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How Utah Police Departments Support Their Officers’ Mental Health

The morning after a West Valley City police officer was hit by a bullet, Chief Colleen Jacobs told reporters last month that after such a traumatic experience, an officer was going to have scars.

Not just physical scars, she says. Emotional wounds.

That’s why the West Valley City Police Department has a licensed clinical social worker on staff who is available to speak to any employee in trouble, including the officer who was injured in that parking lot shooting.

“At the forefront of our concerns is their healing process,” she said. “Both physically and mentally.”

Until recently, Jacobs’ department was one of the only agencies in Utah to have a therapist on staff. Salt Lake City Police recently added a social worker on staff, with whom officers and dispatchers can talk about their mental health. But they remain rare in police departments across the state.

The need for this type of internal services may be particularly high recently, whereas more Utah officers were involved in police shootings last year – and more were shot – than any other year in the previous decade. Eight officers were hit in shootings in 2021, but none died, according to a database maintained by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Still, there’s still an unmet need for mental health services in Utah police departments, police officials said — a need that could get a legislative fix this year.

Helping Officers ‘Cope Safely’

In West Valley City, each officer is required to see the department’s certified mental health worker twice a year, Jacobs said.

Officers who have been involved in shootings, she said, are entitled to additional support from a peer support group and must be evaluated by a psychologist before they can return to work.

Having an in-house mental health officer is something Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said she wishes her department had — but can’t budget for now.

She said the Unified Police had a grant that paid its officers to see an outside therapist, but it expired this year.

“Every police department’s goal is to get one,” Rivera said of hiring an in-house therapist, “because I really believe that if we’re not mentally healthy, we cannot help our communities as well as we would like.”

If an officer shot someone, Rivera said his department requires that officer to complete two therapy sessions before returning to work.

If red flags are identified during these sessions, she said a peer support group would then get involved to work with and support the officer. Officers are also encouraged to notify the department if they feel they are not ready to return to work.

In December, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown boosted his department’s ability to help officers by hiring a full-time mental health counselor.

“She brings a deep desire to help others in law enforcement,” Brown said in a statement. “In the short time she has been with our department…she helps our officers and professional staff prepare and help them deal safely with the psychological pressure of their duties.”

A need for privacy

Police experts who spoke to The Tribune agreed that officers need more mental health resources to deal with traumatic events.

But Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, noted that being able to consult with a mental health professional confidentially is essential.

Adams shot and injured a man while working as a police officer in western Jordan in 2014. The man, Timothy Peterson, was drunk and suicidal, and had pointed a metal bar at Adams who was designed to look like a gun.

Adams said the only wellness check he got from the department at the time was a fitness for duty evaluation.

He said many officers are afraid to talk about their emotions during these assessments because what they say could be reported to department heads.

“What would have been the use of a therapeutic intervention if, at the beginning of [a therapy session]’, asked Adams, ‘the psychologist said, ‘Now remember, whatever you say will come back to your boss’?”

The FOP launched a program in 2015 to allow officers suffering from PTSD or other emotional trauma to see a therapist in a private setting.

State funding could arrive

Making mental health help readily available to more officers has been on the minds of Utah lawmakers.

Retired Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt urged state leaders during an October interim committee hearing to earmark state funding so Utah agencies can get the care they need.

When his department contracted with a company to provide therapy for its officers, Watt said the company found 78 “red flag” cases among Ogden police and firefighters.

“Suicides, broken marriages, failing families,” he said.

Watt said those in the department — especially those who have posted “red flags” — can benefit from confidential therapy. But he said it comes at a cost to the ministry.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, told the Interim Committee on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice in November that he wanted to take the first step to securing confidential, state-funded mental health resources for law enforcement personnel and their families.

He introduced a bill that would allocate $5 million in departmental grants to mental health providers, who would contract with an agency to provide periodic screenings. Providers would also complete health assessments within 12 hours of a staff member being involved in a “critical incident”.

This includes police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and others.

Wilcox stressed that the funding would not only help current employees, but also their spouses and children. This will also benefit retired first responders.

“It reflects the reality that families, on the whole, are paying the price,” Wilcox said.