Officer resilience and career success with less burnout

Mike Sefton photo
Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

WESTBOROUGH, MA December 9, 2017 Resilience in police training is an added lesson designed to enhance the careers of officers-in-training. It is essential to help individual officers through the tough times and enhances job satisfaction.  In the case of traumatic events – officer resilience is essential for a healthy response to a critical incident.  In the long run, physical health and well-being are the underpinnings of an emotionally resilient professional who will be there over and again – when called upon for those once in a lifetime calls that most of us will never have to answer.

Emotional resilience is defined as the the capacity to integrate the breadth of police training and experience with healthy, adaptive coping, optimism, mental flexibility and healthy resolution of the traumatic events. In general, resilient people are self-reliant and have positive role models from whom they have learned to handle the stressful events all police officers encounter. In its absence a police officer experiences irritability, brooding, anger and sometimes resentment toward his own agency and “the system” for all its failures.  The lack of emotional resilience leads to officer burn-out.

“Your biggest risk of burnout is the near constant exposure to the “flight or fight response” inherent to the job (running code, engaging and managing the agitated, angry, and irrational, or any other of your responsibilities that can cause you to become hypervigilant). Add the very real tension of the politics and stresses inside the office and a dangerous mix is formed. The pressures and demands of your job can take a toll on your emotional wellbeing and quality of life and burnout will often follow.” Olsen & Wasilewski, 2014

It is well documented that flooding the body with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol play a role in police officer health and well-being. “Stress and grief are problems that are not easily detected or easily resolved. Severe depression, heart attacks, and the high rates of divorce, addiction, and suicide in the fire and EMS services proves this” according to Peggy Rainone who provides seminars in grief and surviving in EMS. (Sefton, 2013). There are various treatments for stress-related burnout including peer support, biofeedback for reduced sympathetic dysfunction, and professional psychotherapy. “Being exposed to repetitive stress leads to changes in the brain chemistry and density that affect emotional and physical health.” (Olsen, 2014)  Improved training and early career support and resilience is essential for long term health of first responders including the brave men and women in blue.


Olsen, A and Wasilewski, M. Police One.com (2014) Blog post: https://www.policeone.com/health-fitness/articles/7119431-6-ways-to-beat-burnout-in-a-police-officer/ Taken December 9, 2017

Rainone, P. (2013) Emergency workers at risk. (website) http://www.emsvilliage.com/articles/article.cfm?ID=176. Taken 12-1-2013

Sefton, M. Domestic Violence Homicide: What role does exposure to trauma play in terminal rage? Blog Post: https://wordpress.com/post/msefton.wordpress.com/505 Taken December 9, 2017.

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Discretion, Treatment and Alternatives to Jail

WESTBOROUGH, MA July 16, 2017 In last weeks publication I introduced the problem of mental health and co-occurring substance abuse with some ideas about alternative restitution and treatment. These involve greater discretionary awareness among police officers.  More importantly options to jail require viable alternatives that will end the revolving door of minor criminality coupled with treatment for the breadth of addiction seen on a daily basis by law enforcement.

Mental and Physical Health Screening

At time of arrest the individual must have some level of mental health assessment if mental illness is suspected or documented. When I was a police officer prior to 2015 we often asked the D.A. to provide a court clinic assessment of the suspect to rule out suicidal ideation or delusional thinking. This must also include a screening for dangerousness especially when a subject is arrested for intimate partner abuse. Next a health history questionnaire should be undertaken to screen for co-occurring illness – both physical and mental. If a diabetic suspect is held without access to his insulin he is at great risk of death from stroke. Similarly, a person arrested for assault who suffers from paranoid ideation is at greater risk of acting violently without access to psychiatric medication. Finally, an alcoholic brought to the jail with a blood alcohol level greater than 250 is at great risk for seizures and cardiac arrhythmias when delirium tremens begin 6-8 hours after his last drink. The risk to personal health in each of the scenarios above must be taken seriously and the obtained data should be factually corroborated. Police departments across the United States are pairing up with private agencies to provide in-house evaluation and follow-up of individuals who fall on the borderline and may not be easily discerned by the officer in the field.

