Marlea the puppy with dispatchers Joseph Thornton, left, Wes Merritt and Jennifer Hanson at the Scarborough Police Department. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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The things that Sharon and Julio Carrillo did to their daughter, Marissa Kennedy, who died at their hands last year at the age of 10, are truly horrific. 

After being shown photographs, hearing voice recordings, and listening to testimony, a jury of Sharon’s peers found her guilty of depraved indifference murder in December. Julio had already pleaded guilty to the charges. 

The details are shocking enough to produce symptoms of what’s known as secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue: “feelings of isolation, anxiety, dissociation, physical ailments, and sleep disturbances,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. 

The field of psychology has now established that just hearing a recounting of, or observing, traumatic events that are particularly awful – or exposure to many traumas vicariously over time – can trigger symptoms remarkably similar to the post traumatic stress injury of those who experienced the trauma first hand. 

And so what of the jurors in the Carrillo case? The prosecutors? The judge? The reporters who covered the case? Many of them, like the jurors, hopefully can go home and talk it out with their families and friends, and maybe never come across something so horrific again. 

There’s one constituency, however, for which this kind of vicarious trauma can be an almost daily occurrence: those who work in law enforcement. Not just the officers, but the evidence technicians, dispatchers, and others who are forced to encounter trauma after trauma, often with little downtime and ability to emotionally process what they’ve seen and heard. 

The bad news is that it is becoming clear that this secondary-traumatic stress, and more typical post-traumatic stress, is an epidemic in the policing world. The good news is that leaders in the field are starting to recognize it and do something about it. 

‘Resiliency check’

At the Maine State Police, 2020 will see a new wellness initiative, based on six months of work in collaboration with the Maine State Troopers Association, that will encourage not just physical fitness efforts, but incentives for everyone working at the MSP to meet at least annually with a mental health professional for what’s known as a “resiliency check” for signs of traumatic stress. 

Maine State Police Maj. Chris Grotton: “Just from my experience, we’re seeing a higher level of incidence of mental health issues on a regular basis now than ever before.” (MSP/Katy England)

“This is probably one of the top two or three topics being discussed in law enforcement circles today,” state police Maj. Chris Grotton, who has served 30 years, said. “Just from my experience, we’re seeing a higher level of incidence of mental health issues on a regular basis now than ever before.”

In Scarborough, Police Chief Robbie Moulton is also encouraging physical fitness and mental resiliency checks, and has even gone a step further: The department has taken on station dog Marlea, now about 5 months old, who lives at the station and serves as a comforting companion to anyone – officers, victims, and visitors.

“When I first started,” Moulton said, “if there was something that happened, even if you were off duty, you might show up and take a look if it was something serious – like if it was a car crash or a bad scene – more out of curiosity than anything else. But we’ve realized over the years that the cumulative effect of that is greater than anything that anyone would really think about.”

“Now … we’ve adopted a practice that if you don’t need to see it, don’t go see it,” he said. “… There is detriment to seeing it. You might not realize it today, but you might realize it 15 years down the road.”

That tack is not as easily changed for state police officers and other employees who sometimes feel like they’re trying to gasp for breath amidst a firehose of trauma. 

“We cover all the homicides other than Bangor and Portland,” Maj. Grotton said, “so our people are being exposed to a lot more death scenes, particularly traumatic death. We also do all the child predator and child porn investigations … and we have people who have to view that material every day as part of an investigation. 

“It’s very difficult material to see,” he said, “and then go home and be normal with your own children.”

And just about everyone in law enforcement agrees that lack of staffing is a problem statewide, even before accounting for the five state police officers now on leave because of officer-involved shootings.

Grotton said that means “they’re exposed to a higher dose of trauma on a regular basis. It’s death scene after death scene after death scene.”

Or maybe it’s not a death scene, but an overdose where an officer comes into a traumatic situation, gives Narcan to someone near death, and then leaves when the person is revived. Sometimes that happens twice a night. 

Grotton noted the state police hasn’t had a significant increase in staffing in decades, and yet the nature of the job has become much more complex and time-consuming. Plus, there are new crimes, like stalking over social media and cyber thefts, that never existed 30 years ago. 

With that extra work, and no additional help, officers frequently work a “primary” job during the day, and then are forced to work “special response” calls at night.

“That cumulative lack of sleep takes a toll,” Grotton said. 

Chronic sleep deprivation

Mark Holbrook of Brunswick is a former police officer who went back to school and opened a practice in 2003 as a licensed therapist specializing in helping those in law enforcement and the military. He said he hopes the heightened focus on officer wellness pays dividends, but from his point of view there’s still a lot of work to be done in raising awareness and changing law-enforcement culture. 

And in getting them some sleep. 

“They have 330 dedicated professionals,” Holbrook said of the Maine State Police, “who are doing a stellar job by and large, but they’re probably down 30 people or more, and what that means is the people doing the work are being asked to do more work, and where it impacts them individually the most is chronic and acute sleep deprivation.” 

