Critical Training

Sheriff Leon Lott’s program proactively battles PTSD



Photography by Robert Clark

Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the most debilitating, albeit least understood, emotional disorders suffered by those living in the wake of trauma. The condition was first identified after World War I, when many soldiers came back from battlefields suffering from what was then referred to as “shell shock.” Soldiers today returning from overseas deployments are the ones most associated with the disorder, though not all military veterans suffer from it, and soldiers are not the only ones who deal with PTSD.

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies, whose experiences in the field often parallel those of deployed infantry and special operations troops, are also highly susceptible to PTSD and its mentally and emotionally wrenching symptoms.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott not only recognized this susceptibility in his own deputies years ago, but also  determined that something had to be done about it — and not in the traditional sense. “Traditional methods are far too often nothing more than a Band-Aid on an already infected wound,” the sheriff says.

He was troubled by the mental and emotional fatigue he feared his deputies risked as a result of the ordinary stresses of life combined with the often harsh realities of patrol work, and a world beyond the department that had little, if any, experiential appreciation for what police work was really like.

Leon knew that his officers probably were not suffering any more or less than other law enforcement officers nationwide; however, the risks to his officers existed nonetheless. He had, at times, witnessed those risks manifesting themselves into smoldering emotional struggles for at least one or two officers serving within his near-800-plus-member Richland County Sheriff’s Department. And by 2015 — with the ongoing national discussion geared toward how to help soldiers dealing with PTSD — he knew it was past time to take action for his own men and women.

“As I became increasingly aware of how and why these returning soldiers were suffering, it became obvious to me that my deputies not only risked the same, but that some of them might also be concealing what they were feeling,” says Sheriff Lott. “That reality had to be addressed.”

As he explains, he had a captain serving in the RCSD who killed an attacker in a gunfight, a lieutenant who was wounded in a gunfight and believed he would die before being rescued, a sergeant who lost his eye in a gunfight, and another sergeant who witnessed her law enforcement partner’s suicide 90 days before she was forced to take the life of a suspect who attacked her with a knife. Some officers were willing to talk about their traumatic experiences, yet many others were not.

Dealing with the problem after the incident or incidents would not be effective. It had to be dealt with before. “I had to make sure my men and women were and are conditioned and prepared for any and all physical and psychological trauma risks before they ever hit the street,” the sheriff says.

The non-traditional training began in January 2016 when he instituted a pre-patrol period of pre-PTSD counseling and training appropriately dubbed Critical Incident and PTSD Awareness Training. All of his newly hired deputies began the pre-PTSD training during entry level law enforcement training. Experienced officers were also required to go through the training. Furthermore, the sheriff’s approach to PTSD included a stepped-up public and agency awareness effort.

“We started talking about it, telling everyone,” he says. “This increased public awareness effort is combined with effective training that we hoped and believed would preempt and mitigate the onset of PTSD. The preempting was what made it unique. I am convinced it has helped, and quite a lot.”

If nothing else, the program has enabled deputies to talk about and share their experiences with other officers. That is vital to the emotional and cultural well-being of the department.

“There is a tremendous realized benefit anytime you can sit down among your peers and freely talk about what you are dealing with professionally and personally,” says RCSD Maj. Roxana Meetze, a 23-year veteran of the force who also teaches a portion of the pre-PTSD program. “A lot of those who have attended the course really appreciate us being very raw and upfront with them about the process — what they can expect, for instance, if there is an officer-involved shooting or some other critical incident.”    

Roxana adds, “I wish we had had this program years ago when I was first coming along.”

The trauma associated with PTSD – previously known as combat stress, shell shock, battle fatigue, or any of the other labels used to refer to the disorder – does not simply stem from combat action, but any trauma seen or experienced. “We deal with car wrecks, shootings, gunshot wounds, suicides, murders, and all sorts of grim crime scenes,” says Lt. Larry Payne, a 22-year veteran of the RCSD. Among his various responsibilities, he also serves as a pre-PTSD conditioning program instructor. “There are also child abuse issues you are confronted with; children telling you what has been done to them. That stays with you.”