Diversion Safety Plan

Next, the probation and parole department must obtain an accurate legal history prior to consideration for bail. A nationwide screen for warrants and criminal history based on previous addresses is essential. In many places these are being done routinely. In the case of someone being arrested for domestic violence he may have no convictions thus no finding of criminal history. For these individuals the dangerousness assessment may bring forth red flag data needed for greater public safety resulting in protection from abuse orders, mandated psychotherapy, and in some cases, no bail confinement when indicated. Releasing the person arrested for domestic violence without a viable safety plan increases the risk to the victim and her family, as well as the general public – including members of law enforcement.

Bail, Confinement, Mandated Treatment

There is some thinking that higher amounts of bail may lessen the proclivity of some offenders to breach the orders of protection drafted to protect victims and should result in revocation of bail and immediate incarceration when these occur. I have proposed a mandatory DV Abuse Registry that may be accessed by law enforcement to uncover the secret past of men who would control and abuse their intimate partners. This database would also include information on the number of active restraining orders and the expected offender’s response to the “stay away” order. In cases where the victim decides to drop charges there should be a mandatory waiting period of 90 days. During this waiting period the couple may cohabitate but the perpetrator must be attending a weekly program of restorative justice therapy and substance abuse education. Violations of these court ordered services are tantamount to violation of the original protection order (still in place) and victim safety plan and may result in revocation of bail. If the waiting period passes and the perpetrator has met the conditions of his bail than he may undergo an “exit” interview to determine whether or not the protection order / jail diversion plan may be extended.

Guardianship

In many jurisdictions the mentally ill cannot be forced to take medication nor can they be forced into treatment. Adherents to this belief advocate on the behalf of the chronically mentally ill for the right to make these individual choices – treatment or no treatment. Ostensibly advocates seem unconcerned for the public health risks associated with ongoing drug addiction and major mental illness. There needs to be an active system in place to provide guardianship to individuals with repeated failed treatment that mandates treatment for those who cannot remain in a program of sobriety and psychotherapy in lieu of incarceration. In many cases a family member may be appointed temporary guardian for up to 180 days that allows decisions to be made about patient care up to the guardian not the patient himself who may be unable to stay on track.

 

 

Jail Diversion: Reduced costs by spending more on mental health

PART 1

WESTBOROUGH, MA July 6, 2017 Jail diversion is a hot topic across the country. The numbers of persons incarcerated for minor offenses and drug crimes has grown. Many of these individuals have mental illness or drug abuse in addition to their criminality. The interaction between poly-substance abuse or dependence and exacerbation of underlying mental health symptoms is complex. It is the focus of mental health advocates and criminal justice experts nationwide as it pertains to jail diversion and reduced use of force among law enforcement.  In Massachusetts, there is a move away from mandatory minimum sentences for all drug crimes except for those involving the distribution of narcotics. Arguably, the impact on behavioral functioning when persons are gripped with co-occurring illness is a recurrent problem for law enforcement and first responders. I have written about the impact of co-occurring illness such as alcoholism on mental and behavioral health is previously published posts here on Word press Human Behavior (Sefton, 2017). It is difficult to uncover which comes first – the addiction or the diagnosed mental illness and yet they are inextricably linked in terms of the strain on public resources and health risk to those so afflicted. Why is this important?

The importance of treatment for substance dependence and mental illness cannot be understated as violent encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill have been regularly sensationalized. The general public is looking for greater public safety while at the same time MH advocates insist that with the proper treatment violent police encounters may be reduced and jail diversion may be achieved. The referral infrastructure to provide a continuum of care in this growing population is available in very few places across America.

Models of Care

Yet in places like Bexar County, Texas the county jail population has dropped by over 20 percent as a result of crisis intervention training for police officers and mobile mental health teams to intervene with those in crisis. I have seen this for myself during a visit with the San Antonio Police Department where I rode with two members of the Mental Health Unit – Officers Ernest Stevens and Joseph Smarro. It takes training, medical and psychiatric infrastructure, community compassion, and active engagement with members of the community often left to fly under the radar to effectively reduce the jail population. When necessary those most in need must have 24-hour availability for detoxification, emergency mental health, and access to basic needs such as food, clothing, and medicine. In San Antonio they offer so much more including pre-employment training, extended housing, interview preparation including clothes, and opportunity for jobs.

