Counseling cops: learning how to navigate the law enforcement subculture.
Article Type: Column
Subject: Chaplains (Psychological aspects)
Health counseling (Usage)
Psychiatric personnel (Services)
Author: Fair, David J.
Pub Date: 12/22/2009
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Winter, 2009 Source Volume: 12 Source Issue: 4
Topic: Event Code: 360 Services information Canadian Subject Form: Health counselling
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 216961290

When I became a police chaplain almost 25 years ago, I thought all I had to do was grab my Bible, flashlight, and cap before hopping into the seat of a police cruiser. I had visions of riding along with officers who would be open about their problems, want to talk about issues, and thank me for being there for them. Boy was I wrong.

Officers thought I was a pipeline back to the chief and that all I wanted to do was see them converted and singing in my church choir. Thankfully, we were both wrong.

Today, after retiring from over two decades on the job as a law enforcement chaplain and counselor, I can truthfully say that what I have learned can save you years of grief in trying to understand cops.

Law enforcement is a subculture all its own. If I had known that, I'd have saved myself a lot of grief. By the same token, however, I wouldn't have learned these important lessons to share with chaplains and counselors who want to be effective with our men and women in blue.

I stumbled along for five years attempting to learn what makes policemen and women tick, along with the nuances of the job. I determined that there is a "blue circle," or "blue line," as some officers call it. You could also call it a yellow line, which refers to yellow and black crime scene tape. Civilians are on the outside of the tape, and officers are on the inside. It is a clear line of demarcation. Officers, civilian crime scene investigators, communications operators, unit secretaries, and clean up crews are allowed inside the tape. Everyone else, including the media, is on the outside. One recent addition to the group allowed inside that blue circle or yellow line is police chaplains.

There is an additional group of "holy of holies," so to speak. It is a small core inside the infamous blue circle, and only cops are allowed inside that club. Try as they might to get in, it is a place where non-sworn personnel are excluded.

While law enforcement chaplains who have earned their stripes are able to function and apply their wares inside the blue circle, as well as across the yellow tape, they aren't usually allowed into the core. That omission creates a void of chaplaincy services when they are needed the most.

To combat that issue, some chaplains choose to enter the law enforcement academy and become commissioned officers. That makes them a bigger part of the brotherhood of the badge. It also allows them inside that core where the real business is done--the inner circle where cops only talk to other cops.

After five years on the streets as a chaplain, I started the law enforcement academy and went to night school with cadets twice my size and half my age. I graduated second in my class, had a fairly good showing on the pistol range, and obtained my Texas Peace Officer's license by passing the exam on the first try.

This maneuver paid off when my department's SWAT team was involved in an incident where two officers were shot and a suspect was neutralized.

Our department had several chaplains, but I was the only commissioned officer. The SWAT team members opened up to me before other chaplains because of the brotherhood of the badge. I carried a Bible in my hip pocket, but I also carried a gun and had trained as one of the team negotiators. I'm not saying all chaplains need or should go through the police academy, but it does help. The chaplains learn the lingo and the pecking order within departments and agencies by completing the academy.

While I'm speaking from a chaplain's point of view, the same can be said for psychologists, counselors, or anyone else whose career intersects with law enforcement and who wants to be more effective with those they serve.

Admittedly, while it is often more difficult for these practitioners to take the time to go through an academy, it is easy enough to learn about the law enforcement subculture. This opens the line of communication and makes it much more likely that an officer will benefit from his or her encounter with the service provider.

In looking at the law enforcement subculture, we find the lingo sprinkled with 10-codes, cop jargon, acronyms, facial expressions, and body language.

Those in the mental health field might find it interesting that the first level of force on the law enforcement continuum-of-force scale is command presents. It is how the of ricer is dressed, and the demeanor displayed through voice and body language. The next level up the scale is verbal commands, and then empty-hand combat.

Type A personality types are naturally drawn to law enforcement. They need to be in control, are aggressive, and never let them see you sweat. There are certainly Type B personalities in law enforcement, but the bulk of the manpower has Type A traits.

Type A personalities are the hardest to counsel, in my opinion, and this comes largely from the need to be in control. Officers are taught in the academy to take charge, be in command, and show no emotion. A show of emotion can be a sign of loss of control. It can be perceived as weakness by other officers leading to the reputation that the officer won't be there to back you up when needed.

