HPD has a growing number of peer support mentors ready to help officers in times of traumatic aftermath

The brain stores life’s dilemmas and unresolved stress issues like your backpack totes around your ready tools and everyday necessities.

Like backpack storage, you brain keeps on board unanswered stressful questions and emotional issues that never seem to be ameliorated.

Many of these burdens usually come from traumatic situations at home or in the workplace.

This is especially true for police officers, who frequently must be relied upon for answers and corrective actions. They also put their life on the line every day. That’s stressful enough.

The everyday backpack of an officer may easily get overburdened with a vast accumulation of traumatic events that seriously affect his/her job performance, overall attitude and mental health.

“Many police officers think it’s not okay to say you’re not okay,” said Sgt. Leurena Reese of the Peer Support Unit of the Employee Services Division. “It’s okay to say you’re not okay. It’s okay to ask for help.”

In today’s Houston Police Department, the Peer Support Unit is but one of many “tools on your tool belt” organized to help officers in time of personal crisis and severely tested mental health.

HPD officers actually have a growing number of those “tools” and a growing number of fully trained peer mentors (fellow officers) available to talk, anonymously, on any shift. On any subject. And the number of those mentoring individuals is on the upswing.

Peer Assistance Grows!

National surveys show these “backpacks” have gotten so heavy that an increased number of officers resort to drugs, alcohol or – we hate to say it here – suicide.

Peer Support was formed almost three years ago when suicides in the department were higher than the number of line-of-duty deaths.

In the beginning, Peer Support consisted of chaplains and specially trained police officers to serve as a relief valve when officers are feeling extraordinary stress from the job, the extra job, the marriage/home life, from health issues and the financial obligation portion of their lives.

Now the unit has so far trained 165 officers to serve as peer mentors. This ever-growing team also includes HPD Psychological Services and – the Badge & Gun is proud to say – the HPOU “HOPA” program set up eight years ago as the brainchild of former HPOU President (now sergeant) Joe Gamaldi.

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            Interested in becoming a Peer Support Mentor? Call 713-308-1230

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HOPA stands for Houston Officer Peer Assistance, a group of volunteer current and retired officers available 24/7 to help officers who are toting a backpack that weights them down to levels of low self-esteem, unsteady job performance and a pessimistic outlook.

HOPA became a national model for police departments all across the continent. All of it was word of mouth without any fancy promotional techniques. Instead of shutting up, HOPA put up.

The vast HPD team not only includes HOPA, Peer Support and Psych Services, but also the Police and Clergy Alliance (PACA) and the prayer warriors in both the HPOU and HPD prayer rooms.

Sgt. Reese said Peer Support is doing more than ever – to carry forth the analogy – to lighten the backpacks of Houston police officers and other law enforcement personnel throughout the Texas Gulf Coast. And let’s don’t forget the civilians in HPD. Their backpacks are also included.

Reducing Officer Stress

Reese’s enthusiasm shows when she describes the increased number of police wellness experts in the department, readily citing the 165 figure and the likelihood the number continues to increase, thanks to the support of the Houston Police Officers Union.

HPOU offers room space for frequent training sessions and has seen respectable turnouts in recent months.

The sergeant tells us why this training is important.

“Peer Support’s mission is reducing the stress load in that proverbial backpack,” she said.

“The body keeps score. The brain will keep track of all critical incidents or stressful situations. There is a short period of time when you should be talking to someone about these incidents and address them to relieve the traumatic stress.

“This should be done without developing negative coping behaviors such as anger issues, alcoholism and drug abuse. You must take positive steps to stimulate the brain positively, not negatively.

“We offer confidential support for all HPD employees, including civilians, during times of personal and professional crisis. We want to help mitigate the challenges they’re facing and will be there to support them.”

Union leaders believe this ongoing and growing approach has been effective although quantification is sometimes difficult. Let’s give it a try.

HOPA leader and HPOU 2nd Vice President Tim Whitaker offered some possible evidence, quoting data from Blue Help, a national organization whose mission is to enhance citizen awareness of mental health issues and suicidal tendencies of police officers in America.

“The latest Blue Help report brings us sad news for the nation but good news and brighter hopes for the Houston Police Department,” Whitaker said.

In sum, up until the end of July 2021, 81 police officers have taken their own life – 79 males and two females.

“But none of them are our fellow Houston police officers,” HPOU’s 2nd vice president reports.

As we know, HPD has experienced an extraordinary number of line-of-duty deaths the past two years. Peer Support team members were front and center at hospitals and at roll calls in the hours immediately following these great tragedies – and many days thereafter.

Peer Support coordinator Steve Duffy said the unit has a coordination plan for each and every significant event that happens in the department, saying, “Every month these 165 mentors turn in data sheets showing what they have done for the officers there at their stations. We help coordinate responses if we were to have a critical incident.

Getting the Word Out

“We reach out to our mentors, and they go to roll call at respective stations. Their job is to be there and help provide the emotional and spiritual support needed.”

The mentors keep track of each one of their assignments but provide only the nature and general information about the situation. “This is anonymous,” Duffy stressed. “No names are ever included on these cards.”

Almost all HPD stations have their respective mentors with an average of two available on each shift.

The 165-member mentor team currently consists of 100 males and 65 females. There are 18 civilian mentors trained to handle the counseling support needs of HPD’s civilian employees.

Duffy said communications to the mentors has improved greatly with the addition of the Nixel Messaging system, which enables leaders like Sgt. Reese to instantly text all mentors in the event of a major Houston police crisis, such as a line-of-duty death or officer shooting.

This enables Peer Support to coordinate who goes to the hospital and who goes to the roll calls or stations where special peer counseling or prayers are needed.

Crises like officer downs and serious shootings amount to the “red alerts” for Peer Support mentors. But Peer Support gets down to personal crises at all levels at times when they are needed.

“It could be PTSD, a marital issue, supervisor concerns or alcohol or drug addiction,” HPOU Board Member Betty Hill said. “We have training that prepares the peer support officers to mentor officers through problems such as alcoholism from day to day to day.”

The support might come over the phone or one-on-one “at a Starbuck’s,” Hill said.

Sgt. Reese described the Peer Support program as representing “the nationwide gold standard,” especially with its approach to training mentors in accordance with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF).

She underscored her belief that HPD’s high standard is serving to lighten the loads in those HPD backpacks.