Police peer support

Mentalities at the Culpeper Town Police Department are changing. When officers had bad days in the past, they were told not to take their work home with them or even to, “Get over it.”

However, no tools or resources were provided to help process the stress of what they had experienced. This cumulative trauma has a detrimental effect on the mental health of officers, said Chief Chris Jenkins.

There is a stigma with mental health disorders within the general population, but according to Lieutenant Brittany Jenkins, this stigma is even larger amongst officers. 

“They see themselves as the helpers and it’s ingrained early on that we, ‘know what we were getting into’ and ‘signed up for this.’” 

According to data collected by Blue H.E.L.P, excluding COVID19, the number one cause of death for law enforcement is suicide.

In 2019 Lt. Jenkins, Sergeant Norma McGuckin and Sergeant Andy Berry attended the Professional Leadership Academy. A component of this training was to create a program that would make a positive impact within their agency. 

When they presented their idea to the chief, he said he had a project in mind that would mean so much more. He requested they do everything they could to prevent one of their own, or their family members, from being a suicide statistic.

And then formed the Culpeper Police Department’s Peer Support Team.

The Peer Support Team is a group of eight officers, and one Peer Support K9, Gracie. 

Lt. Jenkins, who works as the team lead, shared that they are, “wonderful listeners, are well trained, and know when to share outside resources when [they’ve] reached a situation that is outside [their] scope.” 

Members let officers know that “it’s ok to not be ok and that we know they are human beings dealing with some unimaginable stuff,” she continued.

Its mission is to make self-care a priority in a field where it seems to have never been before by teaching the officers how to live healthier lifestyles and positive coping mechanisms.

According to Major Chris Settle, there has always been an informal level of peer support “in a police officer kind of way” within the department.

At the beginning of his 45 year long career, Chief Jenkins said law enforcement leadership were prepared for potential stressors like financial problems and family life. However, no one was doing anything about it.

“Not talking about it exasperated the problem.” 

The Peer Support Team uses the team's specialized training to connect with the officers in need and help them navigate the support systems within the community. Officers who may want assistance may not be comfortable talking to their supervisor but may be more likely to respond to a peer. 

Discussions among the Peer Support Team do not get reported.

“That’s the beauty of it is it stays completely confidential,” Settle said.

The team is currently in the process of being accredited by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health to add additional confidentiality protections.

“If we can change the course for one, it’s a win in my book,” Lt. Jenkins added.

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