Panel outlines plan to help Phoenix police treat PTSD
By the end of 2010, a disturbing trend had emerged at the Phoenix Fire Department: Four of its firefighters had committed suicide in a seven-month span.
The spate prompted an overhaul in how the department dealt with mental health, according to officials, and created a streamlined program that included peer support, financial and addiction counseling and a robust website directing its users to available resources.
Now, eight months after the suicide of a former Phoenix police officer diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a city task force is recommending that the Police Department’s brass look to their firefighting counterparts.
The 13-member task force, which consists of doctors, city officials and presidents of Phoenix fire and police unions, recently released a set of recommendations to enhance mental-health services offered to the city’s first responders.
Recommendations span from specific to philosophical, urging an overall cultural change in an industry that critics say expects its employees to be mentally indestructible.
If Phoenix police officials accept the recommendations, officers can expect a second, mandatory mental-health screening following an officer-involved shooting, a new website dedicated to mental-health information and an eventual expansion of the department’s Employee Assistance Unit.
Many of the details will be hammered out by Phoenix police officials when, and if, they accept the recommendations.
City Manager Ed Zuercher established the task force in November, following the suicide of former Officer Craig Tiger.
Tiger was part of a deadly officer-involved shooting in 2012 and was fired from the force a year later after receiving a DUI. He would later credit the arrest for saving his life, though: he had been en route to kill himself, he said, and the incident prompted the medical attention that would diagnose him with PTSD from the shooting.
Tiger’s supporters said he reported the PTSD to former Police Chief Daniel Garcia in an unsuccessful bid to save his job in 2013. His life continued to unravel in the months after his firing, and on Nov.5, 2014, Tiger took his own life.
In its review of both agencies, the task force said it was clear that there was a distinct difference between the cultures of the Phoenix fire and police departments in the management of trauma.
The Fire Department painted a picture of “collaboration and mutual respect,” the report states, a stark contrast to the environment of the Police Department.
“It was not that there are no services available, but rather there exists a series of policies, practices and laws that woven together produce a system many officers simply do not trust,” the report reads.
Among the initiatives borne out of the Fire Department’s tragedies was www.firestrong.org, a website dedicated to mental wellness that will help serve as a model for the potential police portal.
PTSD and other trauma-related issues are a problem for officers across the country, Zuercher said, but few agencies have dedicated such specific resources to trauma.
“We’re really breaking new ground here,” he said of the task force.
Zuercher said one of the key features of the recommendation is the second screening following an officer-involved shooting.
Standard protocol mandates that involved officers see a counselor before they return to duty, typically within three days of the incident. The task force recommended a second exam be required 30 days after the incident.
People can be in shock or survival mode immediately following a traumatic incident, Zuercher said, and may not begin exhibiting troubling issues for weeks after.
“That’s the point. We should be helping people and giving them support,” he said.
Zuercher said he will be meeting with Phoenix Police Chief Joe Yahner and the task force in the upcoming weeks, and, if the recommendations are accepted, would like to implement them within 18 to 24 months.
Rebecca Tiger, a Phoenix police officer and ex-wife of Craig Tiger, said she would like to know the plan for officers after the mandatory 30-day screening but said she’s encouraged by the newfound attention to the issue.
“I liked what I was reading,” she said of the report. “I think the whole country is becoming more aware of PTSD and more accepting of it.”
– Establish a second, mandatory screening 30 days after an officer-involved shooting.
– Develop a comprehensive set of prevention and training measures.
– Extend prevention and training measures to supervisors and department leadership
– Embrace a cultural change in the organization that values and promotes the importance of employees’ physical and psychological well-being.
– Develop a mission statement that would include trauma and PTSD.
– Incorporate “psychological” under “type of injury” on the citywide supervisor’s Report of Injury form.
– Expand staffing of the Police Employee Assistance Unit.
– Create a navigable Web-based resource for all employees to access mental-health information and treatment options.