Behavioral Analysis and Law Enforcement

The unpredictability of behavior in those who carry a “dual” diagnosis has emerged in the criminal justice system when jail diversion programs and treatment options are brought forth raising the specter of frustration over the limitations within the system. Cities everywhere are grappling with how best to intervene with the mentally ill in terms of alternative restitution for drug-related misdemeanor crimes in lieu of mandatory jail sentences that many crimes currently require. Some believe, as much as 20-40 percent of all incarcerated persons suffer with mental health diagnoses and are not getting the treatment they require. To provide a bare bones system would add billions to state and federal dollars spent on the needs of inmates at a time when measurable outcomes for in house care are limited.

In my practice I see many cases of co-occurring pain syndromes with other physical debility such as stroke or traumatic brain injury. Generally the emotional impact of two or more diagnosed illnesses yields a greatly reduced capacity for adaptive coping and puts a great stress on the individual system. The importance of addressing co-occurring substance abuse or dependence is now well recognized and with treatment can result in healthy decision-making, growth in maturity, and greater self-awareness. If legislators have a serious desire to reduce statewide numbers of incarcerated persons a comprehensive plan must be considered for both pre-arrest and post-arrest. Infrastructure for enhanced understanding of addiction and greater treatment options must be explored through a joint public and private initiative.

PROPOSED JAIL DIVERSION INITIATIVE

PRE-ARREST JAIL DIVERSION – No crime committed

If police encounter subjects with a known history of mental illness through their community policing efforts they should return the subject to his family or primary psychiatric caregiver – this might be a physician, physician’s assistant (PA), a nurse practitioner (NP), even a psychologist for immediate crisis intervention. Depending upon the nature of the police encounter such as during the nighttime hours the subject may be transported to a local emergency department for psychiatric evaluation. This model has grown less popular because of the growing wait times in local hospital emergency departments – especially for those suspected of mental illness and tends to make them increasingly agitated. Persons with mental illness are often homeless and come into police contact simply on the basis of panhandling or looking suspicious and out of place in the neighborhood. Often they are reported to police because they are talking to themselves, suspicious, and menacing toward pedestrians making them afraid.

The hospital alternative might be to establish regional psychiatric emergency intake centers available 24-hours daily. At one point states had regional hospitals that have been closed down releasing thousands of institutionalized patients into the community. The plan for de-institutionalization was to provide a neighborhood center at which the patient could continue his or her treatment and receive their needed medication to keep them symptom free.

Minor crime committed

When a crime is committed by someone with known or suspected mental illness such as simple assault, disorderly conduct, or shoplifting the responding police officer’s will have discretion whether to bring forth charges or not in exchange for an alternative disposition that would defer jail time. These are not new concepts. Law enforcement has always had the discretion to arrest or not arrest for many minor offenses. The choice often comes down to the subject demeanor and his response to police officer directives at the time of the encounter. In some cases an officer must arrest such as in the setting of domestic violence, child abuse, or as a result of a felony being committed.

In these cases charges may be brought and held as long as the subject entered treatment or remained abstinent from use of drugs or alcohol – the jail diversion plan. If they failed to follow the terms of their diversion plan the charges would be re-instated and sent to district attorney for prosecution.  The alternative is a revolving door of addiction and petty crime that, at times, will escalate into violent crime. As a society more can be done to reduce criminality and jail diversion through empathic, sensitive treatment options.

Saluting a fallen brother and bringing him home

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 18, 2017 Most people leave their homes and go to work.  Many work in sales or IT or perhaps they teach school.  It doesn’t matter because that all changes when you are a member of the fire service or a brother police officer. Then you become a member of a family that many say takes a hold of you like no other.  There is a bond among fire fighters and a respect that runs deep within the fire service – the family of firemen.  The bonds are forged in the hours of training, answering calls, and sitting chewing on the issue of the day.  And then one day someone goes down.  In police service it’s called the “oh shit” moment when something happens so quickly that your response is purely defensive sometimes too late as in the case of the Flagstaff, AZ 24-year old officer whose body camera recorded the oh shit moment that took his life last year.

tlumacki_watertownfirefighter_metro118
Boston Globe photo

Firefighter funeral traditions show our deep gratitude and respect for the honorable contribution they make to society. When a firefighter dies, he is considered a “fallen hero” and his funeral will indicate such an honor.    D. Theobald

