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'That's a massive mistake.' Police chief sounds off on lack of regular psych help for officers

Posted at 12:25 PM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 18:24:51-04

(WXYZ) — So far in 2021, 35 law enforcement officers in the U.S. have died by suicide. In 2020, that number was as high as 171. So the 7 Investigators are taking an in-depth look at the mental health crisis among police officers and what local chiefs say needs to change.

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We’ve all seen them: the arrests caught on video that stay in our collective consciousness. Officers using force, sadly, sometimes killing someone.

While local police chiefs condemn those horrific acts, they say helping officers across the country with mental health support is essential to transforming policing and preventing out-of-control incidents.

“We have to go from a bloody scene, to saving a life, to giving a ticket, to a domestic, to an adult foster care home - all that can be done in 30 minutes. And that’s a lot of emotion swirling around,” said Inkster Police Chief William Riley.

Riley says after his officers witnessed the horrific crime scene of a murdered 3-year-old last year, he made sure the city paid for their counseling.

“We bear the financial brunt of that. But we know that it is important, because we’re human beings,” said Riley.

But Riley and other chiefs say more needs to be done.

“I think that’s some of the problem that you see in our country, these officers suck up all this stress, they see all this crazy stuff and they try to hold it in. And sometimes it just gets the best of them,” said Taylor Police Chief John Blair.

Blair wants mandated mental health check-ups for officers – every year, not just when they’re hired.

“You have an original psych evaluation when you come in. It’s a very lengthy written test. Four to five hundred questions,” said Blair. “And that’s it. That’s a massive mistake,” Blair told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Blair showed us several incidents caught on his officers’ body cameras to demonstrate the stress they handle on a daily basis.

WARNING: Viewer discretion advised. The following body cam video may be hard to watch and could be triggering for some. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This series of clips shows body cam video from the Taylor Police Department on three separate incidents in 2020 where, according to Taylor Police Chief John Blair, officers could have legally and lawfully used deadly force but didn’t: 1/27/20 A man armed with a knife who had stabbed himself multiple times; 5/19/20 Armed suspects fleeing after a homicide; 12/20/20 A domestic call where officers heard screams, forced entry and witnessed a man stabbing a woman.

Whether arresting armed murder suspects, or stopping a stabbing in progress - Blair says these are examples of when police have the legal right to shoot someone – but they don’t. What they do end up with, though, is a lot of trauma after years of scenes like that.

“There’s always that impact that officers have to struggle with,” said Blair.

“What’s really hurting officers today, I think, is the negative perception that society has about them,” said University of Buffalo Professor John Violanti.

Violanti studies police health issues and agrees that regular psychological help is essential. He says law enforcement officers are at 54% greater risk of dying by suicide compared to the general public.

Statistics reported from Blue H.E.L.P. as of March 23.

“They have this high sense of responsibility, they don’t want to let anybody down,” said Violanti. “But having to come in every year and having to talk about things I think would be very helpful.”

“Much more needs to be devoted in the way of resources to this,” said Tim Bourgeois, Executive Director of the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES).

Bourgeois says Governor Gretchen Whitmer is trying to allocate a more than $14 million over the next two years for mental health training and resources.

“It’s one thing to ask for help, or seek help, it’s another thing to have competent help,” said Bourgeois.

“If they could find the funding, especially the small agencies that don’t have the huge funding, so that we can continue to get that [help]. And I think if more officers saw this was a regular thing, it would be no negative stigma to it,” said Riley.

A pilot program for the state training rolls out this summer in the police academies. It will not only help officers manage their own mental health, but it will also focus heavily on helping them to safely deal with mentally ill people they encounter on the job.