Austin police reviewing mental health services amid mounting stress
Austin American-Statesman - 8/3/2018
Aug. 03--Six years.
That's how long Austin police Cpl. Javier Bustos said it took to heal the trauma from a night in 2010 when he shot 26-year-old Patrick Allen Faith in the line of duty.
Faith was on Texas 71 near Riverside Drive approaching an oncoming vehicle with a gun when Bustos hit him in the shoulder. Faith then turned his gun and killed himself.
Even though Bustos did not fire the fatal shot, he said he struggled to live with the pain that followed.
"You can't erase those feelings you had at the time," he said. "Those feelings were legitimate feelings. It was just something I had to navigate through emotionally, that I shot somebody and they lost their life."
Bustos' story illustrates the often long and painful journey police officers endure after being involved in shootings and other critical incidents. The stress, trauma and burnout from such life-or-death encounters has prompted the Austin Police Department to examine whether it provides the necessary resources to police and civilian staff.
Seeing an increase in alcohol-related incidents among officers this year, Chief Brian Manley has made mental health in the department a priority. He has commissioned a group of experts -- including physicians, wellness specialists, peer-support officers and chaplains -- to look at how to identify symptoms of post-traumatic stress and how to prevent and treat mental health crises.
"This is an issue that is problematic for police departments across this country," Manley said. "We recognize that there is probably more that we can and should be doing. We care about our officers beyond the 40 hours they do for our city. We care about them as people, and I think that we have a duty to do everything we can to enhance their health and well-being."
An officer experiences during their career an average of 188 critical incidents, including being beaten, shot at or threatened with a gun, a 2018 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found. Law enforcement officers are five times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress in their lifetime than the general population, according to the report. First responders, including police and firefighters, also are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, it found.
"This is a career where you can't un-see things that you have seen," Manley said. "Every officer walks around with visions of things that they have experienced during their career. That impacts you."
Looking locally at the problem
When Bustos got home the night of the shooting, he told his wife, Cathy, he didn't want to close his eyes. The scene was playing on a loop in his mind. He had nightmares for weeks and episodes of post-traumatic stress through the years when he would respond to similar shooting calls. When the moon is full, as it was over the highway the night Faith died, he thinks about the shooting.
Bustos tried to heal through therapy, writing and helping other officers face similar struggles.
"When you're a cop, sometimes you build up a facade because you have to when you're in public, and you can't show emotion when you're at these horrible scenes," he said. "If you don't come home and release those emotions, it just builds up, and that's where the stress comes up."
Austin police chaplain Rick Randall said requests for service from the department's peer-support program, in which officers help one another with substance use, martial problems and other mental health issues, have increased 20 percent on average in the past three years and 33 percent so far this year.
Manley said an increasing number of officers have been disciplined this year for alcohol-related issues. In 2016 and 2017, three officers were punished over alcohol-related issues, but APD made three arrests in the first half of 2018 alone, police disciplinary memos showed.
Earlier this year, officer Brandon Bloom was arrested in Williamson County for driving while intoxicated, as was officer Gustavo Gomez for urinating in public and Sgt. Andrew Romero for drinking and cursing at event staff at a recent police gala.
"It can be a distraction to their full concentration of doing their job," Manley said. "If it is manifesting itself in an aggressive manner, then we may have an officer that's quicker to engage in a use-of-force incident. Any of these can really impact the community's trust in the police department when we have a bad incident."
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Randall said many of the officers disciplined recently admitted to struggling with post-traumatic stress. He said he has never seen the burnout so bad in his 20 years with the department -- something he attributes to increased scrutiny of police nationwide, as well as Austin police operating so long without a contract.
The Austin City Council in December rejected the police union's proposed contract over concerns about its price tag, which resulted in hundreds of officers with special skills losing as much as $1,000 a month in stipend pay.
"A lot more officers are struggling financially than we have seen before," Randall said.
He also said an increase in peer-support contacts could mean that more officers today are seeking help.
Manley attributes that to a shift in attitudes about mental health problems within APD.
"When I joined the police department, I think the sense was that policing is a difficult job, and that it's OK to be injured as long as it's below the chin. It wasn't OK to be injured above because that was seen as a weakness," Manley said. "I think that we do a lot better and that is evidenced here at APD by officers who have gotten help and who are better."
How to tackle mental health
Before Austin police ever get a badge and gun, they are trained at the academy in courses like leading a balanced life and dealing with emotions after critical incidents. When they are sworn in as peace officers, they are offered continuing education in managing stress and burnout and surviving a toxic work environment.
Field training officers are all certified in suicide identification and prevention, and the department for 12 years has operated its peer support program, which consists of about 50 civilian staff and police who help each other by sharing experience.
All officers who fire a weapon in the line of duty are also required to participate in a debriefing after the incident and visit the staff psychologist.
Manley said this visit to the psychologist typically happens about two weeks after the incident and no follow-up is required after the officer is cleared to return to duty. He said often symptoms like sleeplessness, anxiety, alcohol abuse and stress don't show up until much later, and one of the things the stakeholder group will consider is whether additional visits and treatment should be mandated.
"I think the services are there, and officers know they are there, but they may not avail themselves of it," he said. "If we force them to go and at least have a conversation, officers may take that opportunity and may open up about difficulties."
A new state law passed last year allows officers suffering from post-traumatic stress from the job to use their worker's compensation to pay for mental health treatment. But Randall said few therapists in Austin accept it, and a main goal of the stakeholder group will be to expand access and obtain a running list of available counselors.
"We want to get them help as quickly as possible," Randall said.
READ MORE: Mental health calls, some fatal, a growing challenge for Austin police
Police association president Ken Casady said topping his concerns are department rules that prevent officers from discussing things like officer-involved shootings until after a criminal and internal affairs investigation is complete. He said many of the officers the association interviewed recently about the topic listed this as their number one struggle.
"They should be able to talk to the people on their shift and their family members about what happened," Casady said. "It is literally traumatizing."
Others are pushing for more ongoing mental health education and greater promotion of resources the department already offers, like the peer support program.
On the state level, police leaders have discussed whether to introduce legislation that would require officers to take period psychological exams, which are only now administered when a person decides to join the force, Manley said. He said state police chiefs will decide closer to the 2019 legislative session if this is an issue they want to bring forward. He has also considered whether police with certain assignments like child abuse and child pornography in the department should be required to be evaluated more often.
"We know that when we hire individuals, we have cleared them through that psychological exam but years into their career things may have changed, your perspective may have changed," Manley said. "And that could impact your mental health."
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