Career as LEO: Finding Resilience in the Ruins

WESTBOROUGH, MA May 1, 2018 Police officer behavior is a growing interest of mine especially in 2018 when everything is being watched by various citizen groups and the ubiquitous media looking for signs of police bias and egregious acts of abuse. Questioning every decision and reviewing all reports under the guise of freedom of information and transparency.  Is it any wonder that departments nationwide are having difficulty recruiting men and women to join the ranks as police recruits?  Many departments are offering sign-on bonuses like Salt Lake City, UT and San Jose, CA and others.  Some agencies are left shorthanded after having personnel poached by neighboring departments with bigger payrolls and greater opportunity for growth, training, and overtime. I still believe the police service is among the best career a person could choose and served 15 years both in Maine and Massachusetts.
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Sgt. Michael Sefton Retired NBPD 2015
Police recruits undergo 6-8 months of rigorous physical conditioning, mental preparation for scenarios of all kinds, and legal and policy education for the particular state and local department for whom they are employed.  A growing part of the academy training has to do with maintaining healthy habits and staying positive and emotionally resilient over a long career in the law enforcement profession.  Officers are provided the physical training they need and behavioral health training necessary to face a career with high stress and often unbearable pain and suffering.  The effectivness of these lessons depends upon the follow through as officers embark on their journey.  The career success they have may be directly related to the application of resiliency training to build and maintain physical and emotional hardiness that lasts a lifetime according to Leo Polizotti, 2018.
Reduced stigma will afford officers the chance to express themselves, lower stress and tension, and seek help when situations evoke or release the ghosts of cases past – often the underpinning of PTSD. This openness has not yet found its way into the law enforcement culture and while physical fitness has taken hold for career satisfaction – mindfulness has not become fully embraced.
The key to any new skill set is to train for events that may be unexpected and to apply emotional well-being strategies to after incident debriefing.  All too often police officers keep to themselves the underlying emotional impact of some of the calls they face and tend to minimize the psychological impact on them.  Yet it is well know that some calls leave their imprint on the human psychie.  How could any person walk away from the Newtown school shooting in Connecticut and not feel numb and traumatized no matter how senior a man you were.  Clearly the LEO’s and other first responders demonstrated heroic service to the Newtown Community – just at they did in Boston following that city’s 3-day seige that culminated with the execution of Officer Sean Collier, an MIT police officer and later an 8 minute fire fight in Watertown, Massachusetts. But in private moments what effect does this have on human resilience?
“Having a winning mindset and thinking more positively about the Law Enforcement profession you have chosen can go a long way toward limiting the effects of burn out, reducing illness and lessening traumatic reactions to critical incidents.” Leo Polizotti, Ph.D.
Police officers are needed more than ever and as a profession LEO’s need support and continued opportunity for training in all areas police service including handling the once-in-a-career “shit show” that clearly leaves its mark.  Resiliency training requires ongoing training – just like defensive tactics and legal updates.

Polizotti, LF (2017) Psychological Resilience : From surviving to thriving in a law enforcement career. Personal Correspondence. Taken 4-21-2018
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The myths and risks to individuals with mental illness

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 8, 2018 The myths attributed to persons afflicted with mental illness need to be directly addressed and corrective programs must evolve provide enhanced understanding and awareness of mental health.  Police officers encounter citizens with mental illness daily and often are called upon to calm a volatile situation often with very little formal training. This fact is changing as more police officers are trained in Psychological First Aid and Crisis Intervention Training – 2 programs that afford front line officers with the behavioral observation skill and communication necessary to reduce risk to police and the public from highly charged persons exhibiting signs of mental health crisis.
Psychological experts believe mentally ill persons lack the higher order planning to execute the complex steps necessary for anything more than petty crime – more often associated with co-morbid substance abuse.  This is where the problem lies. “The myth is you have to be “crazy” to do something like this (active shooter). So retrospectively, you look at people and you say, wow, this obviously – that guy should have been branded – but alcohol accounts for a great deal more violence than mental illness does.” according to Joel Dvoskin in an APA interview dispelling myths about the mentally ill.
Remember it is a fact that those with mental illness are rarely violent and those who commit violence are rarely mentally ill.
Until recently,  here in Massachusetts many smaller police agencies are forced to pay overtime for police officers to sit in hospitals or outside of jail cells watching a mentally ill person who has been arrested. This policy grew from the fear of litigation if someone dies in police custody who is known to be a mentally ill person.  Specifically, if a police officer arrests a person with a known history of suicidal ideation it has been policy among many agencies to provide an officer to monitor the prisoner to assure for a safe transfer to court. If this occurs on a week end night that often means that someone must have eyes on the person in custody until the next available court date.
But is this truth or is this part of the myth associated with those taken into custody for crimes committed while suffering from a substantive mental illness? Or is the problem really associated with substance abuse?
“Pre-arrest diversion also has been shown to be successful when law enforcement and mental health professionals respond together to behavioral health emergencies. Individuals are more often referred to the services and treatment that they need, rather than enter the criminal justice system as an offender. This co-responder model has delivered great results in Massachusetts to date. Programs run by Advocates, a human services agency, in partnership with several police departments in Middlesex County and funded in part by the Department of Mental Health have generated over 4,000 diversions and $11 million in savings since 2003.” Diane Gould Worcester Telegram February 2018

