Cop to cop: Peers learn to help each other cope with job stress
JANESVILLE—Cops see the ugliest parts of society: a couple at each other's throats, an addict overdosed on the side of the road, children neglected or beaten.
“It's hard to describe to the average person who doesn't have to see that day in and day out,” said Officer Sean Jauch of the Janesville Police Department.
“They mediate a domestic (incident) and then you go to the next call, and someone has hanged himself. It's horrible,” said Ken Bennett, a psychotherapist and hostage negotiator who works with police in Texas.
Bennett is bringing his insights to Jauch and 16 other police department employees at a seminar this week in Janesville. Attending are officers from Janesville, Whitewater, De Pere, Greenfield and the Rock County Sheriff's Office.
Daily incidents are enough to make officers nervous, saddened and jaded. Add to that the thought that the next encounter could be with someone who could start shooting.
“You have to be on edge for it, so your body alarm rate has to be up to defend yourself at any time,” Jauch said.
This “hyper vigilance,” reinforced by news of police shootings elsewhere, can keep an officer safe, but it can add to a burden the officer can find unbearable.
“You feel you can't keep up. You can't deal with the stress. If you don't talk about it and deal with it, you're quickly going down the road that ends in bad stuff,” said Jauch, who has worked with the Janesville department's chaplains program for years.
Officers also can get a dose of toxic stress all at once: Someone shoots at them or comes at them with a knife. And a few are obliged to defend themselves or others by taking a life.
Whatever the causes, the key to moving past the negative feelings is venting to fellow officers, Bennett said.
Officers find it easier to unburden themselves to someone who knows what they're going through.
“It's cops helping cops,” Bennett said.
If they try to tough it out instead of talking it out, results can be drinking, divorce, or even suicide. The rates of those outcomes among police are higher than average, Bennett said.
The traditional way police deal with stress has been to “suck it up,” Bennett said, but the most courageous act can be to ask for help.
Officers need to realize their feelings are normal reactions to abnormal events, Bennett said. They need go through a grieving process in some cases, and they need to make sense of what they experienced.
“It's not that they have to like it, but they have to have acceptance,” Bennett said.
Bennett is showing the cops how to be peer counselors for fellow officers, a technique that has helped elsewhere.
“What we're trying to do is build resiliency,” Bennett said, so that an officer's wife and children don't suffer and careers don't end too soon.
“It's a shame that in the past families have broken up or been affected by the stress of an officer who's trying to help society,” Jauch said.
Jauch had high praise for Chief Dave Moore and the rest of the department's administration for supporting such efforts and for bringing in this latest training.
Janesville police hope to use the training as a springboard to add peer counseling to its chaplains program, said department spokesman Sgt. Brian Donohoue.