Crisis by crisis, year after year, traumas add up for people working in law enforcement. Across the nation in 2018, 145 officers died on the job. A larger number, 159, took their own lives.
Three of those were in Minnesota. One, Jerry Lannon, had been a Washington County sheriff’s deputy, SWAT team member and firearms instructor.
Many see deaths including Lannon’s as part an alarming trend: In a dangerous field, officer suicides have managed to outpace deaths in the line of duty.
Some are taking action to change future statistics.
At the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Sergeant Tim Harris has been working on a program to foster mental health and wellness among officers.
His motivation is personal.
“I look at the startling trend in terms of losing coworkers,” Harris said. “You can sit back and grieve or take initiative and ask what we can do to be better and help each other out. We’re in this field because we need to feel needed, but we have a hard time asking for help ourselves.”
Called CORE, or County Occupational Resources for Employees, the program is meant to include everyone from new recruits to retiring officers, from the records department to those working in the field.
“Trauma has a lot of different forms and it isn’t just the person working the street,” Harris said. “It’s bringing that multi-discipline group together. It’s training staff and their families. Families are an important piece for support.”
Harris has the backing of Sheriff Dan Starry, who also emphasized the need to support all staff in the department.
“We have about 260 employees in the whole organization,” he said. “Whether it’s someone from dispatch, an employee in the jail, a deputy out on the road, we want to make sure it’s all encompassing. … All employees somehow touch base with a crisis call, whether it’s a 911 call coming on a fatal accident and the raw emotion a dispatcher has to deal with or the deputies on the scene. Records staff have to make sure everything is accurate. Or maybe it’s going to deliver a death notification for someone who has lost a loved one. All of it takes a toll on an employee.”
A department-wide survey last October looked at what types of services employees wanted and would use. From that, organizers put a committee together to lead CORE efforts.
“We got that going at the start of this year,” said Starry. “They’ve met to talk about peer counseling, on and off boarding assistance, especially for long-term employees thrust into retirement.”
One important piece of the CORE program will be an employee-to-employee support program. Harris said they’re working to make the offering available to employees sometime in the next year.
“We’re putting folks in place to support others,” he said, “but we need systems in place to support them too.”
The county does have existing employee assistance and wellness programs. However, said Harris, “This takes it to the next level, with the cultural fit for the sheriff’s office specifically. … We’re willingly stepping up by going into traumatic situations. There’s going to be some fallout from that. It’s the resiliency that helps you get through it.”
Sheriff Dan Starry expressed similar sentiments.
“Many have stories they can recall,” he said. “I remember going to my first motor vehicle fatality. With that being compounded year after year, there has to be a release. We want to make sure for our employees that they can release that stress and learn to manage it in healthy ways. … Many professions, they have a choice. In our profession there is no choice. We have to respond. That’s why we got into this. We want to help people.”
Ultimately, Starry is optimistic about this and other suicide-prevention efforts in Washington County.
“We’re doing some really good things for mental health and suicide prevention,” he said. “We have a crisis response unit. We started a Step It Up campaign to reduce the number of cases we’re seeing in our jails. This is another program. We’re really excited, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”