Dvoskin, J. (2018) Speaking of Psychology: Dispelling the myth of violence and mental illness Episode 27 American Psychological Association

Gun-violence Restraining Orders

firearm-revolver-bullet-gun-53219.jpegWESTBOROUGH, MA APRIL 8, 2018 Restraining orders in cases of domestic violence have been around for decades or longer. At times people require formal court orders of protection from those who might bring forth violence to loved ones.  I have personally written over 50 requests for protection of a victim of domestic violence.  Most of these are temporary order issued by an on-call judge who listens to police officer statements over the telephone.  They are usually granted and valid through the next court day – generally within 48 hours.  The problem is that after the 48 hours is up the conflict between intimate partners has been long forgotten resulting in a waste of police resources and an irritated district court judge. Obviously this is not always the outcome.
In Massachusetts, the MGL 209-A covers orders of protection and its legal underpinning. Section 3B in MGL 209-A requires the removal of firearms from those with active RO’s taken out against them.  As many as 50 percent of restraining orders (RO’s) also called protection from abuse orders (PFO’s) are continued because the victim showed up at court and testified as to the protection she believes is needed and fear she feels living with her intimate partner.  These are not new and the complaints and dysfunction among intimate partners is a continuous drain on LEO resources.
Calls for service because of domestic violence are frequent.  Police officers are often asked to keep the peace at times when violence has occurred.  Arrests are mandatory when physical injury has occurred.  At this point police are required to remove the violent spouse and offer protection from further abuse to the victim and her family.  When RO’s are granted there is a growing belief that guns should be taken from subjects against whom RO’s are granted.  Experts say these GVRO laws are modeled after domestic-violence restraining orders that also authorize police to take away guns from people who pose threats to their partners, but with safeguards.
“Ensuring the mental wellness and health of first responders has long been an under appreciated task for the heads of police agencies. U.S. law enforcement has learned from tragic events over the years and now trains to respond to threats with the best equipment and practices known today. However, many chiefs are not prepared to deal effectively with the intense scope and unanticipated duration of the aftermath of these events, and many chiefs are unaware of the impact such events will have on their communities and the officers in their agencies.”
“These red-flag laws are a possible solution because they’re an intermediate step between doing nothing and trying to involuntarily hospitalize an individual,” said Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.
“While LEO’s may be more resilient, law enforcement officers also quietly deal with an outsized share of our society’s violence and death. As a result, too many officers struggle with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.”
“You can’t just call up law enforcement and say this person that I’m mad at is a danger to me, it is not possible without judicial oversight,” said April Zeoli, a professor who studies domestic violence at Michigan State University. Her research shows these restraining orders reduced intimate partner violence by 13%.
“Research data provide strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of emotional fitness training to enhance resilience, positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, and emotional well-being, and more importantly, they strengthen professional pride and organizational commitment” according to Tung Au, et.al. in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology in 2018.
Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence – these people have demonstrated their unfitness to own a firearm” David French, 2018
Supporters say the “red flag” measure—also known as a gun-violence or extreme-risk protection order—offers a way to address a legal conundrum: how to take action against people perceived as an imminent threat to themselves or others, but who haven’t done anything illegal.

