Peer Support in Public Safety Organizations

Peer Support in Public Safety Organizations

Nancy K. Bohl-Penrod (The Counseling Team International, USA) and Daniel W. Clark (Washington State Patrol, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0813-7.ch012
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Abstract

Peer supporters are a vital resource for members of the public safety community. Peers are often the first to notice when colleagues are exhibiting symptoms of psychological distress. Due to the cultural norms and the personality traits of those drawn to this career field, many public safety officers prefer to confide in peers rather than to obtain the assistance of mental health professionals. Further, peer supporters can give public safety officers the reassurance and support they need to enlist the services of mental health professionals. This chapter reviews the development and application of peer support teams, addresses issues in selecting peer support team members and developing a program, reviews team organization options and training needs, and addresses common challenges.
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The Impact Of Peer Support

In 2015, the Baltimore (MD) Police Department arrested an African American male, Freddie Gray. While transporting him, he suffered massive spinal injuries that lead to his death in the hospital. There were on-going protests after his funeral, which turned into the Baltimore riots. In the wake of the Baltimore disturbances, police officers there faced intense scrutiny and pressure as they watched their actions and motives being questioned by everyone from social media bloggers to television pundits (Laughland & Swaine, 2015). The criticism surrounding the city’s police did not abate after the flames were extinguished or the debris cleared from the streets. Citizens also criticized the police officers for intentionally using aggressive driving to rough up African American suspects while in transit in departmental vans.

After indictments were handed down against six Baltimore police officers surrounding the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, some Baltimore police officers felt abandoned by their leaders and feared the possibility of criminal prosecution (Baldwin & Ford, 2015). During this tumultuous time, when trusting someone could have dire consequences if confidences were broken, Baltimore police officers received support from members of the New York (NY) Police Department peer support team, who have often faced their own tremendous public scrutiny and pressure. The peer supporters from New York Police Department (NYPD) watched their fellow officers in Baltimore struggle and it did not take long for them to provide help to their colleagues. Ten members of the NYPD peer support team provided what few others could — understanding from a trusted and respected source (Celona & Fredericks, 2015).

Peer supporters are a vital resource because peers are often the first to notice when colleagues are exhibiting symptoms of psychological distress (Everly, 2015). Due to the cultural norms and the personality traits of those drawn to police work, the authors’ experiences as police psychologists for over two decades lead us to conclude that many public safety officers are more likely to confide in peers than to obtain the assistance of mental health professionals. Unlike mental health professionals, peer supporters have the potential for instant credibility and are in a unique position to provide colleagues with a much-needed sense of normalcy after a critical incident. A critical incident refers to an event that is outside the normal range of experiences and, many times, can challenge a first responder’s ability to cope (Everly, 2015). Contact with peer supporters may give public safety personnel the reassurance, support, and encouragement they need to enlist the services of mental health professionals. For example, after the San Bernardino terrorist attack of December 2, 2015, the first author received 45 calls from police officers who had previously been supported by peer support team members. Because of this earlier contact, these officers likely felt more comfortable reaching out to their mental health providers.

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