Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Where We're Going.

Firstly, I want to thank you for taking the time to check out my blog. I've received a good amount of correspondence from people saying they get something from this, so thank you. It's heartening to hear from people from all over the world.

For the last three years or so, I've been a contributing editor for Calibre Press. This has been a great opportunity, and I love the work they do at Calibre. However, I now feel a need to write completely from the hip, without requirements about the number of words used, or topics that other feel are important that I do not, or visa versa.

Topics for this blog will include:

Police stress & wellness
Police culture
Police interactions with mentally ill subjects
Observations about the politics of policing

Again, thank you for your support and stay tuned for what I hope will be a good series of articles.

Kind regards,

Thursday, October 27, 2016

On Policing the Mentally Ill.

It has become abundantly clear to just about everyone that there is something mightily wrong with our mental health system. As LEO’s, we don’t spend much time in places where things are going splendid. We spend are time in broken places. And, so it is with the mental health system.

Police executives have been wringing their hands, asking how in the world we can manage the tidal wave of mentally ill subjects in crisis our officers are interacting with. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a full half of everyone with a serious mental illness in this country receives no treatment whatsoever. None.

Allow me provide a little historical context to this. What LEO’s are facing today is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. In the 1950’s and 60’s the general public (the “general public” will come back into this story, so remember it) collectively decided to close the state mental institutions. Society said, “These hospitals are inhumane, no one should have to live in these conditions!” So, JFK went with the tide, promised to fund the public mental health system, and  the hospitals starting shuttering their doors.

Well, then this really weird thing happened: a politician didn’t keep his word. Just as quickly as state mental hospitals closed, with no funding at the community level, very sick, unmedicated, and unsupported, people began surfacing in towns and cities across the country. The chickens began coming home.

Fast forward fifty years and we have a situation where, nationally at least 10% of all our calls for service involve someone with a serious and persistent mental illness. While I don’t have the stats to back this up, I think that percentage is much higher in urban areas. And when half of those people we contact with serious and persistent mental illness are receiving no treatment whatsoever, what do you think the outcome is going to be? Yep, 25-50% of all the people we kill have a mental illness (again, Treatment Advocacy Center).

Usually after a LEO kills or seriously injures someone with mental health challenges, the family comes forward to sue. With blood in the water, the local and national media love tag lines like, “[Your local city here] Officer Shoots/Kills mentally ill Teen.”

The mental health system is “mightily wrong” because it isn’t properly resourced. Period. Having worked as a non-profit mental health professional for many years, I can tell you with certitude that this isn’t a problem of lazy, incompetent people IN the system. The vast majority of your community mental health providers are trying to do the right thing, just like you. We naturally want to blame the “mental health system” for our current predicament but it’s not the system that’s at fault here. More on that in a minute.

Though well intentioned, the general public (remember them) believe that the problem of police officers using lethal force on mentally ill subjects can be answered with more training (e.g., Crisis Intervention Training).
Sheriffs and Chiefs across the country have seized on this, some righteous believers, others just forecasting civil litigation. I believe this sort of training has benefit. I myself am a CIT de-escalation instructor. But a lack of training cannot be blamed for most of the bad outcomes involving police and mentally ill subjects, and sending an officer kicking and screaming to the “hug a thug” training surely doesn’t ensure a better outcome down the line.

Several classes of victims have risen out of JFK’s failed experiment.  First, there is the sufferer. People don’t choose to be mentally ill. Without treatment they suffer greatly. The woman you see talking to herself every day, unkempt, and surrounded by what looks like garbage, is suffering. Mentally ill people can get better. They can. With advances in antipsychotic medications, social support, and housing, people get better.

Another victim in this mess are the family members, caregivers, and friends of those with mental illness. There exists a sea of traumatized, indignant parents across our country who have absolutely been victimized by an underfunded mental health system. As the CIT Coordinator of my department, I’ve received far too many calls from concerned parents asking for advice. Their stories are remarkably similar.