Au, W.T., Wong, Y.Y., Leung, K.M. et al. J Police Crim Psych (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-018-9252-6
French, D. A (2018) Gun Control Measure Conservatives Should Consider. National Review, February 2018
Kamp, J. and Mahtani, S. (2018) States Consider Laws Allowing Courts to Take Guns From Dangerous People  ‘Red flag’ measures are gaining ground after Florida high school shooting. Wall Street Journal
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It’s all about the base – and coming full circle

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 7, 2018 The myths of mental illness come up over and over when criminal justice reform is discussed. Here in Massachusetts a significant update of the Criminal Justice laws has just been passed and await Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s signature.
In truth most criminals are not mentally ill. The question is how do so many people who are mentally ill wind up in prison populations?  Jail diversion projects are being introduced from coast to coast and will directly impact the number of people with mental illness who are in the state prison and county jail systems.  It has worked elsewhere including San Antonio, TX.   We are led to believe that as much as
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Aerial photograph of once resplendent state hospital campus in Massachusetts – now crumbling and unsafe to enter. (Google image)
40 percent of the inmate prison population has some form of mental illness although I do not dispute this. The stigma associated with being “mentally ill” calls for added resources for treating them.  Just as resources are provided for those with diabetes, atrial fibrillation and COPD.  These patients are not stigmatized for the maladaptive choices they make that may confound the medical complexity they experience and its cost to society.  Some of the worst cases of COPD I have worked with continue to use tobacco products.  Similarly, those with uncontrolled diabetes may require diseased-related  surgical amputation of toes, foot, legs, yet remain non-compliant with checking their blood glucose. Why?  They are not stigmatized – unless they are obese.
Each time we see something horrific we automatically assume the person to whom the acts are attributed “must be sick”.  These notions have been discussed over and over in these pages. In truth, mental illness has less to do with aggression toward people than crimes such as petty theft and other nuisance offenses like disorderly conduct and panhandling. My sense is that whenever an arrest is made the differential diagnosis is all about the base – and underlying addiction and substance abuse must be considered and treated.
In the 1970’s the Massachusetts state hospital system had been deconstructed and was taken out of the continuum of care. The chronically ill fell off the treatment radar and went rogue.  Importantly in Massachusetts, this triggered the swing away from hospital-based care to the community health centers that became the front line for those in crisis.  At this point the myth of mental illness began its insidious transformation and jail became the containment center in the absence of the venerable state hospitals.  These insights are not new.  The problem is that there are not enough treatment options including inpatient mental health care to make a viable change in the current trends.
“The short version is that while people with serious mental illness are slightly more likely to commit acts of violence than people without mental illness, the risk that it creates is pretty small compared to other known risk factors.”  According to Joel Dvoskin “alcohol accounts for a great deal more violence than mental illness does.” APA, 2018
“So, when somebody feels depressed, enraged, insignificant, they have access to a firearm, maybe they’re drinking too much that night, maybe they just got fired and so on – it’s like this perfect storm of despair. ” according to Dr. Dvoskin.  There are several states who are taking a close look at the removal of guns from people known to be violent or threatening – even prior to formal adjudication.  Until now, there was little that could be done to remove weapons from a dangerous person until he committed a crime.
Here in Massachusetts the substance abuse problem and the mental illness problem are commonly lumped together.  They are not mutually exclusive and I have posted previously that mental problems are often inflamed by substance use. We have come full circle in understanding the need for intensive resources that may have been lost by closing the hospitals and letting them crumble.

Dvoskin, J. (2018) Speaking of Psychology: Dispelling the myth of violence and mental illness Episode 27 American Psychological Association

World Autism Awareness Day

WESTBOROUGH,MA April 2, 2018 Today is Autism Awareness Day across America and the World.  Persons living with autism require sensitivity and patience. Here in Massachusetts we are fortunate to have one of the world’s leaders in autistic education at the New England Center for Children in Southborough, MA.  These professionals provide front line behavior planning, education, BCBA training, aquatics, and residential living.

“Autistic peopleAutism-1 find interacting with others difficult. For example, they may struggle to read facial expressions and be taken by surprise at outbursts of anger or affection.” according to Mark Goodard on the Psychology24 blog first published in 2016. Mark posts 5 poignant suggestions in dealing with those on the Autistic Spectrum.

