Monday, September 19, 2011

LEMIT Targets Program for Officers in Crisis

Ector County Sheriff Sgt. Steven McNeill will serve as a peer mentor during a new LEMIT program to help officers after tramatic incidents. McNeill is pictured with Dr. Rita Watkins, executive director of LEMIT, who is initiating the program in Texas. Ector County Sheriff Sgt. Steven McNeill will serve as a peer mentor during a new LEMIT program to help officers after tramatic incidents. McNeill is pictured with Dr. Rita Watkins, Executive Director of LEMIT, who is initiating the program in Texas.

After Ector County Sheriff Sgt. Steven McNeill was shot in the head in a standoff with a domestic terrorist in West Odessa in September 2010, he wanted to get back to work and return to “normal.”

“During the incident, I was focused and clear and knew what I needed to do,” said McNeill, one of two officers shot during a siege at a remote compound. “But later, when the adrenaline wore off and the reality sunk in, you realize ‘I almost died out there.’ I was lucky, but it was more emotional then. The reality set in about just how severe it was, and it was emotional to talk about.”

Not only was McNeill impacted by the incident, but so too were those around him. Even after his recovery, his wife still thought he would die and continued to mentally prepare herself to be a widow and single parent. Other officers involved in the shooting were haunted by images of their two felled colleagues or the barrage of bullets fired during the siege.

“Physically you survive, but you still have the emotional scars to deal with,” McNeill said.

To help officers affected by critical incidents in the field, such as colleagues who are injured or killed, officer-involved shootings, suicides, accident scenes, or wildfires, the Law Enforcement Institute of Texas is launching The Texas Law Enforcement Assistance Program (TX LEAP). The program will be open to law enforcement officers and their spouses who have difficulty coping with the aftermath of a critical incident. It is expected to debut in the fall of 2012.

“We want them to get the help they need,” said Dr. Rita Watkins, Executive Director of LEMIT. “We see them leave the job or turn to alcohol or drugs.”

The project will be patterned after The Post Critical Incident Seminar offered by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, a free, three-day program which provides safe and effective methods to train officers how to deal with critical incident stress.

“The officers are still dealing with the aftermath of the incident and haven’t processed it yet,” said Dara Glotzbach, a program coordinator at LEMIT. “It gets them unstuck. The event is right in front of their face 24/7 and this program helps put the event in perspective."

The program includes peer counseling by officers who have been through similar experiences. Four Texas officers, who have participated in the South Carolina Program, will serve as peer counselors for LEMIT. McNeill is one of them.

“The beauty of the program is that it is peer-driven,” said Dr. Watkins. “They come out feeling that they are not alone, that someone in their group knows what’s going on and what they are feeling is normal.”

Spouses, too, will be invited to participate. Mikal Sieger, another LEMIT program coordinator, recalled a powerful transformation of a couple in South Carolina who came in like “robots,” but left like high school sweethearts.

“The spouses are invited too,” said Sieger. “They tell their stories and they realize that they are not alone.”

In addition to small and large group discussions and personal experiences, the program includes lectures on the phases of emotional recovery; law enforcement relationship; cops, doctors, and medicines; fear and coping; and the search for meaning. It also offers a comprehensive, integrative psychotherapy approach called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which helps to resolve the trauma caused by the event.

“It is a magical way of connecting the dots,” said Sgt. McNeill. “I felt better instantly.”

LEMIT currently has no funding for the program, but is exploring the South Carolina model for financial assistance in the development of TX LEAP. The South Carolina model is delivered through donations specifically for the Post Critical Incident Seminar.

“It is the most amazing wellness program that I have ever seen and experienced,” said Dr. Watkins, who attended two sessions in South Carolina. “There is a lot of heartache for these officers, and we are looking at the opportunity to bring this program to Texas. It’s just too important for officers who deal with critical incidents to understand that there is a program to help them afterward.”

McNeill said the program is sorely needed.

“I know there are a lot of major incidents that occur in Texas,” McNeill said. “We don’t have anything in place. This is a healing process, and something that makes you feel 10 times better than you did before.”