My son was a straight A student in high school. He played sports and had friends. He was a happy kid. Now in his second year of college, he’s becoming psychotic and I need help.

My daughter has been hospitalized three times, but they release her right back to the street. She uses alcohol (or weed, or meth) when she starts hearing voices. How can we keep her in the hospital until she gets the long term care she needs.

Most parents are terrified to call the police because they worry their loved one will be killed. Yet, because of a lack of viable mental health resources, that’s exactly what they have to do. Most people have the luxury of not knowing just how skeletal our mental health system is. When it’s your son (God forbid) who needs emergency mental health services, however, that’s when the bubble bursts for parents. That’s when the national crisis we’re experiencing dawns, crystal clear on them. From the reports I hear, it can be a life-altering experience.

And, yes, our police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and custodial staff are also victims. We’ve been thrust into the fore, why? Because something broke. In this case, it’s the mental health system, and we’re left holding the bag.

Spending more time each week responding to calls for service involving the mentally ill involve more liability. Officers, by the way, who actually want to help people and do the right thing. But, we see the liability which has arisen from several fronts.

First, there are the expectations of the community, who have swallowed the media’s message that law enforcement officers are slaughtering mentally ill people. Any officer involved in an OIS (Officer Involved Shooting) involving a mentally ill subject should expect to be sued. That’s kind of off the top.

And, how are we to know the subject holding the knife in front of us is mentally ill? The courts have given us really no direction here. Case law over the last fifteen years produced an elevated standard for officers with regard to our interactions with mentally ill subjects, while providing no account for how that standard is to be met. No good deed goes unpunished, right? LEO’s across the country are doing the right thing by putting our fingers in the dike of the mental health system, but we’re getting sued left and right because of it. We’re getting injured more, we’re having to manage more post traumatic stress, we’re being scrutinized more.

The vexing problem of officer’s encounters with the mentally ill has occupied a lot of police executives’ time. Here’s a message I would suggest they send to their troops:

The current mental health crisis we’re dealing with has been caused by the general public’s lack of concern for the plight of the mentally ill. If the general public really wants to get that homeless encampment off their block, they will begin to support funding for the mental health system. Like so many other entanglements we get ourselves into, this is not a police problem. It is, rather, a natural extension of the general public’s lack of interest in seeing mental health as just as important as physical health.

So, when is this situation going to be better? It’s going to get better when the general public realizes that the “problem” of mental illness in their community is not a police problem, but a community challenge: “What legislation can I support that provides for a robust mental health system?” The “problem” of police interactions with the mentally ill was created by the general public. Appropriately then, it can only be corrected by the general public.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Emotional Wellness for Law Enforcement Curriculum

I am hoping to be starting the Master Instructor Certification Course (MICC) sponsored by the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST). 

All MICC students are required to design a law enforcement course from 3-5 days in length, which will be submitted to POST for approval. If approved, it will become a POST reimbursable course offered statewide. POST courses tend to have much better attendance because officers get CPT credit for them. 

My course will be on Emotional Wellness for Law Enforcement. 

In addition to having grown up in a law enforcement family, I am an 11 year police veteran, and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. While my professional and personal experience in this area have a place in the design of the course, it is far from enough. 

I would like to correspond with others who feel strongly about the need for our peace officers to be as emotionally healthy as possible  throughout the span of their lives. If you are one of the following and would be willing to share your ideas on the development of this course, please contact me.

  • Law Enforcement Officers (LEO)  
  • LEO, mental health clinician or others that who teach in this area
  • Mental health professionals working with LEO’s
  • LEO peer supporters
  • Researchers
  • LEO family members
  • Anyone else with a verse to contribute

For those of us with a vested interest in this topic, this is a fantastic opportunity.  My goal here is to learn as much as possible from as many different people as I can. 

In addition to collaborators, I will be looking for subject matter experts (SME) for various topical areas (e.g., John Violanti for LEO stress). If you are a SME or know someone who may be willing to donate a bit of their time to a good cause, please let me know. I will be interviewing SME’s at some length. 

