Colorado to devote funds toward peace officer mental health services

Colorado to devote funds toward peace officer mental health services

Vail Chief of Police Dwight Henninger says police officers benefit from mental health services provided by “culturally competent” professionals.
Vail Daily archive

With so much focus on the fentanyl bill during the 2022 Colorado legislative session, Avon Police Chief Greg Daly didn’t get a chance to follow the less well-known effort to make more funding available for police officer mental health resources.

But Daly said he wasn’t surprised to hear his Avon neighbor, Rep. Dylan Roberts, was a prime sponsor of the bill.

“Obviously Dylan’s experience working in the District Attorney’s office — he’s the one who’s had to prosecute cases, seen the trauma involved — he’s seen the impact and the effect that these types of cases have on cops,” Daly said. “That makes him a great champion of these issues.”

The bill, SB22-005, expands access to behavioral health and counseling support for law enforcement officers, something Roberts says is key for officers who experience difficult situations on the job.

The bill, dubbed “Law Enforcement Agency Peace Officer Services,” intends to direct $3 million to a program that helps law enforcement agencies retain and recruit officers and expand access to behavioral health and counseling support to prevent peace officer suicide deaths. It passed the Colorado Senate and House this week and has been sent to the governor to be signed into law.

“We wrote the bill with law enforcement and made the allowable uses of the funds fairly flexible so that each department could craft programming and resources that work for their individual needs,” Roberts said on Friday.

That could be anything from direct counseling for individual officers, to carving out group time in departments for yoga and mindfulness exercises.

Daly says police officers are starting to come around to the idea that they too need someone to talk to about the ways in which they’re affected by the difficult circumstances surrounding their job duties.

“The question that’s been extremely well researched is ‘What are we doing with that trauma?’” Daly said. “The old-school approach was go home and get drunk and try to blot it from your mind. But that obviously is never the right way, no matter who or what you are.”

‘It never goes away’

Daly said in recent years, officers have started coming around to the idea that — in seeking out the job to be guardians of the community — things like therapy sessions, meditation and and mindfulness training is the proper way to achieve the strong mind that needs to accompany the strong body of a police officer.

“The culture of grin and bear it, where we can’t be seen to let this stuff affect us, is starting to go away because we’re realizing that we’re all human beings so it has to have an effect,” Daly said. “I can remember some of the tragic situations I’ve dealt with in my 26 years like it happened yesterday. It never goes away.”

People suffering from mental health issues often find themselves interacting with police, “But if we’re having problems dealing with our own, how are we going to deal with other people’s mental health issues?” Daly said.

The inroads toward improving officers’ mental health has come from a few avenues. One is simple realization of the fact that suicide is a hazard of the job that can be more deadly than being killed by a criminal.

In focusing on mental health issues for officers, “there’s been a big push across the United States, and a big push locally,” Daly said.

That push has come in the form of funding, which has made the difference between available to mandatory for departments like Avon.

Last year the Avon Police Department, buoyed by a grant from the Department of Local Affairs, mandated that every officer talk to a licensed psychologist, “even if they go in and talk about football for an hour,” Daly said.

Sergeant Tyler Churches leads tasing drills to new Police Officers Josh Hernandez and Cirilo Zarate at the Avon Police Department.
Madison Rahhal/Vail Daily archive

Part of the job

Another step local departments have taken in recent years is to see to the addition of peer support training, where public safety professionals are able to seek counseling with someone who is also experienced in public safety issues, and works in the profession themselves.

Daly said he has a few such officers in his department.

“Those officers can be contacted on duty or off duty and those officers can provide peer support to somebody who might be struggling,” Daly said. “It’s a peer support network of us, the fire department and the police department, in the county.”

Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said before the addition of peer support training, Vail was a good example of a town where, while the town may be well cognizant of workplace issues (in Vail that’s reflected in the creation of its employee assistance program), “most of those folks don’t have experience dealing with public safety officials,” Henninger said.

“So it’s really helpful for us to have funds to be able to let the officers be able to talk to counselors who are culturally competent and understand what’s in the profession, and the stressors that they’re facing,” Henninger said.

Daly said younger officers and those who have been in the profession through the massive technological changes it has underwent over the last two decades are often flexible to changes in departments that oversee the creation of new mental health resources and peer support groups.

Daly said using himself as an example, he’s warmed up to the idea of yoga in recent years — both as a practice officers can benefit from due to the fact that they deal with mental and physical stressors on the job, and yoga helps with both.

“I’ve seen some departments incorporate an hour of yoga,” he said. “We’re embracing mental health stuff, but it’s taken us a long time to get there.”

“I personally believe, as a profession, we have become much more adaptable to new ideas than we were in the past,” Daly said. “We’ve got younger people coming in that are more open-minded, more broader minded. … The police profession in general is generally slow to change, historically, but in the last 15 years we’ve embraced a lot of change in our approach to how we do business, and technology.”

Henninger said the bill’s inclusion of funding for officer retention is also a step in the right direction.

“To me, providing both mental and physical well-being is a form of retention, and an important piece of it,” he said.

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