Sleep deprivation is associated with any number of physical health problems, like high blood pressure and diabetes, and is a clear risk factor for depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress injury.  

“What happens to the human brain,” Holbrook said, “is that you lose the capacity to effectively process emotional information. … It has been a not uncommon experience for an officer to show up in my office and admit that they’ve been thinking about eating their gun.”

The Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation found that there were more police officer suicides in the United States in 2017 (140) than officers killed in the line of duty (129). Further, Holbrook said, “it’s not uncommon for one of them to come in and sit in my chair and say, ‘If anyone finds out I’m here, my career is over.’”

This concern that stress injury will be seen as a sign of weakness, and thus hidden, causes many of the symptoms of traumatic stress to manifest themselves in ways that may bring yet more stress upon someone: disciplinary issues, late reports, excessive use of force complaints, excessive absenteeism. 

It affects family life, too. Law Enforcement Today reports that only a quarter of married officers end their careers with the same spouse. Worse, 40 percent of law enforcement families experience domestic violence, compared with just 10 percent of the general population. 

“At home,” Holbrook said, “spouses will describe their police officers as irritable, detached, quick to anger – in worst-case examples, there’s an excessive use of substances like alcohol, and, unfortunately, because there’s such a stigma around anything emotional or mental, oftentimes the symptoms show up as headaches, back complaints, gastro-intestinal problems.”

This conversion of psychological trauma into physical pain is known as somaticizing, and is common in populations where discussion of mental health is particularly verboten. Basically, it’s an escape mechanism for the brain.

“It’s a lot easier,” Holbrook said, “for a police officer to go to a doctor for chronic back pain than to call someone like myself and say, ‘I’m crying a lot and I’m really irritable and I need some help.’”

It’s OK to seek help

That cultural problem, where officers feel like they need to tough it out, is at the center of efforts to improve things. 

“It behooves us as police administrators to send that message to our people that it’s normal for you to need a little help, normal for you to be sad or angry or upset about the things that you see and do,” Moulton said in Scarborough. “It’s OK to seek counseling. That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength.”

Chris Byrne, at Bug Light Park in South Portland, is trained in trauma-informed yoga and has worked with the Scarborough Police Department. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

That’s one of the reasons he brought in Chris Byrne from Sea Change Yoga in Portland, who has trained in trauma-informed yoga practice. Working with Byrne gives the officers help both physically and spiritually. And having it organized by leadership during day-time hours was important.

“They have a gym, there’s an encouragement of fitness there, but for a long time that was all done off shift or after shift, and so you work for 12 hours and then you’re going to go work out unpaid?,” Byrne said. “So bringing me in seemed pretty progressive in my eyes.”

Over the course of the 12-week class he conducted in Scarborough, Byrne said, he’d generally get a half-dozen officers or so to show up. With them, he practiced trauma-sensitive yoga, “where there’s a great responsibility on me to create a safe space and container for them to work through whatever they want to work through.” This means he largely stays in the front of the room on his own mat; he’s totally hands off; and he uses invitational language, rather than instructive language. 

“It’s not, ‘stand up in warrior two,’” Byrne said. “It’s, ‘feel free to try it this way or maybe you want to try it that way.’ It’s a lot of granting permission and trying to restore a strong interoception.”

Many people suffering from traumatic stress struggle with their interoception, or their ability to feel what’s going on with their bodies. They may have trouble with feeling when they’re hungry or cold, and they definitely struggle to understand how stress is affecting their mood and decisions. 

“It’s a survival mechanism from the brain,” Byrne said. “A lot of people exposed to trauma become disembodied and can lose connection so they’re not feeling anything.”

There’s general agreement, though, that all the yoga and fitness efforts in the world won’t make a difference without a cultural change – and some reinforcement. 

“What I have been teaching,” Holbrook said, “is that it has to come from the top down, the bottom up, and the inside out. First, you have to convince the leadership of these administrations of the problem.”

That’s the top. The bottom is the training that officers receive, “emphasizing the need for caring for themselves, how to do that, and then instilling in them that it’s OK to ask for help when you need it,” he said. 

Finally, the officers themselves have to believe it, and that may be the hardest part.

Holbrook preaches that those talking about the issue should focus on terms like “resiliency” and not say “mental health,” since that has a particular stigma attached to it. And, most importantly, officers need to see that their particular department is not the only one working on this problem. 

“Some of these departments working on wellness are doing it in silence,” Holbrook said. “They don’t make any efforts to promote it. The culture is a closed culture.”

Grotton said Maine State Police leadership has internalized that message.

Efforts like the new wellness initiative at the state police, like new emphasis at the academy on personal wellness and identifying stress, are the beginning of a new response to what has been an open secret for too many years. 

“We’re doing a better job now of being a family-oriented culture; we’re changing that culture to one where it’s OK to ask for help,” Grotton said. ” … We’re dealing with it better.”