It is important to note the focus of this project will be on “Lifetime Emotional Wellness.” To use an analogy, at the basic police academy in CA, the class on physical training is called, “Lifetime Fitness.” Recruits begin physical training on the first day of the academy. Their last day of PT is usually the day before graduation.  It is pounded into our heads that fitness is not to stop once we leave the academy; that it is for life. This is the type of framework I intent to use for emotional wellness. 

While the course will include secondary and tertiary prevention (i.e., what to do once problems exist), a focus will be on developing, maintaining, and constantly improving one’s emotional wellness. I see a gap here in the literature and training. My bias is that, as peace officers, we should go beyond “surviving” this career [no jab here toward Gilmartin’s invaluable work]. We should know about and be willing to work toward lives filled with meaning, happiness, and healthy relationships. 

Finally, something about the design of the course. The fundamental question the CA POST IDI program asks is, how do adults learn? Everything in the program is geared toward adult student learning. To explain what is meant by “learning” here, let me contrast it with “going to a training.” 

As most of us know, the typical training involves someone lecturing to the class for long periods of time, with a PPT in the background. In fact, sadly perhaps, this is how I’ve conducted most of my trainings (which is part of the reason I started the IDI program). So, lecture, PPT, the odd video or two and get out a half hour early. Sound familiar? 

In designing this course, my question will be, what learning exercises, delivery methods, learning styles and modes, and learning verification tools will I use to ensure the greatest chance that students will actually use what is taught? In other words, rib sticking stuff. Ultimately, this will not be “Jeff Shannon’s” training. It will contain enough detail and clarity that any law enforcement trainer will be able to use the lesson plan and teach the same stuff. My question to you is, What “stuff” should be in there? 

Thank you in advance for anything you can offer. 

Kind regards,

Ofc. Jeff Shannon, LMFT
        Berkeley Police Department
(510) 981-5779
(510) 595-5580 Office

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Optimism. In Law Enforcement? by Jeff Shannon, LMFT

The other day as I was driving, I saw a twenty something guy skateboarding down the sidewalk. His clothes were dirty and torn, and he carried a piece of card board under one arm with writing on it. Within only a few seconds of seeing this young man, a rather harsh judgement popped into my mind, the specific words of which I’ll plead the 5th on. 

In this same few seconds, however, something quite amazing happened. Before I even completed the sentence in my mind, replete as it was with a colorful adjectives, I stopped myself. Not only did I stop myself, but I turned my attention to the young man’s lime green beanie cap. I said to myself, “I like that cap!” I said it again as he faded off beyond my side view mirror, “Cool cap.” 

What I realized in this very brief moment in time was that I’m becoming more “positive.” Having worked in law enforcement for ten years now, this is no small accomplishment. As just about every cop knows, the more years we have on, the more pessimistic we tend to become. Pessimism, along with its ugly cousin cynicism, follow naturally as we spend years interacting with people at their “Maddest, baddest and saddest,” as Kevin Gilmartin puts it (Gilmartin is the author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement). 

Optimism helps us bounce back from adversity of all kinds. Getting punched in the face is adversity. While I certainly hope no LEO has this experience, if it does happen, getting punched in the face does offer a moment of truth regarding ones’ ability to bounce right back and stay in the fight. Adversity can also take the form of events as routine as being stuck behind someone with no driving skills, working for a horrible boss, or being exposed to a critical incident. 

Dr. Dennis Charney at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, makes his living by studying how people respond to adversity. Specifically, he’s interested in those who are excellent at bouncing back. He interviewed Vietnam veterans who were held in captivity, tortured and kept in solitary confinement for many years. He came up with ten characteristics of those who didn’t suffer from PTSD or depression after their imprisonment. Guess what the number one characteristic of resilient individuals was. Yeah, it was optimism. 

