RACINE — Henry Perez said he has nightmares about the things he saw as a police officer in Miami, where he worked for about 20 years before becoming the alderman of Racine’s 12th District.
“I have been to dead babies, explosions, people literally broken in half in front of me; I saw it happen. I still dream about these things sometimes,” Perez said.
On Monday, Perez backed Police Chief Art Howell in requesting to have $40,000 reallocated to hire an in-house therapist to work with Racine Police officers — and sometimes community members — on a daily basis.
The reallocation was approved unanimously by the Finance and Personnel Committee, allowing for a licensed professional counselor to be hired for the rest of the year. The City Council will be able to vote on the proposal at its next meeting.
As part of the committee’s motion, city officials also promised to consider creating a permanent position while planning for the 2020 budget, if the request is approved by the council.
“Our Peer Support Team thought it would be a good idea to have a professional/certified therapist on staff for our officers. It’s something bigger departments have been doing to help their members to deal with the day-to-day stresses of the job,” Racine Police Sgt. Adam Malacara explained in an email.
“I’m a tough guy, or I was a tough guy, but I never had this opportunity” to have easy access to mental health help as an officer, Perez said. “We were a different breed of policemen 20 years ago.”
Going where help is needed
“If an officer is involved in a one-time single event, they’re going to get the counseling services they need,” Howell explained to the committee on Monday. “But what law enforcement agencies have learned over time, in addition to that single event that can cause trauma: if you go to 50 car accidents, 10 baby deaths, 10 homicides over the course of your career, there’s this ‘drip, drip’ effect that’s eating at you emotionally … it’s the 20-year veteran who experiences these things, and they just go back to work the next day.”
That seemingly constant exposure to trauma is more dangerous to officers’ mental health than being involved in one extremely intense incident, according to Howell.
Having an in-house advocate, who can work with police every day, may be able to make a difference.
“What this therapist does … is they actually go on these calls with us. So if there’s an infant death or a fatal accident or a homicide, they would actually accompany the officers to not only support the officers but to also support the families that are experiencing these things,” Howell said Monday.
KENOSHA – An ambulance and fire engine were parked outside Simmons Field on Sunday afternoon, but their crews were not there for a call.
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Although Howell said he’s been considering hiring an in-house therapist for about two years, recent tragedies and traumatic events, primarily the shooting death of Racine Police Officer John Hetland on June 17 and four separate officer-involved shootings in 2018, sped up the process.
Perez said that he’s seen police officers fall into drug and alcohol addiction, which he attributed to officers having to constantly deal with high stress situations and exposure to traumatic events. According to the Center for Network Therapy, as many as 30% of police officers suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, as much as triple the rate of the general U.S. population.
“Being numb helps them get through the day … when (officers) get home, they want to get what they just saw out of their mind,” Perez continued. “I kissed my kids every day when I left for work (as a police officer), because I didn’t know when I would come back.”
That fear became a reality when Hetland was killed while trying to stop a robbery at Teezers Bar and Grill. In the days that followed, the outpouring of support from the community made a difference for Howell and his department.
“This community really wrapped their arms around our officers,” he said. “And trust me, they needed it.”
Funding and auxiliaries
The $40,000 approved Monday will be taken out of a surplus in the Police Department’s salaries budget. Howell explained that several officers have retired recently and have not yet been replaced, freeing up money to hire a therapist.
This is far from the first initiative the Police Department has undertaken to look after the emotional well-being of its officers.
In the police station, there is a dedicated “Wellness Room” filled with sensory items where officers “can go unwind,” Howell explained. “It’s a space where they can go to decompress.”
There is also Racine Police Peer Support, a group of volunteers made available to officers and their families. The program “provides an avenue for members to talk out personal and/or professional problems confidentially with someone who understands and cares,” according to its website.
Right now, Peer Support doesn’t have an official budget, according to Malacara. The therapist that is expected to be hired would act in support of the Peer Support Team, Malacara said.
Updated: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the City Council did not have to approve this reallocation. That was inaccurate.