These include:

  1. Avoid changes in plans or routines with first warning a person with autism
  2. Take time and explain things clearly to avoid resistance and major meltdown later on.
  3. Be patient – expect rigid thinking and someone who can be stubborn and irritable when anxious.
  4. Do not rely on body language and facial expressions.  People with autism avoid eye contact and do not pick up social cues.
  5. Do not be afraid to set limits and social correction. Autistic children and adults need direction in situations that require social reciprocity.

Goodard, M. (2016) 5 TIPS ON DEALING WITH AN AUTISTIC PERSON. Psychology24. Found at http://www.psychology24.org/5-tips-dealing-autistic-person/. Taken April 2, 2018.

On Police Identification of the mentally abnormal

How to recognizeWestborough, MA March 28, 2018 The police-mental health interaction continues to be one that neither party exhibit great confidence nor take great pride in.  Myths abound about how to treat those so afflicted – especially among law enforcement personnel. I have provided classes for LEO’s and generally they are not well attended and tend to bore the average officer. In Maine, LEO’s are required to have regular training in working with the mentally ill in order to maintain their LEO credentials. Other states in New England have similar requirements and now focus on psychological first aid and deescalation protocols.  I have presented on topics of assessment of risk and dangerousness with some success.  In- service training must be short and to the point or students will quickly lose interest.
The photograph above shows the cover of a guide book first written in 1954 that was instructional for police officers.  It was written to teach the law enforcement officers of the day to recognize signs of mental illness then defined as “abnormal people”.  It was written by 2 Louisiana State University psychologists and first used by a police agencies in the late 1950’s.  I have been trying to find a copy of this early version that was re-published in 1979 and now costs over $100.  It was written because police officers needed training and experience identifying features of psychiatric emergency. This was thought to reduce the uncertainty, fear and confusion around handling these cases by providing education including signs and symptoms.
After nearly 60 years, law enforcement is not significantly closer to understanding the mentally ill than they were in 1954. A colleague police psychologist Leo Polizotti, Ph.D. has an original copy of this booklet although I have not seen it as yet.  Dr. Polizotti provides consultation to law enforcement, officer selection interviews, and teaches a proactive approach psychological resilience to police officers that can afford them greater career satisfaction, professionalism, and longevity. Dr. Polizotti is tasked with supporting officers who are exposed to the daily grind of violence, suicide, homelessness, and its cumulative impact on a cop’s personal narrative.  His model suggests a fundamental change in how police officers interpret their experiences over time and acceptance of what cannot change and healthy adaptation.  He is a great asset to the Central Massachusetts community and across New England and espouses a model of stress resistance through adaptation.
“In 1954, the National Association for Mental Health first issued the book “How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer.” Included were techniques on dealing with all kinds of “abnormal persons,” from psychopaths, drug addicts, and the “mentally retarded” to civil protestors and those involved in family disturbances.”  Posted by David Pescovitz, 2015
Text from 1954 How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer is provided below.  It points out many of the outward signs of disturbed thinking often an underlying feature of those with mental illness – in this case something called ideas of reference. These signs are common among persons with early paranoia and are sometimes missed – even by members of the immediate family. This is still a common symptom of mental illness today and is considered to be the prodrome to a more serious loss of contact with reality. Ultimately, it comes down to who is at more risk for violence?  And how can we be sure?
It takes a healthy and educated police officer to observe, understand, and control unpredictable situations. Officers are required to adapt to the demands of individual calls for service.  A colleague Dr. Leo Polizotti has identified a model for coping with the strain of police service.  He cites the importance of avoiding apathy, withdrawal and bitterness on the job.  “Understanding the 3 C’s of hardiness, Challenge / Commitment and Control will assist officers to manage stress more effectively, resulting in fewer emotional and medical problems. By viewing each new situation as a challenge, instead of a threat, you become committed to that challenge. You can readily see yourself in control and better able to deal with the situation. You will enhance your “hardiness” or resistance to stress” Polizotti, 2018.   
“He may think, for example, that announcements made over the radio have something to do with him personally. He may even hear his name mentioned. These are called ideas of reference which, of course, means that the patient thinks people are referring to him in one way or another. In the beginning, ideas of reference may occur only occasionally, but they gradually become the rule rather than the exception, and finally they may develop into definite delusions of persecution or grandeur.”
The list below are the signs of “abnormal persons” that are printed in the booklet published in 1954:
  • He shows big changes in his behavior.
  • He has strange /losses of memory, such as where he is or what day it is.
  • He thinks people are plotting against him, or has grand ideas about himself.
  • He talks to himself or hears voices.
  • He thinks people are watching him or talking about him.
  • He sees visions or smells strange odors or has peculiar tastes.
  • He has complaints of bodily ailments that are not possible.
  • He behaves in a way which is dangerous to himself or others.
Interestingly, the bullet points above remain accurate today with the understanding that too many individuals suffering with a major mental illness also have substance abuse/dependence.  It is this fact that confounds most LEO – mentally ill encounters.  “Beyond the rigors of police work, lie the demands of a personal life, specifically a wife or husband and children. Maintaining a healthy and happy family life is on its own a demanding responsibility. Add these powerful life stressors and demands to the burdens of police work and  an officer may begin to feel the weight upon his or her shoulders.” Polizotti, 2018.  Emotional and physical strength and endurance requires hardiness that comes from personal responsibility and comittment to excellence and peak performance.  Greater focus on sobriety – including opioid and alcohol dependence is essential. If this can be maintained mental illness may remit to the extent that subjects can remain in the community. Programs like A.A., N.A., and other 12-step groups are free and often afford subjects great support.  In most cities there are 12-step meetings every day morning, noon and night.  The problem is getting people to realize they have a problem.  Even airports hold A.A. meetings for travelers in need of the 12-steps. We are working on a replacement manual like the one cited in this post.


