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Grant helps Polson officers, dispatchers deal with stress, trauma

Editor | November 9, 2023 12:50 AM

While most adults may experience one traumatic incident in their lifetime, for police officers that number climbs to nearly 200 over the course of a career.

“We could see an infant death and then turn around and have a juvenile crash after that, or a suicide, and then go to a barking-dog complaint or a speeding ticket,” says Polson Police Chief George Simpson. “You never know what the day is going to be.”

After a while, witnessing trauma can take a toll on an individual’s mental health, on their family life, and on their resilience.

That’s why Simpson applied for a Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act Implementation Program grant through the U.S. Department of Justice. The Polson Police Department was awarded $158,690 and is among 60 recipients nationwide, and the only one in Montana.

The grant funds a multi-faceted mental health program that serves the department’s 18 officers, five retired officers and Lake County Emergency Communication Center’s 15 dispatchers, plus their immediate families.

Simpson, who moved to Montana after a stint in the Navy and as a police officer in Florida, knows firsthand how trauma can impact an officer’s life. He’s been involved in shootings and has had friends and peers commit suicide. He’s very upfront about the importance of learning how to process those events.

“I'm the chief of police. I have no problem telling somebody I've gone to therapy, I've gone to counseling, it was great, it helped me,” he says. “And maybe it will help you.”  

The grant allows the department to offer its officers and dispatchers access to free mental health services, establishes a training program for officers in peer counseling, and creates support groups for both law enforcement and their families. The goal is to build a program that’s both sustainable and portable, so that other rural law enforcement agencies can emulate all or portions of it.

The Department of Justice defines rural agencies as those with under 50 officers – which includes most police departments in Montana and 83% of the agencies nationwide. They often don’t have the budget or resources to provide comprehensive mental health services to their employees. 

“You look at Ronan, they only have a handful of officers. You look at St. Ignatius, they only have two,” he says. “But they see the same stuff that we do.”

Partnership offers professional training

Two trained mental health professionals who have experience with veterans and law enforcement are partners in the Polson Wellness Program grant. Travis Gribble is the owner of My Arena and lives in Philipsburg. A retired special operations sergeant and SWAT team leader from the Mesa Police Department, he helps first responders navigate mental health challenges during their careers. He lectures nationally on post-traumatic stress disorder, treatment and the road to recovery.

Brandon Spangler of Warrior’s Mindset in Kalispell is a licensed behavioral health therapist who specializes in helping law enforcement officers and veterans with anxiety, depression, PTSD, family conflict and sexual abuse.

Both men will provide training and share expertise during the two-year grant period, beginning with a course titled “Mental Health and Trauma Training for First Responders.” The course will be offered again next fall, and Simpson says he’s invited other law enforcement agencies to participate, including firefighters, EMTs, and Tribal, Lake County and Flathead County law enforcement.  

The duo also offers a similar course for first responder families and will work with the Polson Police Department’s family and peer support groups, as well as help train officers to facilitate those groups in the future.

Simpson, who comes from a long line of police officers, believes it’s essential for families to be part of the conversation.

Gribble and his wife, who is also a retired cop, will be on hand for quarterly family nights, which offer spouses, partners and teenage children of first responders an opportunity to ask questions and share their feelings.

The grant also allows Spangler to provide counseling services to police officers and their families “with no bureaucratic barriers.” Simpson says it’s also beneficial that The Warrior’s Mindset office is located in Kalispell because it provides additional anonymity for those seeking help.

Another important component in the Polson Wellness Program is what’s called a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing – often used for officer-involved shootings, but also relevant for traumatic situations like an infant death, a suicide, a serious assault, “or it could be when one of our officers goes to jail” (which recently happened in Polson).

“It’s a time for us to sit around as one big team with a counselor and just kind of have a facilitated discussion about what's going on, what we're feeling – to get it all out there so it's not all bottled up,” says Simpson. “The goal is to get help early and often and then out of that, if an officer wants to go see somebody to talk, they can do that.”

Part of the grant provides training for officers to become certified in providing critical stress management and response services following a critical incident. That course is taught by Carol Staben-Burroughs, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Bozeman who also taught at Montana State University.

The department will also add chapters in the field training manual for new recruits and the department policy manual addressing mental health, and create a resource guide. Members of the department will also travel to Helena twice to discuss the Polson Wellness Program with state leaders and the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.

"Cops are people too"

The grant application garnered 27 letters of support from U.S. Senators Tester and Daines, a U.S. attorney, Polson Sen. Greg Hertz, district and municipal court judges, county attorneys, the city manager, mayor and city and county commissioners, and law enforcement associations, among others.

According to Simpson, that level of support is crucial, both from the public and from people in leadership positions.

“Cops are people too and we have these feelings and they're often overlooked,” he said. He believes leaders in law enforcement have a responsibility “to stand up and voice concern.”

“I would like people to just sit back and think that it's okay for law enforcement officers or firefighters or first responders to go get mental health help. It doesn't mean that you're weak, it doesn't mean that you're lesser, it doesn't mean any of that garbage,” he said.

“If the Polson Police Department in nowhere Montana can create a model for the Department of Justice to send out across the country, yeah, that's a good deal,” he adds. “And if, at the end of the day, this only helps one officer then it's 100% worth it.”