Feature

Psychologists know which interventions work best for police officers and their families, says researcher Robert Delprino, PhD. The challenge, he says, is getting police to trust and use officer and family-assistance programs.

"While we know that specific programs can be successful," he explains, "we don't have a handle on how to make this something that's embraced by the organization."

So, Delprino and his colleagues at Buffalo State College-State University of New York are partnering with community and police agencies to establish a comprehensive support system for officers and their families: the Institute for Crisis Intervention and Family Support. The institute will serve as a resource for western New York police, firefighters and other emergency responders, providing officers--from police academy students to seasoned veterans--and their families with information on the stressors of police life, strategies to combat that stress and guidance on how to ask for help. The institution will also offers in-depth interventions: After an incident such as the death of the officer's partner, the institute plans to serve as a one-stop shop for connecting officers with chaplains, mental health professionals, police survivor groups and other services.

"What we're trying to do is be proactive instead of reactive," says Delprino, "to start early in [officers'] careers, at the academy level, and give them and their family members skills to become more resilient and to understand what it means to be part of a police family." And by starting early, Delprino hopes that officers will more readily accept mental health services available to officers and their families.

In the coming years, organizers plan to expand the institute's reach to nearby Toronto and, eventually, across the United States.

In the meantime, Delprino is conducting research for the National Institute of Justice's Corrections and Law Enforcement Family Support Program to determine what kinds of programs departments provide their officers and what makes them succeed or fail.

For example, he's found that more than 80 percent of agencies provide domestic violence training, an employee-assistance program (EAP) and post-shooting debriefings. At the same time, fewer than half provide EAPs tailored for law enforcement officers, offer marital or child support groups, train families on firearm safety or provide information on work and family issues. And only some officers are aware of or willing to use such programs, says Delprino. According to the National Institute of Justice, while 74.8 percent of officers are aware of EAPs, only 16.4 percent are willing to use them.

Delprino has found that police departments can boost awareness and use of mental health services by teaching officers about mental health at the academy level, training peer supporters, mandating confidentiality and keeping police families involved. But perhaps the two biggest factors are whether a psychologist is knowledgeable about police life and the testimony of officers who have had positive experiences with psychologists:

"If psychologists take the time to better understand law enforcement culture, they'll be able to help develop partnerships that make psychological services an established, accepted part of law enforcement," Delprino explains. "And once you get one or two officers on-board, they become the best advocates for the program because an officer is going to listen to another officer."

--D. SMITH