The fire service is even more protective of its ceremonial reverence for the ultimate sacrifice made by a heroic fallen firefighter.  Everything stops. Every one steps up and does whatever is needed to support the surviving family and each other. Someone is usually assigned to stay with the bereaved family 24 hours a day. The ritual of bringing home a fallen fire fighter is age-old. Firefighters remain with the body and bring it home with care and reverence afforded a fallen hero.  This custom was once again brought to bear when Watertown, MA firefighter Joseph Toscano, 54 died while fighting a 2-alarm house fire this week.  The death of a fire fighter is a rare occurrence but happens frequently enough that most people can remember the show of reverence from members of the fire service everywhere.  In 2014, 2 Boston firefighters were killed in a wind-driven conflagration on Beacon Hill and who can forget the 6 Worcester firefighters who lost their lives in December 1999, or the Hotel Vendome fire in Boston that took the lives of 9 Boston firefighters over 40 years ago.

Watertown, Massachusetts has seen its share of catastrophe in recent years in the police and now fire services. The funeral will be attended by thousands of local firefighters and those from across the United States. Fire houses in Watertown, Boston, and elsewhere will make accommodations for out of town brothers and sisters attending the funeral. No member of the fraternal family is ever turned away.  The coffin will be on display for those of us so moved to pass by and offer a final salute to the firefighter and his family.  The honor guard will stand at head and foot in solemn deference for the ultimate sacrifice. The surviving spouse will be strong as she has been for many years over many calls for service.  Her husband has helped so many people.  He has seen much and has dealt with this before.  But as the flag draped coffin is moved into place the release of emotion will be palpable for all.  The fire chief will present the folded flag to Maureen Toscano his wife of over 20 years.  He will offer words of comfort to his five children. They will never be forgotten because they are part of the extended family of firefighters.  The 150-year old ritual of bagpipes will play Amazing Grace while men from Newton, Boston and Cambridge stand guard at the Watertown fire houses to allow every Watertown firefighter to attend the service. To grieve and begin the healing process.

A Catholic Mass will be held.  The streets of Randolf where the family lives will be lined with a sea of blue uniforms each one holding back tears – having been through this before.

As Watertown firefighter Joseph Toscano knows it could well have been any one of his brother officers who fell that day and he would never have stood by for that.  A heroic effort was made to save the life of Joseph Toscano by members of the Watertown Fire, EMS and Police departments. He was rushed to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge – the same place where MBTA Officer Richard “Dic” Donohue was rushed after the 8 minute firefight during the search for the marathon bombers in 2013.  Officer Donahue survived but lost nearly all of the blood in his body. Donahue retired from the Transit Police in 2016 after his promotion to sergeant and deals with chronic pain on a daily basis.  Emergency crews at Mt. Auburn were not able to revive Joe Toscano.

His body was carefully moved from the chief medical examiner’s office in Boston – just 5 miles away to Randolf – but he was never alone. Members of his department including his chief rode on Watertown Engine 1 and a ladder truck leading the hearse and a legion of police officers.  Firefighters from neighboring cities stood along highway overpass with hand salute as Firefighter Toscano was headed home. Among the most powerful of ceremonial rituals is “the last call.”  This occurs when the fallen officer is called on the fire band radio for all to hear – “Firefight Toscano come in….” there is silence.  The fallen officer’s call sign is again dispatched – silence once more.   Finally, the dispatcher indicates that the fallen officer has gone “10-7” signaling that he is no longer on duty – in this case signaling – the end of his watch.  A bell sounds 15 times indicating the firefighters final call.  Often the dispatcher will say something like “You have served your community with honor and reverence, good sir, we will take the watch from here.  Rest in peace – Firefighter Toscano and know you are a hero and will never be forgotten.”


Firefighter’s Prayer


When I am called to duty, God,
wherever flames may rage,
give me strength to save a life,
whatever be its age.
Help me embrace a little child
before it is too late,
or save an older person from
the horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert,
and hear the weakest shout,
quickly and efficiently
to put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling,
to give the best in me,
to guard my friend and neighbor,
and protect his property.
And if according to Your will
I must answer death’s call,
bless with your protecting hand,
my family one and all.