Roxana says, “You will never forget the smell of a dead body. That also stays with you. You also get into second guessing yourself, playing the ‘what if’ game with yourself, particularly after a shooting incident. Shooting and killing someone is a very overwhelming experience, and it is not what anyone wants to experience, ever. The paranoia sets in after the fact. You ask yourself was there anything I could have done differently. It is simply a terrible, life-altering experience.”

Not all who experience trauma suffer from PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), approximately 7 to 8 percent of the population will experience some level of PTSD at some point in their lives. Though experts have yet to get their heads around the actual numbers, those percentages increase dramatically among personnel serving in frontline military units, police departments, fire departments, and other first responder teams. The problem is that those suffering from PTSD, or those exposed to stress and extreme risk, often hide or suppress their feelings. Or the disorder itself lies dormant for months or even years after a traumatic event or series of events.

The military services, military medical practitioners, and a number of military veterans groups have only just begun to appreciate the risk of PTSD to combat veterans. But the understanding is still only on the surface level, and the symptoms are as varied as they are problematic. Leon maintains that the uniqueness of the RCSD program hinges on it beginning on the front end of an officer’s career.

Developed in-house by the RCSD with the help of a criminal justice professor, a few chaplains, and psychologists, the program looks at the various physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms of PTSD. But, it is also so much more. Instruction includes coping strategies; myths; truths; how to reduce, control, or respond to stress-reactions from critical events; the importance of family, friends, churches, and support groups in dealing with PTSD; and, department and extra-departmental resources for the affected person. Best of all, it has started everyone in the department talking.

“The RCSD’s pre-PTSD conditioning training removes the stigma or the perception that being a cop means you have to prove yourself, you have to be tough, and you have to not tell others how you feel,” says Roxana.

Larry agrees. “In the past, there was this misperception that you would be perceived as weak if you admitted that you were somehow struggling a bit emotionally,” he says. “That wrong thinking was and is the biggest problem.”

Another instructor, RCSD Staff Sergeant Kellye Hendrick, a 14-year veteran of the department, was one of the first officers on a grisly scene in which a child had been burned to death in a mobile home fire. Though still and forever troubled by the horror of that experience, Kellye says she believes one of the program’s strengths exists within the dynamic of the students observing and listening to the experiences of veteran officers.

“When the students see us standing before them and sharing real-world experiences that they too will likely encounter, the student will often say to himself or herself, ‘Hey, if that person dealt with what they have seen and yet they are okay, I will be, too,’” Kellye explains. “That’s key.”

Leon says, “Most civilians cannot relate to the effects of a critical incident or repeated incidents on a person. PTSD is real. It’s damaging. And I want to ensure my deputies are able to recognize it in themselves and others.”

Rebecca McEachern, Ph.D., the RCSD’s in-house psychologist, says, “This pre-PTSD training is a necessary and beneficial program. I meet with each of the deputies when they are first hired, and I encourage any and all of them to call me any time of the day or night if they need to talk.”

The RCSD program is not only designed to prevent or lessen the effects of PTSD before it surfaces, but it also helps identify the disorder even if it is hiding or lying dormant.

Moreover, the accountability factor means better-informed deputies will be able to identify the onset of PTSD in fellow officers, helping the sufferer better understand and cope with the symptoms.

Is there a downside to the program? No. It works, says the sheriff. However, like anything else, more needs to be done. When it comes to emotional struggles, conditioning programs are always a work in progress. RCSD deputies and other officers say that the culture is changing and more officers are talking and sharing — which is vital to the success of the program — but it is never enough.

“The sense of openness and sharing is perhaps not quite as open as we would like it to be,” says Roxana. “I say that because of a recent suicide we had.” She is referring to the loss of RCSD Deputy Derek Fish, who took his own life in July 2017.

Leon said during a press conference after the suicide that the department’s training simply was not enough to prevent the loss of Deputy Fish. “We simply must speak out more about suicide as well as issues and symptoms of PTSD,” he says. “That, I see, is where public awareness is as important as the training itself.”

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