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Officer Safety Corner: Prioritizing Emotional & Mental Health through Peer Support

John P. Woods, Assistant Director, National Security Investigations Division

In February 2011, 32-year-old Jaime Zapata, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), was shot and killed in the line of duty in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. His death was the first line-of-duty fatality for ICE and a tragic loss to his colleagues and the agency. The days and months following his death revealed the importance of coming together and supporting one another during times of personal need, crisis, and tragedy.

In response to Zapata’s death, ICE officials recognized the need for a formal crisis response program that would provide support for the emotional or psychological trauma that could arise as a result of ICE’s work and mission. Members of ICE leadership developed a steering committee and began researching other law enforcement agencies who had established peer support programs, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Air Marshal Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. As a result of their research, the ICE steering committee developed a policy for a support program. They hired clinical advisor Dr. Ken Middleton, a seasoned mental health professional with years of experience working with support programs in law enforcement agencies, to lead their efforts. Together, Dr. Middleton and the steering committee worked with ICE leadership to develop a program that would provide a continuum of support to ICE personnel both before and after a crisis. As a result of their work, former ICE Director John Morton signed the ICE Peer Support Program into policy on February 22, 2013.

The ICE Peer Support Program is an agency-wide, voluntary initiative that trains ICE employees on how to offer assistance and support to their colleagues in times of personal need or following critical or traumatic incidents such as assaults; hostage situations; suicides; major injuries; direct or indirect involvement in shootings; or threats to life, family, or property.

The program has two main objectives. First, it aims to create a trusting and caring environment, increasing individual employees’ personal resilience. Second, it strives to minimize potential negative reactions to trauma and accelerate recovery from abnormal events, notably those that are unique to the law enforcement profession. The program offers employees, and in some cases, their family members, an opportunity to speak with trusted men and women certified to administer support. The program explicitly states that it does not replace psychological treatment or professional employee assistance program services. Rather, it is considered the first step toward getting professional help.

Within two days of the program’s launch in 2013, more than 200 ICE employees expressed interest in joining the program as a peer support member. Members selected for the ICE Peer Support Program are chosen based on their responses to a questionnaire, with full endorsement from their chain of command and after an interview. Upon selection, members must successfully complete an intensive two-week training course, including written and oral examinations, where they learn about cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to trauma and develop the skills to address them. During this course, members are introduced to real-life scenarios and learn how to administer support within 24 hours of a crisis to help individuals avoid long-term negative effects. The training course also exposes members to issues beyond what may traditionally be considered traumatic events, such as proper death notification and suicide prevention, so they are ready to assist with any tragedy or event upon completion of the course.

Once certified, members are required to provide peer services as outlined in the Peer Support Program Handbook, a guidebook outlining member roles and responsibilities. They must also adhere to ethical and conduct standards and confidentiality provisions and comply with quarterly advanced training requirements.

While many peer support programs administer support services only immediately after an incident, the ICE Peer Support Program provides a continuum of support. A large portion of the training focuses on crisis intervention, or help with personal, interpersonal, or work-related issues that, at times, may seem overwhelming. This program ensures that individuals have access to training and resources that prepare them to handle the inherent stresses and potential dangers of the profession, ultimately striving to continue to keep them safe while on the job.

The ICE Peer Support Program teaches its members to understand crisis as a general state of anxiety people experience whenever they believe they cannot solve a particular problem. As a result, the main duty of a peer support member is to administer crisis intervention by attempting to help an affected person regain a sense of control through a structured four-step model:

Step 1: Build and Maintain Rapport: A member initiates contact with individuals who have been affected by a crisis and makes them feel safe.

Step 2: Assessment: A member asks questions that allow individuals affected by a crisis to gain clarity about the situation and what has happened.

Step 3: Action: A member helps individuals decide if there is a course of action about the situation that needs to be taken.

Step 4: Refer to Outside Resources: A member provides affected individuals with additional resources, if needed.

Each step of the model ultimately offers affected individuals skills to help them solve their own problems. Whenever they feel anxiety or a loss of control, they may refer to a peer support member or the resources and tools administered through the ICE Peer Support Program to help them make wise choices in their daily lives. This expanded model of peer support incorporates the concept that making better decisions in daily struggles, with the help of a trusted peer, builds self-confidence and removes the stigma of asking for help, both of which greatly improve an individual’s resilience to the traumatic events that law enforcement officials will undoubtedly face.

Since the ICE Peer Support Program launched in 2013, there have been three basic training classes, generating 60 dedicated ICE Peer Support Program members who work vigilantly to administer support to their ICE colleagues in times of personal need and crisis. Five training sessions will be delivered this year, and 125 more members will be added to the roster. The program has made a considerable impact on the ICE community by breaking down barriers that prevent law enforcement professionals from seeking help. Many special agents have reported they would be unlikely to seek assistance from an outsider who might not understand the law enforcement culture, but if they could talk to a trusted coworker who “gets it,” who has been trained in crisis intervention, and who offers confidentiality, they would. Because peer support members are fellow special agents and officers, they have the unique ability to relate to the individual in need.

Peer support programs are increasingly considered an important and valued resource, transforming the culture of what it means to ask for help. For organizations seeking to implement a similar program, there are several lessons that can be learned from the success of the ICE Peer Support Program. One of the most crucial steps in ICE’s success was hiring a mental health professional with a deep understanding of the law enforcement landscape. Second, by developing messaging that communicated the importance of the ICE Peer Support Program, ICE ensured that employees and prospective members understood the need for such a valuable program. Finally, supportive leadership has been vital for the program’s success. ICE leadership understood the intrinsic value and need for the peer support program since its inception and was willing to dedicate significant financial resources to ensure its success.

The ICE Peer Support Program is a valuable case study in the importance of prioritizing the mental and emotional health challenges facing the law enforcement profession. According to HSI Special Agent Juanae Johnson, “Being a member of the ICE Peer Support Program has renewed my passion for my work. When you know your management and leadership are behind you and allocating the resources to support you, you feel secure in what you do.”1

The nature of law enforcement work exposes ICE employees to potential emotional and psychological trauma. A profession that requires such bravery also requires increased opportunities for support. While the death of Jaime Zapata was a tragic event in ICE’s history, his dedication to the mission of ICE lives on through the ICE Peer Support Program and its commitment to prioritizing the emotional and mental health of its employees. ♦

1Juanae Johnson (Special Agent, Homeland Security Investigations—Houston Office), phone interview, March 2014.

Please cite as:

John P. Woods, “Prioritizing Emotional & Mental Health through Peer Support,” Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 81 (June 2014): 10–11.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 6, June 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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