaining emotional control,” Hawkes said.
Ralston, the assistant coordinator of Peer 2 Peer, said many officers suffer compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is prevalent in many helping professions and is characterized by a person losing empathy for those he or she serves, becoming indifferent to victims and the community. It’s often second to vicarious trauma.
The key is getting officers help early on, Seibert said, but they’re fighting a stigma.
Law enforcement is a career marked by bravery and heroism, and officers are normally helpers, not the ones asking for help.
Moreover, Seibert said, officers fear being taken out of service.
“In the law enforcement profession, people are scared because they’re afraid that they will lose their right to carry a firearm, which means they can’t be a police officer,” Seibert said.
The peer program, which Seibert hopes is breaking down that stigma, will serve as the backbone to an all-encompassing officer wellness program, 360 Officer Wellness.
Officer Lori Visser, the Peer 2 Peer program coordinator, is currently creating an inventory of the resources available to officers, identifying any gaps in coverage and organizing resources into a digestible format, Seibert said.
The wellness program aims to offer care to officers in almost every aspect of their lives, including social, spiritual and intellectual, Seibert said, because one can tell a difference in service when a business takes care of its employees.
“That’s the direction we’re moving toward,” Seibert said.