Facing Feelings
Blue Courage is billed as a transformational two-day leadership development workshop designed to help support the mental health of police officers. | Michael Santiago, They Wear Blue Photographer

Facing Feelings

Blue Courage encourages police to deal with stress

Officer Kristie Froio stumbled through the woods near Onondaga Creek Boulevard, struggling to see through the bleeding gash near her eye, searching for the patrol partner she’d become separated from.

Responding to a call about an outdoor fire, the pair encountered the schizophrenic man who started it. He’d stopped taking his medication and was high on drugs, and the officers offered to take him to the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP), a licensed psychiatric emergency room. He resisted, and when they pushed it, he ran into the woods, Froio first in pursuit.

She caught up with him and struck him across the shoulder with the flashlight she was using to see in the dark. To her surprise, the suspect responded with a blow using a metal pipe to the left side of her face. She went dark, briefly unconscious.

“I remember telling myself, ‘Kristie you got to wake up, you got to wake up! He’s going to kill you if you don’t,’ ” the 16-year veteran said last year, easily recalling details of the incident a full decade ago.

She did rouse herself and called for backup, but the trauma has endured.

Froio suffered serious nerve damage to her upper cheek and left side, severe sinus damage that she has tried to address with three sinus surgeries over the past 10 years, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and intense nightmares.

The stress of traumatic experiences like these stays with an officer long past a call has ended. The stress of the job, day in and out, can have several effects on an officer, including burnout, the onset of PTSD, development of conditions like anxiety and alcoholism, and even suicide. A study on police suicide from 2008 to 2012 found that the number of officers who take their own lives is twice the number of those killed by felons.

Statistics like these have led to the development of programs like Blue Courage, a workshop that aims to shift police culture by getting officers to take charge of their well-being — not only physically but mentally. It’s an aspect of health that isn’t typically addressed in law enforcement.

Officers listen to a lecture last year. | Michael Santiago, They Wear Blue Photographer

The two-day training, which Froio has become certified to instruct, encourages law enforcement officers to reflect on their careers and lives through a model the trainers have developed that addresses topics like emotions related to the job and police culture, as well as breathing to relieve stress. While police officers are usually led to embrace a culture of bravado and to suppress feelings, Blue Courage instead teaches them to soften up and actively address those raw emotions.

The Blue Courage program was recently implemented by the Syracuse Police Department, and Officer Dzenan Selimovic, who’s been with the SPD since 2005, said for him it has been a great help. He has also become certified to teach the course. One of his most haunting memories is seeing a woman whose face and chest were blistered by hot grease thrown on her by a man after she refused sex with him. At another call, he still remembers a bleeding suspect dying in his arms.

Selimovic is a refugee of the Bosnian war and says the experiences in his home country have better equipped him to deal with the stresses of his daily job. He says police departments rarely equip their forces with the tools necessary to deal with the toll — and many times the culture prevents cops from doing so out of fear of looking weak.

“They give you a gun, a belt, a car, radio, bulletproof vest and everything else, but nobody builds you a bulletproof mind. You’re expected to be the tough guy,” Selimovic said.

At a recent Blue Courage workshop in Concord, N.H., officers from throughout the state gathered to navigate a set of the program’s exercises. The curriculum asks officers to respond to a series of prompts at the end of each topic taught. In many of the group discussions, officers revealed personal events that have influenced their attitudes toward policing.

Nate Lindsay, an officer with the Manchester Police Department, said the stresses of a host of traumatic events over the years have taken a toll on him. He said there’s an unreasonable expectation on officers to be OK all the time.

“They’re supposed to be the strong ones,” he said. “They’re supposed to be the helpers, but if you keep getting punched you’re going to fall down at one point.”

Lindsay has dealt with several traumatic experiences, including losing his partner, who was shot and killed while apprehending a suspect on Lindsay’s night off. And Lindsay took the murder of an 8-year-old hard: He called his wife and cried on the phone that day.

Troy Pickering, a deputy sheriff in Strafford County, said he has also had several low points. He’s resorted to alcohol, and focused on his hobbies of wrestling and running, sometimes pushing it so far that he’d collapse on the side of the road.

“The price of being me may not have been worth it,” he said.

One of Pickering’s worst memories was attempting to resuscitate an infant, who died.

“I’ll never get that taste out of my mouth. There’ll be days when I’m eating dinner or something and I’ll push the dinner aside because for whatever reason I’m back there for that split second — the fatal accidents, the suicides, the abuse of children, all those things over a course of time wear you down,” Pickering said.

Pickering said he has suffered from burnout. He attended the Blue Courage training with the hope of reigniting passion for his career.

For some officers, the stress has manifested itself in making them hyper-aware of the dangers of everyday life, affecting the decisions they make for their family. Tony McKnight, an officer with the Somersworth Police Department, and his wife have their children home-schooled. Their kids attend traditional school only once a week. It’s McKnight’s way of sheltering his children from the reality he’s seen from exposure to the worst of people every day, he said.

For others, the job can have an effect on life at home. Jim Ford, who’s now a campus police officer at the University of New Hampshire, said the job often prevented him from participating positively in family life.

“For me, it was sort of a shutdown situation. I’d go to work, I’d do my job, I think I did it well, and then I’d come home. I wouldn’t participate in the family,” he said.

Though the SPD began offering the Blue Courage training to its officers in 2016, the department already had a start on addressing mental health. About six years ago, Officer Ann Baumann and others founded a volunteer peer support group. They offer resources to officers who seek it, whether the issue is related to their personal life or the job. These volunteers are also required to reach out to officers who have been involved in a critical incident, such as a shooting, to offer them support.

Though talking about emotions has been and is still seen as taboo in many police departments, Baumann said she has seen a shift toward more openness.

“Sometimes it is a matter of survival in the moment, but I have seen a little bit of a shift. I think that’s because there’s younger people coming in and it’s just a different generation probably and they’re more open about talking about stuff like that,” Baumann said.

In the SPD, Blue Courage adds a method of self-care, but the program is only as good as those taking it allow it to be, Selimovic said.

“You can break up and build up as much as you want. If you like to live in your misery and you’re comfortable in your misery, go ahead, live that. But if you like to break out, Blue Courage will show you the ways of doing it.”

 

 

— Article by Jasmine Gomez, They Wear Blue reporter