Your daily experience reveals that some people seem to be naturally more optimistic than others. By the way, we’re not talking about those who are obnoxiously and unrealistically happy about everything. We’re talking about those who understand the gravity of the adversity before them and yet see the cup as half full. Regardless of how naturally optimistic you are, the fact is we can work toward being more optimistic (and therefore more resilient) if we so choose. 

Having made baby steps myself toward being more optimistic, I can report the following benefits, 

  • I’m less pissed off. 
  • I feel better in my skin.
  • People like being around me more (I think). 
  • I’m a better role model for my kids. 
  • I have less toxic stress hormones coursing through my veins.
  • My overall life satisfaction is better. 

Okay, assuming I’ve sold you on working toward being more optimistic, how do you “do” it? Step One is the most difficult. It involves bringing conscious awareness to our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. The great thing is, we have lots and lots of opportunities to practice this stuff. 

Angry, impatient, pessimistic thoughts are all opportunities! If you bring conscious awareness to them - in other words, you catch yourself in the act - you can choose to shine the light of conscious awareness on to something more positive (like the guys’ cool beanie). Doing it just one time will show you it’s possible. 

Suddenly realizing that you’re feeling angry, tense, or irritable also presents the opportunity to ask yourself why you’re feeling that way. Then, you can add some positive (and probably more realistic) thoughts into the mix of your mind. Feelings don’t come out of the blue, they are the logical result of thoughts (e.g., if you think “I’m late!” you will begin feeling anxious and your body will tense up). You can also take a few belly breaths to relax. 

Finally, if you don’t catch yourself in the act of thinking or feeling, your body may tip you off. If you’re sitting at a computer banging out a report and you suddenly realize you have a knot in your neck, again opportunity time. 
Although I’ve used a lot of words to describe this process, keep in mind it can happen lightning fast (like the example I used at the beginning). 

If you’re disciplined enough to exercise regularly as most LEO’s are, then your disciplined enough to work on your optimism. It’s one of the best investments in your overall wellness you can make. 

 Jeff Shannon is a Police Officer, law enforcement instructor, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in northern California. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Wellness Tip: Add Some Gratitude to Your Cynic Soup

Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; ... in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer. ... So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, - for the reward is ... virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.
—Seneca, Epistles, lxxviii. 13-16 

There is no part of our mind/body so qualified to make us sick or well, as our thoughts. Depression, frustration and joy are all emotions and, like every other emotion, they are derived from whatever we were thinking about just before the feeling. In an important sense, we are our thoughts. 

The typical cop has a lot of thoughts about how junky the equipment is, how worthless the administration is, how lax the criminal justice system is, and so on. When we put all these thoughts into a big wooden soup bowl and eat from it every day, we can end up pretty cynical and burnt out. Over a period of decades, Cynic Soup can make you quite ill. 

If we don’t pay attention to the content of our thoughts, we’ll become victimized by them. The good news here, is that we have complete control over our thoughts.  It’s not easy to control all of our thoughts, all of the time, but we can - like putting some fresh spice into the soup -  add a few thoughts.

May I recommend at this point, adding thoughts of gratitude. Several months ago a respected academic journal (Journal of Clinical Psychology) published an article by two big brains who reviewed the research on gratitude. They found that people who made time to really consider the things they were grateful for lowered their blood pressure, improved their immune system and had more energy than the rest of us ingrates. 

The grateful bunch also had less anxiety, depression and substance abuse. So, it seems gratefulness was tailor made for cops, who are at increased risk for all the above maladies. 

There are lots of ways to bring gratitude into our lives. You can think about the things you are grateful for that day, while sipping your morning cup of Joe. You could remove the crap rubber banded to the visor of your patrol car, and replace it with a piece of paper that has one thing your grateful for that day on it. 

I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal for about a month now, and that’s amazing. Right before going to bed, I pull up my lap top and write a few things I felt grateful for that day. 

