Police officers from various departments throughout New Hampshire attend a Blue Courage training seminar led by Howard Powers this spring.

A different kind of courage: Cops learn to confront what they feel, and why

The idea is to deal with your emotions — not ignore or suppress them

 

written by:
Jasmine Gomez

photography by:
Michael Santiago

ALSO FIND:
>
Audio clips on how training helped officers
> Flashback on how gunfire haunts one local officer

Officer Kristie Froio stumbled through the woods near Onondaga Creek Boulevard, struggling to see through the bleeding gash near her eye, searching for the patrol partner she’d become separated from.

Responding to a call about an outdoor fire, the pair encountered the schizophrenic man who started it. He’d stopped taking his medication and was high on drugs, and the officers offered to take him to the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP), a licensed psychiatric emergency room. He resisted, and when they pushed it, he ran into the woods, Froio first in pursuit.

She caught up with him and struck him across the shoulder with the flashlight she was using to see in the dark. To her surprise, the suspect responded with a blow using a metal pipe to the left side of her face. She went dark, briefly unconscious.

“I remember telling myself, ‘Kristie you got to wake up, you got to wake up! He’s going to kill you if you don’t,’ ” the 16-year veteran said recently, easily recalling details of the incident a full decade ago.  

She did rouse herself and called for backup, but the trauma has endured.

Froio suffered serious nerve damage to her upper cheek and left side, severe sinus damage that she has tried to address with three sinus surgeries over the last 10 years, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and intense nightmares.

The stress of traumatic experiences like these stays with an officer long past a call has ended. The stress of the job, day in and out, can have several effects on an officer, including burnout, the onset of PTSD, development of conditions like anxiety and alcoholism, and even suicide. A study on police suicide from 2008 to 2012 found that the number of officers who take their own lives is twice the number of those killed by felons.

Statistics like these have led to the development of programs like Blue Courage, a workshop that aims to shift police culture by getting officers to take charge of their well-being — not only physically but mentally. It’s an aspect of health that isn’t typically addressed in law enforcement.

The two-day training, which Froio has become certified to instruct, encourages law enforcement officers to reflect on their careers and lives through a model the trainers have developed that addresses topics like emotions related to the job and police culture, as well as breathing to relieve stress. While police officers are usually led to embrace a culture of bravado and to suppress feelings, Blue Courage instead teaches them to soften up and actively address those raw emotions.

The Blue Courage program was recently implemented by the Syracuse Police Department, and Officer Dzenan Selimovic, who’s been with the SPD since 2005, said for him it has been a great help. He has also become certified to teach the course. One of his most haunting memories is seeing a woman whose face and chest were blistered by hot grease thrown on her by a man after she refused sex with him. At another call, he still recalls a bleeding suspect dying in his arms.

Selimovic is a refugee of the Bosnian war and says the experiences in his home country have better equipped him to deal with the stresses of his daily job. He says police departments rarely equip their forces with the tools necessary to deal with the toll — and many times the culture prevents cops from doing so out of fear of looking weak.

“They give you a gun, a belt, a car, radio, bulletproof vest and everything else, but nobody builds you a bulletproof mind. You’re expected to be the tough guy,” Selimovic said.

“They give you a gun, a belt, a car, radio, bulletproof vest and everything else, but nobody builds you a bulletproof mind. You’re expected to be the tough guy,” Selimovic said.

At a recent Blue Courage workshop in Concord, N.H., officers from throughout the state gathered to navigate a set of the program’s exercises. The curriculum asks officers to respond to a series of prompts at the end of each topic taught. In many of the group discussions, officers revealed personal events that have influenced their attitudes toward policing.

Nate Lindsay, an officer with the Manchester Police Department, said the stresses of a host of traumatic events over the years have taken a toll on him. He said there’s an unreasonable expectation on officers to be OK all the time.

“They’re supposed to be the strong ones,” he said. “They’re supposed to be the helpers, but if you keep getting punched you’re going to fall down at one point.”

Lindsay has dealt with several traumatic experiences, including losing his partner, who was shot and killed while apprehending a suspect on Lindsay’s night off. And Lindsay took the murder of an 8-year-old hard: He called his wife and cried on the phone that day.

Troy Pickering, a deputy sheriff in Strafford County, said he has also had several low points. He’s resorted to alcohol, and focused on his hobbies of wrestling and running, sometimes pushing it so far that he’d collapse on the side of the road.

“The price of being me may not have been worth it,” he said.

One of Pickering’s worst memories was attempting to resuscitate an infant, who died.