Polizotti, L. (2018) Personal Life Demands. Presentation – Direct Decision Institute.
How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer (1954) Matthews, R. M.D. and Rowland, L. Ph.D. NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR MENTAL HEALTH, INC. 10 COLUMBUS CIRCLE, NEW YORK 19, N. Y.
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Profiling a package bomber

OKC bombing
 

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City

 

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 22, 2018 The recent spate of explosive attacks on apparently random victims continues as of this blog post.  People around the world are speculating about the psychological underpinning of a person or persons who can create a bomb and deliver it to some intended victim without being caught.  The explosion at the FedEx depot is something new as compared to the first 4 blasts.  So far 2 victims have been killed by the bombs.  The initial victims were African-American and Latino raising the specter of the bombs being a hate crime.

What does the bomb say about the bomb maker? Bomb construction thought to be a characteristic of underlying ideology and may be linked to motivation.  Certainly explosive devices range in their level of technology and sophistication.  In 1995 Timothy McVeigh created a powerful bomb made out of a deadly cocktail of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals that killed 168 people at the Murrah Federal Building in OKC including many children at a nearby pre-school.

The type of bomb in Austin, TX has not been described by police or federal agents but the frequency of the attacks is unprecedented.  It may suggest that more than one individual is working to produce the explosives and make deliveries or the devices were constructed to stockpile before deliveries were made. The bomber likely lives alone or has a shop where the devices and their components are stored for assembly. His keen interest is in making people afraid and keeping a city in lock down. McVeigh was a former munitions soldier in the Army and may have learned his technique in the process of training with the U.S. Army.

If the Austin devices are the work of a single serial bomber than the frequency and recent change in method of detonation raise the bar in terms of sophistication of delivery but the risk of being caught or making a mistake may also be accentuated.  The police chief in Austin reportedly said that by using FedEx for shipping the explosive the likelihood of capture in short order was increased. An image was obtained of a man at FedEx that eventually became a person of interest.

The person who is behind this seige is likely an angry and detached with few friends.  Being marginalized lends both to his stealth and fuels his anger and resentment.  He may be suicidal and ultimately he final blast is to be part of his exit plan. He quite likely enjoys the sadistic control and media attention he is getting.

The fact that there are so few deaths – versus a massive splash event is not quite clear.  It speaks to ambiguous planning and perhaps unclear motive and may signal the growing disorganization associated with his terminal event. Additional personality features are uncovered with each action.  These are kept from the public domain.  My analyses are conjectural.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.