Published June 1, 2016
How chiefs can safeguard officer mental health before and after mass casualty events
It’s hard to imagine that an incident as horrific as those that occurred in Newtown, Charleston, and San Bernardino could occur in our own communities. Indeed, events of this kind are rare. But they do happen, and law enforcement leaders must be prepared not only for a possible incident but also for the aftermath that would follow.
Though most agencies have trained and equipped their officers for immediate response to mass casualties, few have prepared their personnel for the psychological fallout. Tragic events can have a profound effect on first responders, who may suffer emotional distress that lingers long afterward, leading to personal problems, alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide.
To help the Newtown (Connecticut) Police Department cope with the murder of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the COPS Office reached out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to provide guidance. Preparing for the Unimaginable is the result of NAMI’s work with Newtown’s police chief, Michael Kehoe.
This unique publication offers expert advice and practical tips for helping officers to heal emotionally, managing public reaction, dealing with the media, building relationships with other first responder agencies, and much more. But what makes this handbook especially helpful are the case studies and stories from the field contributed by chiefs, officers, and mental health professionals who have lived through traumatic incidents.
We especially want to thank Chief Kehoe for his commitment to this effort, which required reliving a traumatic event. He and the other law enforcement professionals who contributed their personal experiences deserve our thanks for being open about this issue and sharing their lessons learned.
It is our hope that this handbook will be read by police chiefs and sheriffs throughout the country. Though Preparing for the Unimaginable focuses on mass casualty incidents, traumatic events arise in everyday police work as well, and their effect cannot be overstated.
The COPS Office is dedicated to promoting all aspects of officer wellness and safety, and as the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing noted, the wellness and safety of law enforcement officers is critical not only to themselves, their colleagues, and their agencies but also to public safety. We applaud NAMI for bringing the critical issue of officer mental health to the forefront with this eye-opening publication.