Police as therapist: the inherent risk of unconditional positive regard 

WESTBOROUGH, MA January 12, 2017 Changes in the responsibility for those afflicted with major mental illness must remain in the hands of medical and psychiatric providers who are trained in contemporary diagnosis and treatment models. Yet a growing mental health strategy has emerged to train and educate first responders – including the police to deescalate and divert those with mental illness from jails into treatment.  The problem with diversion here in Massachusetts and New England is that a continuum of care is lacking. Since the closure of the state hospital system here in Massachusetts the community-based treatment centers have been overwhelmed by the volume of cases they must see.  To say they have failed is shortsighted and disingenuous and behalf of the Globe Spotlight team.

Make no mistake about it, putting police officers in the place of psychotherapists and psychiatrists is not going to happen here or anywhere. But cops are being asked to act as mediators to diffuse encounters with persons with suspected mental illness. The intention is to reduce violent encounters between the police and those with mental health issues. “Most people with mental illness are not dangerous, and most dangerous people are not mentally ill” according to Liza Gold, 2013. Yet in the past several years there have been many high profile officer-involved shootings involving people afflicted with a variety of psychiatric conditions including major depression raising the specter of suicide by cop.

POLICE ACT AS CRISIS MEDIATORS WITH MENTALLY ILL

It is very risky putting the police in the role of crisis intervention specialists to manage those who may be emotionally distraught. For one thing the high incidence of drug and alcohol intoxication in these cases makes any negotiation or mediation almost impossible. I was always taught that until the patient is sober there is no meaningful assessment or interaction is possible.  Police are the front line responders to crises of all kinds. Asking them to serve in this new role presents a level of officer specialization like never before.  Some officers are being asked to offer unconditional positive regard to those encounters in an effort to slow the scene giving time for intervention to take hold.  In some places like San Antonio, TX and Vancouver, BC it works.  But it has taken a long time to gain traction. If the goal is to avoid incarcerating those with mental illness this is especially difficulty in the absence of a treatment continuum as I have said.  In the cities just mentioned there is a well established mental health infrastructure that affords the police various options for the unstable citizens they are asked to assist.

In most larger communities a dearth of mental health services exist resulting in a large number of mentally ill persons being held in custody – sometimes a county house of correction or any one of

Dr. Michael Sefton brought out myths of mental illness while serving as a police officer retiring in 2015

16 prisons in the Commonwealth of  Massachusetts. The Spotlight team at the Boston Globe has featured the plight of those who are sent to prison with comorbid mental illness and substance abuse. The fact is that criminality and mental health are often difficult to disentangle.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill believe as many as 20 to 40 percent of prison inmates may have severe mental illness and may not be receiving the needed treatment to allow them to rehabilitate.  Yet in the absence of the mental health infrastructure needed to provide treatment – including hospital care for those most unstable, few viable options were put forth.

The Boston Globe fails to inform readers that criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive.  Drug addicts break into homes to feed the hunger of their addiction.  In prototypic fashion, the Globe offers no alternative and no solution aside from casting blame on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Without a doubt the stories they report are heart wrenching and emotionally palpable for the readers. But not all those in custody who are suspected of preexisting mental illness are helplessly suffering without therapy.  Most are not.  In many cases being incarcerated allows an addict to become clean and sober and begin the first steps of recovery. Those who are most resistant to therapy and fail to attend psychotherapy, anger management, and medication monitoring have a higher risk of violence and substance abuse. This fact must be considered when responsibility for treatment failure is studied.  

Those relationships that suppress the normal, effusive, life force are detrimental to health much like a toxin said Sefton in 2013.

ALTERNATIVE SENTENCING

With so many incarcerated persons with suspected mental illness change must be initiated  by having services available to those on the front lines.  The criminal justice system and the department of mental health have an opportunity to work together now that the pendulum once again swings toward a treatment model. The police can be trained to control the scene through intervention and mediation strategies by slowing things down. When charges are brought alternative sentencing models may offer leverage that include mandated treatment in lieu of jail time.  Studies show that those who remain in treatment are less violent than those who fail or drop out of treatment, Torrey, et.al., 2008.

Mental health patient often rely on community services and social welfare including housing, disability payments, medical care and more.  Access to these services may be tied to participation in treatment including psychotherapy, medication, if prescribed, and substance abuse treatment.  Here is Massachusetts M.H. Advocates reject this notion as unfair a response that remains unique across the country.

