By James D. Fox, Chief of Police, Newport News, Virginia; and Audrey L. Honig, Chief Psychologist, Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department; and Chair, Police Psychological Services Section, IACP
ome time ago in the Newport News Police Department (NNPD), two officers who served as reservists in the U.S. armed forces were called to active duty. The first officer served a year before returning to duty in the department, but then the news came that he was to be called back up after what seemed like barely six months. The department had already been notified that the deployment of the second officer, with less than three years in patrol but with prior active military service, had been extended to 18 months instead of the expected one year. These were some of Newport News’s best officers, and the department was starting to feel the pain—but it also wanted to support its citizen soldiers.
Unfortunately, the officers were also feeling the strain of their situations. These officers were becoming disillusioned, even malcontents. They felt forgotten and abandoned by their police department, the “family” they once loved, to which they had given so much. They felt that because they were out of sight, they were also out of mind, as the old saying goes—missing out on everything from the camaraderie to the departmental promotional activities, while they were the ones suffering the day-to-day struggles just to survive while fighting for their country.
The officers’ families felt just as abandoned by the department, left on their own without any support or even acknowledgment. To them, this treatment did not seem right. What suddenly happened to the law enforcement family everyone was always praising? The department did not purposefully intend to ignore these citizen soldiers and their families; it simply failed to recognize that something needed to be done about them—a perfect example of benign neglect.
Offering Support and Minimizing Disruption
Newport News is not the only law enforcement agency struggling with these issues. Many agencies across the United States are developing policies, procedures, and protocols to improve response to this situation. Interestingly, the wants and needs of both “vet cops” and their agencies are amazingly similar. The programs at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) and at the NNPD are excellent examples of efforts to support activated personnel; however, each program still has room to grow, and both agencies will continue to evaluate and modify their efforts.
Chiefs no longer have the luxury of thinking that activation will not really affect their agencies and that individual deployments will be over in short order. In fact, the cumulative effect of each soldier’s reactivation takes a palpable toll on both the individual and the organization. Given the number of personnel subject to call-up and the types of position, rank, and security clearance level many hold, they are likely to continue to receive multiple call-ups for longer periods of activation.
Cross-training employees is essential to reduce the disruption to the organization’s daily business practices, as is some formal plan for making activated personnel continue to feel a part of the organization. Some employees are gone so long that they will require formal, prolonged reintegration back into the department on their return. In the past, this process was handled in a somewhat informal, haphazard way, and few officers came out of it particularly satisfied.
The first step toward program development is to research the “state of the art” and determine what other agencies are doing to support their activated personnel. Newport News also took the step of soliciting department input specifically from its citizen soldiers, thereby not only achieving greater participation and program ownership but also creating individualized program components specific to the needs of the department’s personnel and how the organization does business.
Focus Group Feedback
The IACP, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Affairs, sponsored focus groups from around the nation reflective of all types of vet cops, further expanding on the notion that enormous benefit can be derived from going directly to the source. In-depth interviews were also conducted on a subset of the group. A larger population survey, followed by an interim report and then a summit involving all the vested parties, will ultimately produce a “menu” of recommendations from which agencies can develop their own policies, procedures, and protocols for supporting and reintegrating their vet cops. Representatives from both the LASD and the NNPD attended these informal focus groups in an effort to gain additional insights and identify potential program modifications for their own agencies as well.
These focus groups discussed a variety of issues from mobilization to reintegration, not only into their home agencies but into their households as well. Any topic was fair game. The discussion group included transitional training concerns, officer support, assistance for the officers’ families, and psychological concerns. Training issues, particularly those involving the change in rules of engagement and motor memory, were of particular concern. There was spirited discussion about the level and extent of pertinent transitional training that should be implemented upon the employees’ return.
Participants indicated their desire for the establishment of pre- and postdeployment peer groups for themselves and their families as well as other support mechanisms such as care packages; information regarding media-related events associated with the agency, including the agency newsletter; correspondence with other employees; and so forth. It was of critical importance for these officers to be able to trust their agencies to look after their families while they were away from home.
One suggestion the groups made was to establish a liaison officer for each agency or bureau, who would facilitate much of the training and other transitional issues back into the organization. Interestingly, these recommendations were consistent across most, if not all, deployed law enforcement personnel, regardless of where they were employed, with only slight variations in exactly how the process would be specifically implemented. The same is true for the logistical check-in process. Some organizations recommend a formal check-in and checkout procedure for equipment, while others prefer to secure the officers’ same equipment for their return.
All groups agree that there are definite benefits to an agency of employing returning combat veterans; however, skill sets that these officers may need to address include rules of engagement, mindset, approach to the public, and driver training. It was unanimously agreed that the key to successful reintegration rests with training supervisors in detecting early warning signs of difficulty in readjusting and referring officers with these difficulties to appropriate resources to provide the most proactive support possible for returning veteran officers.
For further information or sample polices, procedures, and protocols, readers can contact Dr. Honig via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or Chief Fox at email@example.com. The IACP Police Psychological Services Section Web site can be accessed through http://psych.iacp.org. ■