Tabitha Clay is an investigative journalist with a focus on criminal justice and policing. She previously reported for the Rio Grande Sun.

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Police culture in New Mexico is changing. Fast receding are the days when officers quietly drank to drown their trauma after a particularly horrific day at work. Peer support and mental health resources are at the forefront of that change.

Discussions about officer mental health have become more prevalent in recent years, and the data is startling. The 2008 Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) found that 23 percent of male and 25 percent of female officers reported more suicidal thoughts than the general population (13.5 percent). In a previous study, suicide rates were three times higher in police than in other municipal workers, researchers found.

And PoliceChief magazine analyzed various sources to find that in 2019 more officers in the United States died by suicide than in the line of duty.

The Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act was passed by Congress in 2017. It provided funding for the Department of Justice to publish case studies of programs designed primarily to address officer psychological health and well-being.

The changing national focus on officer wellbeing mirrors efforts within the state.

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Law Enforcement Academy interim director Benjamin Baker said when he talks about the trauma first responders face, it’s more than just trauma related to a single incident.

“I’ve often described some of the work I’ve done over the years as a constant stream of vicarious trauma,” Baker said in an interview. “Based on the things you see, the things you feel, the things you experience, that repetitive nature of that and the need to be able (particularly in law enforcement) to push those things into a space so that you can continue to charge forward does seem to have a cumulative and compounding effect on people’s wellbeing.”

Baker is talking about something that officers and other first responders have known for years. Being close to trauma or being involved in traumatic situations day in and day out can leave deep scars.

It’s not just those officers on the front lines that see the impact of trauma in their own lives.

Baker, who previously led the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General’s Internet Crimes Against Children division said that even the process of investigating those crimes can be damaging to the mental health of investigators.

“There’s no safe space in and around these traumatic events,” Baker said. “For the purposes of mental well-being, you experience things regularly. Vicariously, I experienced a significant amount during the time that I supervised folks who conduct Internet Crimes Against Children in child pornography and exploitation investigations.”

Baker is open about the trauma he experienced during his long career in law enforcement and he said he opens up for a reason. In his present role at the LEA, he’s using his experience to teach officers attending the police academy for the first time, or those there for a refresher certification course, to help new officers understand the importance of seeking help.

“I have visited with every single one of our classes,” Baker said. “I share with them, in a very intimate way, my experiences… for the purposes of hopefully creating an environment that not only is fertile for us to continue to evolve and do better. But most importantly, that may contribute positively to a police officer’s well-being and not heading down one of those roads that we’ve discussed earlier related to substances, addiction, suicide and strife.”

Baker’s hope is that by speaking to each class, he can quickly reach departments throughout the state. Made up of cadets sent by smaller agencies, each class provides the opportunity to improve the stigma around seeking mental health treatment. By holding himself up and sharing his personal story, Baker hopes to reduce that stigma.

Changing the Culture

New Mexico State Police Sgt. Janice Madrid is the commander of the crisis negotiation team, peer officer support team (POST) and crisis intervention teams (CIT) for the state’s police force. Her work is focused on the mental health of officers.

“I think that a lot of people, they don’t see the day-to day-operations that a law enforcement officer would go through,” Madrid said. “New Mexico State Police is a very broad department. We have several areas [in which] officers may experience different things within their scope of their duties.”

Madrid used the changes in stress levels during the day for NMSP’s many patrol officers as an example of hidden stressors. 

“They operate between extremely high levels of stress to low levels of stress. They could be doing a traffic stop, where they’re speaking to an elderly person and that could be a low-level stress encounter,” she said. “Their next call for service may be a domestic [violence incident] in progress, or somebody has been shot or injured…so their stress levels fluctuate.”

Police have found that a peer support team, made up of other officers who have shared experience in law enforcement, has helped to reach officers who might otherwise have been uncomfortable seeking assistance.

“We utilize a peer officer support team to mitigate the adverse impacts of critical incidents, like duty related events, personal events, personnel events, confidential structured meetings, informal meetings; and we do it after major events, critical incidences,” Madrid said.

The CIT and POST teams help in all sorts of situations, including acting as family liaisons in stressful situations.

“Currently we are in the process of rolling out a mobile app,” Madrid said. The app will allow NMSP officers to reach out for help with everything from substance abuse and suicidal ideations to divorce and personal struggles.

“It’s completely confidential,” Madrid said. “None of their personal info is kept.”

Madrid says the new app just builds on what is already a changing culture and proactive approach to officer wellbeing. Each time an officer is in need of help, Madrid’s team is activated.

“Either I’m notified of an event that transpired or if an officer in a specific district is going through either personal matters or having a hard time with something they may have seen or been involved with,” Madrid said. “I would then in turn deploy a POST team member. I would identify somebody within that district and then deploy them.”

Madrid noted that ultimately, it’s up to each individual officer in need to accept the offered help, but she sees the culture changing. 

“I believe we’re headed in the right direction as far as getting our officers more aware of what it is that they could be going through or experiencing with different types of events,” Madrid said. “We’re providing our officers the necessary basic skill sets in responding to dealing with people that have mental health issues, as well as providing them the help that they may feel they need at some point in their career, whether it’s today, tomorrow, or whether it’s ten years down the line.”

The first annual New Mexico Public Safety Resiliency Summit is planned for October. Baker said that the LEA will be taking a proactive role in the Summit, which is organized by the Public Safety Psychology Group headed by Dr. Troy Rodgers, a prominent police psychologist in the state. The Summit will focus on vicarious trauma, overcoming life-and-death injuries, PTSD, Suicide and active wellness, including meditation and yoga.

“The goals are to caretake and proactively roundtable, discuss, train and learn about things related to suicide prevention, as well as mental health awareness and wellbeing for public safety professionals,” Baker said.