PLATTSBURGH — In 2009, Cattaraugus County Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb’s lost a friend, mentor and long-time coworker to suicide.
Dennis John was the former Cattaraugus County sheriff.
Whitcomb was one of three who found his body, he told participants at a recent Trauma Resources and Unified Management Assistance training program at South Plattsburgh Fire Department.
He shared his story as an example of a traumatic scenario that police officers may encounter during their careers.
Whitcomb’s presentation focused largely on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
One of the most unnerving aspects about working in law enforcement is not knowing when a potentially dangerous or traumatic incident will occur — while knowing for sure that it will happen at some point in the future, he told the 50 or so area law enforcement administrators and supervisors in attendance.
“You go from really routine matters to extremely volatile situations (quickly),” said Tony Perez, deputy commissioner of the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, which developed the training program.
Perez worked as a patrol officer in Rochester beginning in the 1980s and responded to hundreds of shootings and other disturbing incidents in his career, he said.
And even in areas where violent crimes aren’t as common, it’s almost inevitable that police will see things that most people can’t imagine.
“It’s important that they know there are other people that have been through these traumatic incidents,” Perez said.
Whitcomb said he had a difficult time making sense of what had happened in the weeks and months following the tragedy.
Looking back, he believes he was suffering from PTSD.
But he found solace in speaking with the two officers he was with when they found John. The three still occasionally talk about what happened and their memories of the former sheriff.
Their conversations are a form of peer counseling, Whitcomb said.
He places a heavy emphasis on PTSD awareness and treatment in his department.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon among police — about 24 percent are affected by it, Whitcomb said.
When an inmate died by suicide recently, he said, he made sure those in the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Department who were working at the time of the incident spoke with a trained peer counselor that day.
While PTSD awareness is much higher today than when Whitcomb began his career almost 25 years ago, he said it’s still not getting the attention it needs.
A December 2012 incident in Altona shed light on the need for departments to address possible emotional stress within its workforce, Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said.
Sheriff’s Deputies Jason R. Winters and Andrew J. Bertrand were faced with “a split-second decision between life and death,” Favro said in a news release, referring to the death of Dusty Clark, 28, who was fatally shot by one of the deputies that day.
Clark had brandished a knife at Winters in what court papers say was “a threatening manner” as the two attempted to arrest him.
“It proved to be a traumatic situation for all of us,” Favro said. “Until you actually live it and see it, it is hard to understand just what the aftermath of a deadly force encounter is like.
“This training goes a long way toward giving an agency a sense of what can happen and how to have a plan in place to handle it when it does.”
Learning how to create a plan was one of the two goals of the two-day training.
The other was to help agencies learn how to provide support services to officers who have been thrust into incredibly stressful situations at work.
There’s a strong stigma about mental-health issues that exists in the law enforcement community, Whitcomb said.
“There is certainly a desire (by officers) to not be weak in any way and (not) show signs of emotion,” Jerry Lottie, assistant chief of University Police at SUNY Plattsburgh, said after Whitcomb’s presentation.
“It’s been very enlightening,” he said of the training.
One of the things Lottie said he would take away from the training is the importance of recognizing the symptoms of PTSD in officers so they can get any resources they need quickly.
The topic of PTSD would be a beneficial one to include in the 21 state-mandated hours of training officers receive each year, Lottie said.
Plattsburgh-based State Police Sgt. Fred Atkinson echoed Lottie’s views on the widely accepted but detrimental attitude of law enforcement professionals toward expression of emotional difficulties.
Within the law enforcement community, there’s an idea that police “have to be strong and not show emotion,” Atkinson said. “(But) it’s OK to talk about things.”
Atkinson is a trained peer counselor.
Although there are many types of therapy, peer counseling is especially effective, he said, as those who have common experiences can relate and understand each other in ways that others can’t.
‘CLOSE TO HOME’
“This sheriff (Whitcomb) has some real-life situations (that resonate) close to home,” Plattsburgh City Police Capt. Michael Branch said.
He, Lt. Pat Rascoe and Lt. Scott Beebie from Plattsburgh City Police Department, who also attended the training, will pass along what they learned to their coworkers, Branch said.
“I’m happy that I came to this,” he said. “This (training) is pretty direct.”
Although Plattsburgh Police officers learn about PTSD and mental health in their time at the police academy, Branch said, there isn’t much direct training for City Police patrolmen on the subject.
But the department will explore how to integrate into departmental training the new information gleaned from the program about the unique issues police face, he said.
Several times throughout his presentation, Whitcomb reminded the attendees of their responsibility for their coworkers.
“Cops can help cops,” he said. “Your job is to protect and serve those who protect and serve.”
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