Members of law enforcement have a fear of appearing weak, needy, or unable to stand the heat. These are key reasons they resist counseling even when it's needed. There is a stigma attached to seeing a mental health provider of any kind.

It is somewhat easier for a chaplain to function once the officers have accepted him, or once he has paid his dues. Chaplains pay their dues by riding with officers on patrol, attending briefings at all hours, and being readily responsive when called. If a chaplain won't respond when needed he looses credibility among officers and civilian employees.

A mental health provider can bond with officers, but it takes time. One of the best ways to gain credibility and the confidence of the department or agency personnel is to become a consultant to the Crisis and Hostage Negotiation Team. Another way is to teach a course or seminar on responding to calls for deranged individuals.

A number of states have created a mental health deputy or officer program. These men and women are trained in responding to and defusing mentally ill individuals. Not all officers in these states receive the certification training so the door is open for mental health providers to train them to deal with this population in layman's language.

Police officers, deputies, and other law enforcement officials must go through some mental health screening at the beginning of their careers. One of the most popular screening tools is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventor (MMPI) personality test. After scoring, the test is accompanied by an interview with a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Sometimes officers have negative contacts with mental health professionals. This might be part of a fit-for-duty interview or evaluation. Normally these interviews are ordered by an agency following a complaint that an officer may have used excessive force or that the officer has personal involvement with alcohol or drug use. These encounters are often adversarial because the officer is at risk of losing his or her gun and being saddled with a desk job if they are deemed no longer able to work the streets. Cops refer to it as being assigned to the "Rubber Gun Squad."

Mental health providers need to choose which side of the street they are going to work. They are either involved directly with the agency as a consultant or trainer, or they take on a more adversarial role of conducting fit-for-duty evaluations. Any agency worth their salt will not use the same mental health provider for both. Officers will not trust someone who just recommended taking another officer's firearm away as a consultant.

Mental health professionals can be involved in critical incident debriefings and have the responsibility of talking an officer through a hard event like a line-of-duty shooting. This function is different than deciding if an officer is fit for duty. There is one caveat: following an interview, a mental health professional may recommend that an officer involved in a shooting take a few days off to clear his or her head. That is different than assessing whether or not the officer should keep his or her job.

The best way to learn about cops is to be among them. This takes an investment of your time, but it's worth it if you want to cultivate the trust of officers and civilian employees of the agency.

Some psychologists and counselors contribute their time to our men and women in blue. They consider it an investment in their practice and the community that can reap indirect benefits. Mental health professionals also work with the families of officers and department civilian employees. Other counselors and therapists will enter into an arrangement where they are on call to a department or agency and bill by the hour. Some larger agencies, especially state and federal agencies, may hire chaplains and mental health professionals as full- time employees.

Most of what I have addressed is applicable to both chaplains and mental health professionals. Certainly there are some differences that apply, but one similarity is that the officers often have a natural distrust of chaplains and other mental health professionals, at least initially. With an investment of time and a willingness to learn, chaplains and other mental health practitioners can navigate the interesting law enforcement subculture. Eventually, they will build a grateful alliance and lifelong friends in the process.

By David J. Fair, PhD, CHS-IV, ACMC-III

David J. Fair, PhD, CHS-IV, ACMC-III holds a PhD in pastoral counseling and psychology from Bethel Bible College and Seminary.

Chaplain Fair is president of the American Association of Police Officers and CEO of Homeland Crisis Institute. He is certified in Homeland Security Level Four (CHS-IV) and Certified by the Academy of Certified Chaplains Level Three (ACMC-III). As a member of the Academy of Certified Chaplains Advisory Board, he also serves on the curriculum committee of the American Board for Certification in Homeland Security as well as the Editorial Advisory Board for Inside Homeland Security[R].

Chaplain Fair serves the Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Military Forces, TXSG-HQ. He is a reserve deputy/chaplain for the Brown County Sheriff's Department and chaplain emeritus of the Brownwood Police Department. He retired as a chaplain for Brownwood Regional Medical Center after 25 years of service. Fair serves on the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the Center for Crisis Management/American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, and is board certified as a crisis chaplain and in forensic traumatology. He is also a member of the American Psychotherapy Association and the head of the Chaplain Board.
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