The interaction of substance abuse and mental illness is complex.  Persons with drug and alcohol addiction must be expected to become sober with the help of substance abuse treatment and family support. The risk of violence and suicide declines when sobriety can be maintained.  The 12-step programs have great success and are free to anyone willing to attend. Family members may attend Al-Anon or some drug-specific family support group.

Mental health infrastructure is necessary for the system to work.  In San Antonio it has taken 15 years to establish a system that works and saves lives.


Torrey, CF et. al. The MacArthur violence risk assessment study revisited: Two views ten years after its initial publication. Psychiatric Services, vol. 59, issue 2, February 2008, pp. 147-152.

New age cops – the future innovation of community policing

WESTBOROUGH, MA December 29, 2016 I have long been an advocate for prompt and comprehensive treatment for those afflicted with mental illness.  Now police are increasingly linking up with mental health agencies as a way of diverting mentally ill person’s from jails into treatment for their emotional affliction.  In my experience this is no easy task.  In some cases criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive.  Some who suffer with emotional issues like bipolar depression, drug addiction or anxiety may respond poorly to treatment and may need containment. Those most refractory to treatment often become most difficulty to manage in society.  The untreated mentally ill have a higher rate of violence than those in voluntary treatment.

psychology2As early as 1984, I served the pediatric population in Boston at the Boston City Hospital Pediatric Emergency Department as the on-call clinician in psychology. That same year I was appointed to the ED at Hale Hospital in Haverhill, MA for screening people in crisis.  Those who were stable and had support systems in place would be released – usually with an outpatient referral. Meanwhile, patients without at-home safe guards who could not plausibly answer the question “what brought you to the decision to harm yourself?” were admitted to the hospital.  Other mitigating factors like healthy living arrangements, employment, sobriety, and no history of suicidal behavior were positive indicators of future outcome.  It was a position I loved and is an important clinical role to this day across the United States.  Later as a community mental health psychologist in Long Beach, CA, I served the Children’s Service as someone charged with screening adolescents in crisis living across Los Angeles County. In each of these locations I worked closely with social workers, case managers, police and gatekeepers at state and county psychiatric units to find open beds for kids in need.

In 25 years since there has been very little innovation and fewer still treatment beds for those in need. Today’s depressed and emotionally wounded often spend days in emergency department hallways further wounded by a demoralizing system of delivery that is overwrought and has no place to send them.  This scenario was the case in 1985 and remains the case in 2016.  In Massachusetts and counties across the United States publicly funded hospital beds – including state hospital beds have been eliminated.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s the pendulum of advocacy swung toward community-based care and away from hospital-based treatment.  This left the chronically mentally ill without a support net for treatment, medication management and long range hope.  Many became homeless, unemployable and abusive of drugs and alcohol.

Police provide frontline intervention – often with little training

Police officers became the first line of defense as the hospital beds were eliminated. The mentally ill and those addicted to any number of drugs or alcohol grew homeless and sometimes menacing as they struggle with symptoms. Now police officers are being trained to intervene with these marginalized citizens with crisis management skills.  This poses a conundrum for the current zeitgeist of community policing theory in that the notion of dangerousness relies on critical scrutiny of the underpinnings of human behavior and often nonverbal indices of psychopathology. Some believe this is state of the art police science.  Departments from Augusta, Maine to Los Angeles, CA to San Antonio, TX are using frontline officers as crisis resolution specialists for police encounters with the acutely mentally ill. Many are paired with licensed clinicians while others are working the streets alone.

The collaboration between police and mental health personnel is not new.  But the use of police officers as crisis intervention specialists is innovative and gaining traction in many places around the country. Yet these officers must always be aware of the uncertainty of some encounters with police and those suffering with paranoia or psychotic, illogical delusions, PTSD, or traumatic brain injury that may not respond to verbal persuasion alone.  Decisions about when to utilize greater force for containment of a violent person is sometimes instantaneous.

