A message from an anonymous Houston police officer sent to HOPA got to the point:
“I just wanted to let you all know how much I appreciate HOPA. I went through a tough time a couple of years ago on a weekend where I felt helpless and had thoughts of suicide. I talked to someone through HOPA for a couple hours and felt better until I could schedule something with Psych Services the following week. I don’t know if you all get much feedback on it, but I wanted you to know what an impact it had on me. So, thank you. It means everything to me.”
There you have it – anonymous testimony of the benefits of HPOU’s seven-year-old peer assistance program. HPOU Board Member Tim Whitaker, the Houston Officer Peer Assistance president, cites this heartfelt note as evidence that the volunteer counseling program is doing exactly what it was designed to do.
By design, the HOPA staff consists of 21 retired Houston police officers. They stand ready 24/7 to take calls from not just HPD officers but all first responders in the Houston area AND – as Whitaker points out – “We will take calls from anywhere.”
“Anywhere” means any state in the Union, for this program – the vision of HPOU President Joe Gamaldi – has become well known in police departments across the nation. No, there are no ads in magazines, the internet.
“It’s not from an 800 number, either,” Whitaker explained. “It’s word of mouth – 100 percent world of mouth. It’s quite a compliment to the volunteers who answer the calls for HOPA All over the country people are learning about us based on people talking about us.”
Indeed, other departments have set up peer assistance programs modeled after HOPA. The latest might be Tulsa PD.
“Yesterday Tulsa started a peer support program,” Whitaker reported in late October. “We reached out and shared notes, trying to help them get started.” The same thing happened when Atlanta PD opted for the same type of program.”
Now, one asks Whitaker how the program works as if to recite the details for HPD officers, first responders like firefighters and emergency medical personnel – and, yes, their family members.
The key word in the reminder: ANONYMITY.
Whitaker firms up as he explains further: “We do not give information about who calls and who does not call. It goes back to being completely anonymous.
“We do not keep track of phone calls. The volunteers do not keep notes. They don’t ask for names or phone numbers. Only the caller might initiate the exchange of contact information.
“It is by design that only retirees are our volunteers. We do that for the protection of the caller.
“If we lose confidentiality, then we lose the program. Right now I have to say the program is doing exactly what it was designed to do.”
Whitaker took time out to stress that the testimony from the officer who expressed his special thanks for HOPA help came voluntarily from the officer. “We have no idea who he is.”
Nobody takes names or keeps score. “We have no hard numbers because we don’t keep track of that stuff.”
HOPA counselors approach the task from a been-there-done-that stance and serve as listeners to the troubles of an officer or his/her family member, no matter how minor the problem might seem to be.
The HOPA president said that there have been only a few callers with problems as serious as the mentioned appreciative officer. He said often callers just want to vent about management or a departmental policy.
The coronavirus pandemic – as one might expect – has posed unique problems. One wife of an officer called, depressed about her husband’s loss of his extra job due cutbacks resulting from the pandemic.
The response: LISTEN FIRST!
“By listening,” Whitaker said, “which is all peer support is, the volunteers allow the callers to vent. Most of them want to do is vent a little bit. The peer support program gives them the opportunity to do just that.”
The wife complained about the stress of the financial troubles resulting from her husband’s loss of his extra job. She soon began to understand that this was happening to police officers all over the nation. We are all kind of in the same boat.
“When you share thoughts like these, it makes life a little bit more bearable when you know that it’s just not me who has lost his extra job but other officers as well.”
He said HOPA has succeeded in referring callers to HPD Psych Services or private psychiatrists or psychologists for in-depth counseling.
“Multiple persons have been referred to professional counseling,” Whitaker said. “Not all of it is suicidal. It could be drug or alcohol problems or a death in the family, work-related or financial, the loss of a partner naturally or in the line of duty.”
During the week of the line of duty death of Sgt. Harold Preston, Whitaker sent a team of HOPA volunteers to various stations to be available for peer support. “Volunteers went to roll calls to be available if they were needed,” he said.
Special events such as a line of duty death or a rash of suicides as experienced in the New York Police Department will prompt HOPA to reach out to the department involved to let it be known that a volunteer in no way directly connected to the caller is there to listen.
“Our program is very unique because it involves retirees,” he said. “It keeps retirees engaged in police work. A retiree is reliable. He’s been where some of these officers are. They are able to help them in a serious or minor situation.”
Since no records are kept, there are no numbers differentiating the major problems from the minor ones. Both are high priorities.
If you or someone you care about is struggling, please reach out and contact HOPA at (832) 200-3499. Remember, it’s available 24/7 and it’s completely anonymous.