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How Are Valley Police, Sheriffs Helping Officers Cope With Trauma?

Jeffrey Hess/KVPR
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood

Over the last few weeks, Valley Public Radio has aired a series of reports looking at how life in violent communities can affect the health of area residents, and how the lack of health care can contribute to some of that violence at times. But there’s another side of this story – the one of the police who patrol those streets. In the final part of the series, Valley Public Radio reports on what law enforcement agencies in the valley say they are doing to help officers cope with the mental strain of a violent line of work.

It’s a fact of police work that the job can be violent. And it’s not just having to wrestle, or shoot, suspects. It could be finding a toddler’s body shot dead in a drive-by. Or seeing a battered woman refusing to press charges. Or pulling the body of a hiker from a canal.

Fresno County Sheriff Margret Mims now tracks her travels around the county by the crimes she responded to.

“And certain things, I remember more than others are more vivid. For instance, I will never forget, as sheriff, being in the orange orchard when they dug up the body of 16-year old Sammy Mercado who was killed trying to steal marijuana from a field. I will never forget that moment when his body was revealed digging him up,” Mims says.

Mims says the emotional trauma sticks with a person and can come back at unexpected times. The trick for her?

"We know that officers throughout this country that have used sleeping aids to help them sleep and eventually that has become an issue," Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood

“What are your hobbies? I love baseball. I love to read. And I like to garden. So whenever you can disconnect and take your mind off of your job that is always good. I describe it as taking off the cop head and putting on my mom and grandma and wife head,” Mims says.

The first two parts of Valley Public Radio’s series about the health implications of violence in valley focused on the impact of people who live in the community. For many, the effects can resemble Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But there is also an impact on the officers who patrol.

For some, the pressure of being around intensely violent situations is too much to bear. Potential officers wash out of training, officers act out on the job, or turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood says the signs of emotional distress can be hidden or express themselves in ways that are hard to detect.

“Sleeping is a perfect example. You do this job very long and there are night’s you don’t sleep well. Things occur at work that you want to leave at work but you can’t. You go home and you don’t sleep well. We know that officers throughout this country that have used sleeping aids to help them sleep and eventually that has become an issue,” Youngblood says.

Departments also reported signs you might not expect such as heavy gambling or excessive shopping.

Youngblood says he has had officers who buckle under the mental health strain, sometimes surprisingly quickly.

“We have had deputies that have gone off the edge using drugs while on duty. We have had that have committed sexual assault while on duty. Those types of things, you don’t know what the cause might be. In the case of the sexual assault, the deputy had been on the stress less than two weeks,”

It’s easy to think of the only stress from violence coming from shooting a suspect or a violent arrest but trauma might not even be directly felt says Albert Hernandez with the Fresno Police Department.

“The calls that wear on officers are the everyday violent calls where they see a victim of child abuse or molestation. It is difficult at time times to see, or to notice, how mean people can be to other people,” Hernandez says.

"It is not only because we value our employees, but it has a long-term fiscal impact on the city and the state of California I believe as well," Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson

Hernandez is an officer with FPD and head of the agency’s employee services program.

He says he himself has withdrawn from his family at times as a result of his work.

According to Hernandez, police departments in the valley know their officers are under stress they try to spot these red flags and get and officer health care the problem gets worse and an officer becomes destructive.

“It is a path that this officer is going to start to do. You see little flags popping up. You’ll see it. And I have been with guys that have been terminated finally because of stuff that started small and just got bad,” Hernandez says.

For this story, Valley Public Radio spoke with four of the largest police departments and sheriff’s offices about the services they provide to keep their officers healthy.

The Kern County Sheriff’s Department has an employee support group. In Fresno County, there are companion officers and a chaplain. The Bakersfield PD contracts with psychologists. Many of the services overlapped at the departments but it varied from department to department about what was offered.

The Fresno Police Department Deputy Chief Robert Nevarez says they can offer all the services want but it’s more important to change the ‘tough guy’ identity of law enforcement that some departments can develop.

“You can have a variety of different services available like employee services. Our companion officers. The Chaplaincy. Psychological services. But if you don’t eliminate the stigma first, then no one is going to go the trough and drink the water if you will,” Nevarez says.

"And at some point, he had his music on and the song 'Cop Killer' came on and he spun the dial up full blast, pulled a knife and charged," Donny Youngblood

Nevarez says detecting officers who are struggling with mental health consequences of a violent job is partly an intuitive sense. You just know something is wrong. But he says it is also measurable.

“For example, rudeness complaints. Use of force complaints. Abuse of sick leave. Things like that trigger actual numbers,” Nevarez says.

And Nevarez says the trauma can be repeated as officers return to the same neighborhood day after day.

The departments didn’t know, for privacy reasons, how many officers seek out support or mental health treatment. But again, stressed that they see it as a priority.

It’s also the reality that money plays a role in these actions because in additional to lawsuits Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson severely emotionally affected officers can take disability retirement.

“We are trying to reduce the risk of our employees being injured or having long-term physical or psychological or mental issues. It is not only because we value our employees, but it has a long-term fiscal impact on the city and the state of California I believe as well,” Williamson says.

Police watch as supporters and protesters face off

Raven Masse attended a recent police officer support rally. She is married to a cop.

She says her husband has used the counseling offered by the department and benefited because it’s hard for her to relate to the work.

“He sees it every day. He doesn’t come home and tell me everything. But he every day. If he sees a deceased body he may not come home and let me know. But he sees it firsthand. He sees the stress the adrenaline. As a civilian, I don’t know what that adrenaline feels like,” Masse says.

But sometimes the emotional effect never goes away. Unprompted, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who has a reputation for being a tough guy, related a story about the time he confronted a man accused of some minor shoplifting in the man’s home. This is what happened.

“And during the conversation with the young man, he wasn’t he what we were saying. And at some point he had his music on and the song ‘Cop Killer’ came on and he spun the dial up full blast, pulled a knife and charged,” Youngblood says.

Youngblood and another deputy both shot the man. Youngblood is not sure who fired the fatal shot.

"The problem is that those services are not used as often as they should be," Attorney Arturo Gonzalez

Youngblood says he, like every other officer in each department Valley Public Radio spoke to, underwent a clinical review before he went back to work. He says he does not regret the shooting but at the same time said he avoids the street where the house still stands.

The concern, in addition to losing officers or facing financial punishment, is not just on the officers but on the communities they have to return to, sometimes the next day after seeing something violent or traumatic.

San Francisco-based attorney Arturo Gonzalez frequently represents the families of people shot and killed by police in the valley.

He says there is no question that the use of force effects officers, and that officers are being asked to do a big job, but he doubts all talk of the services the departments say they offer.

“The problem is that those services are not used as often as they should be. In a case I had, we spoke to a number of officers and it just became clear to me that those services are just not utilized,” Gonzalez says.

And that sentiment runs deep in communities that find themselves on the receiving end of the most intense police violence. Trust needs to flow both ways but if residents feel like they have angry, emotionally damage rouge officers on the street, that is hard to build.

This article was produced as a project for the California Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.
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