The use of force must be fluid and officers in the field are expected to modulate the force they apply to the demands of the situation and be ready to respond to changing threat levels.             Michael Sefton, 2015

In 2002, I was appointed to a Massachusetts police department having once served in southern Maine right out of college.  As a psychologist I made an effort to bring mental health concepts into police work without much fanfare or interest.  Mental health topics are not as sexy as defensive tactics or firearm training, I was once told, so finding numbers was sometimes tenuous.  There are still many myths about intervening with those who are making suicidal and homicidal threats and training opportunities are taking on more importance.  Especially these days.  Suicide by cop became a phenomenon that no officer ever wants to confront. All violent police encounters guide officer behavior. “The degree of response intensity follows an expected path that is based on the actions of the perpetrator not the actions of the police” (Sefton, 2015).

Suicide by cop – predicting behavior

In the 2014 FBI Bulletin, Suicide by cop (SBC) is defined as “a situation where individuals deliberately place themselves or others at grave risk in a manner that compels the use of deadly force by police officers” according to Salvatore, 2014.  This happens more than one might expect and is often preceded by rehearsal events according to Salvatore.  “Suicide rehearsals are practice for the attempts that will follow within a few hours or days. SBCs may be tested. Officers should use caution when recontacted by an individual who previously presented signs of mental illness, had no need for assistance, was standoffish when asked what was needed, or was anxious to assure the officers that everything was fine. The initial contact may have been practice for an SBC.”

The best predictor of behavior is past behavior.  The prior demeanor that police have observed in those frequent flyers who pop up on police radar over and again often sets the stage for violent conflict later on. But not always.  Situations grow exponentially more grave in the presence of drugs and alcohol raising the level of lethal unpredictability. For many struggling with depression or other serious mental illness being sober or drug free can be the healthiest thing they can do for themselves.  The uncertainty of the SBC scenario makes the likelihood of a successful de-escalation a tenuous exercise in the life and death force continuum.

The motives for SBC are multifactorial and undeniably linked to poor impulse control associated with drug and alcohol intoxication.  The triggers are identified by Salvatore as “individuals who feel trapped, ashamed, hopeless, desperate, revengeful, or enraged and those who are seeking notoriety, assuring lethality, saving face, sending a message, or evading moral responsibility often attempt SBC”(2014).  Some believe they will become famous and earn large monetary settlements for their surviving families following a SBC scenario.  Other victims are tortured souls who make no demands and offer no insight into their suicidal motive and are killed when they advance on police or turn a weapon toward responding officers.

Training in police-mental health encounters has slowly taken hold.  This innovation in community policing offers hope for reducing fatal encounters.  No amount of training in crisis management will reduce incidence of SBC to zero but ongoing training to identify the behavioral indices of imminent violence, psychosis, and suicidal/homicidal ideation will reduce these lethal encounters.  Most officers are highly skilled at using their verbal skills to de-escalate a violent perpetrator without using lethal force – even when a higher level of force may have been warranted.


Salvatore, T. (2104), Suicide by Cop: Broadening our Understanding. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September. Taken 12-29-16 Bulletin website https://leb.fbi.gov/2014/september/suicide-by-cop-broadening-our-understanding.

Sefton, M (2015) Blog post Law Enforcement- Mental Health collaboration. Taken 12-28-16, https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/law-enforcement-mental-health-collaboration/

Is a DV registry an abuse of rights?

“The implementation of a domestic violence registry would inform potential victims that they are at risk and greatly reduce the cases of domestic violence in New York state.”  NY State Senator Michael Nozzolio

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 4, 2016 The prospect of mandated reporting in cases of domestic violence will add to already the over burdened state and federal bureaucracy. It cannot be done and may be a violation of the privacy rights of those accused of domestic violence.  Or at least that is what they tell us.  I have encountered abusive men who I have escorted off someone’s property after a verbal argument – before it became a physical encounter. In conducting my investigation, I learned that the guy had active protection from abuse orders that were taken out by three different women. That should be fuel for thought and the first question asked on the dating websites.  

In New York, state Senator Michael Nozzolio has proposed a bill that would create a registry for those convicted with violent felony domestic violence.  The bill entitled Brittany’s Law after a 2009 murder in which Brittany Passalacqua and her mother were killed in a domestic violence homicide. It has been passed in one form or another by the NY State Senate four times but the state legislature has yet to take up the bill.  Why? Some believe that a published list of abusers is a violation of human rights – like if a guy shows up on the list he may not be able to get anyone to date him anymore.  That seems like a reasonable consequence for beating up an intimate partner or two.