Don’t worry that keeping a gratitude journal will turn you into a soft, Birkenstock wearing hippie. We still have lots of things to be pissed off and cynical about. In fact, you should only consider putting some gratitude in your life if you want to be a little less pissed off and cynical. 

[[looking out my bedroom window feeling grateful for the lovely fall sunset]] 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Preying On Our Own: Damaging Gossip in Law Enforcement

“What are they saying?” This is a question Officers should never have to ask after a critical incident, but it is asked, almost every time. What are my fellow officers saying about me? Law Enforcement Officers, being hardwired perfectionists, are very concerned about how we are perceived by our peers. We know that gossip can develop into a “jacket.” Weak, stupid, butt kisser, get the picture. We often then believe (most of the time erroneously) that our entire career has been tainted by these easily earned and hard to get out of jackets. I’ve heard parolees lament, “It’s easy to get in the system. It’s ain’t easy to get out.” Same goes for the unfair labels we put on each other. 

Like it or not, we lead high profile lives. We have to put ourselves way out there in this profession. Soft spoken Officers have to learn how to bellow, “Get on the ground!” It may not feel natural but we do it because we have to. Ours is a difficult profession by anyone’s standards, and when we make our inevitable mistakes, it’s often right out there in the open. If you can’t stand the thought of looking foolish in public don’t even consider police work. 

The problem isn’t making mistakes, but rather what we fellow LEO’s do when we see or hear about the mistakes of our brothers and sisters in blue. And what would that be? We seek out all the gory details. Like chum thrown in shark infested waters, we swarm. A frenzy of gossip, exaggeration and trash talking erupts within the department. We love it. This is what we can and must change, one Officer at a time. 

Damaging gossip differs from the good natured, sometimes relentless ribbing we give each other as a sign of affection and acceptance. Damaging gossip on the other hand, serves as a destructive stress-reliever for pent up cops.  

We already have one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. We already have equipment that doesn’t work, felons trying to kill us, district attorneys that don’t charge our cases, reports that are kicked back, and defense attorneys trying to twist us up in court. The fact that one of our greatest sources of stress is knowing that our colleagues are disparaging us behind our back is completely unnecessary. 

One of the highest held principles in law enforcement is that of taking personal responsibility for our actions. I would like to invite every one of us to include in that inventory of personal accountability, the degree to which we tear down or build up our family members. 

We need to vent, no doubt about that. We need a few trusted co-workers who we can turn to and, in a confidential setting, blast our beat partner or supervisor to. That’s peer support in it’s rawest form and it’s part of what allows us to carry on in this work. But when we’re not thoughtful about the who, when and where of our tirades or gossip, we  we create additional stress for our fellow Officers. We prey on our own. 

Cops need two things when we screw up: we need to learn, and we need support. With regard to learning, we are often our harshest critics. Any tongue lashing we get from the Sergeant pales compared to our own harsh self-talk. 

We need someone in the group to stand up for us when we’re not there to defend our reputation. We need someone to say, “I did that same thing a few years ago and let me tell you about it,” or “I wonder what we can do to help Larry move on from this.” 

Speaking up for those who have made mistakes not only protects their reputation, it benefits you, as it is an act of kindness and compassion. It benefits you by giving you the feeling that you helped a fellow Officer in need. That “good feeling” we get when we stick up for others has real health benefits. For example, Dr. Stephen Post from Stony Brook University School of Medicine reviewed over 50 research studies on the health benefits of altruism and concluded, 

In total, the research on the benefits of giving is extremely powerful, to the point that suggests healthcare professionals should consider recommending such activities to patients.... If the benefits of volunteering or altruism could be put into a pill, it would be a bestseller overnight

A career in policing puts us face to face with a smorgasbord of stressors that are completely outside of our control, damaging gossip is one that we’re putting on ourselves. Let’s be mindful of what we’re adding to the culture of our department. Next time you’re in the locker room changing out to go home, ask yourself, “Who did I support today?” If we all adopted such an attitude we’d never have to answer our friend’s question, “What are they saying?”