“I’ll never get that taste out of my mouth. There’ll be days when I’m eating dinner or something and I’ll push the dinner aside because for whatever reason I’m back there for that split second — the fatal accidents, the suicides, the abuse of children, all those things over a course of time wear you down,” Pickering said.

Pickering said he has suffered from burnout. He attended the Blue Courage training with the hope of reigniting passion for his career.

For some officers, the stress has manifested itself in making them hyper-aware of the dangers of everyday life, affecting the decisions they make for their family. Tony McKnight, an officer with the Somersworth Police Department, and his wife have their children home-schooled. Their kids only attend traditional school once a week. It’s McKnight’s way of sheltering his children from the reality he’s seen from exposure to the worst of people every day, he said.

For others, the job can have an effect on life at home. Jim Ford, who’s now a campus police officer at the University of New Hampshire, said the job often prevented him from participating positively in family life.

“For me, it was sort of a shutdown situation. I’d go to work, I’d do my job, I think I did it well, and then I’d come home and then I would do nothing. I wouldn’t participate in the family at all. I wouldn’t interact with my wife in a positive way,” Ford said.

Though the SPD began offering the Blue Courage training to its officers in 2016, the department already had a start on addressing mental health. About six years ago, Officer Ann Baumann and others founded a volunteer peer support group. They offer resources to officers who seek it, whether the issue is related to their personal life or the job. Volunteers for the peer support group are also required to reach out to officers who have been involved in a critical incident, such as a shooting, to offer them support.

Though talking about emotions has been and is still seen as taboo in many police departments, Baumann said she has seen a shift toward more openness.

“Sometimes it is a matter of survival in the moment, but I have seen a little bit of a shift. I think that’s because there’s younger people coming in and it’s just a different generation probably and they’re more open about talking about stuff like that,” Baumann said.

In the SPD, Blue Courage adds a method of self-care in addition to the peer support group, but the program is only as good as those taking it allow it to be, Selimovic said. 

“You can break up and build up as much as you want. If you like to live in your misery and you’re comfortable in your misery, go ahead, live that. But if you like to break out, Blue Courage will show you the ways of doing it.”

Officer Froio agrees and said it can help officers interact with others overall, including the public.

“You’re really not good to anybody unless you take care of yourself,” she said.

Tony McKnight is coming up on his 10-year anniversary as a police officer in New Hampshire. When he arrived, he said he was in culture shock, being in a place he says was rare to have an African-American police officer. When he first applied, a chief once said he would never have a person of color on his force. McKnight, originally from North New Jersey, moved to New Hampshire to attend college and decided to stay. “I try not to bring my work home," he says about the stress invovled with the job. "I try to go home with an open mind because I have my four children."

Nate Lindsay joined Manchester police department in 2001 and worked midnights in high-crime rate areas. In 2006, his partner was killed after responding to a call. Six months later, he transferred to the community policing division, comprised of 16 officers. He is now the Crime Prevention officer for the city of Manchester. He spends time visiting schools, local businesses, regional facilities and gives active-shooter training, personal-violence training and workplace-violence training to try to prevent crime. "I’ve been shot at. My partner was killed. I'm on the swat team. We’ve responded to a call where an 8-year-old was murdered and then the dad killed himself … we've gone through a bunch of these scenarios where we didn't have the proper steps in line to help the officers who respond. Everyone expects officers to just be OK all the time, and they’re supposed to be the strong ones ... the helpers. You know, if you keep getting punched all the time, eventually you’re gonna fall.”

Jim Ford was an officer in a small town on a force of 20 that focused on community policing. He left the job in 2010, moving to Denver with his wife after feeling burned out. When his son’s enlistment with the Navy ended and he applied to become a police officer, Ford returned to New Hampshire and joined the academy with his son. He is now a police officer at a New Hampshire college. “One of the reasons why I am there, I think, is to hopefully change perception.”

Troy Pickering has been a police officer since 1999. He began in a small, relatively slow, town and moved to a busier location, where he received little guidance on the job. “One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to resuscitate an infant. She died, and I’ll never get that taste out of my mouth. There will be days when I’m eating dinner or something, and I'll push the dinner aside because for whatever reason [it's] like I’m back there for a split second. I’m back there … all those things wear you down."

[unex_ce_button id="content_humrd3g0z,column_content_15c4mtt65" button_text_color="#000000" button_font="semibold" button_font_size="15px" button_width="content_width" button_alignment="center" button_text_spacing="2px" button_bg_color="#ffffff" button_padding="15px 60px 15px 60px" button_border_width="2px" button_border_color="#000000" button_border_radius="0px" button_text_hover_color="#ffffff" button_text_spacing_hover="2px" button_bg_hover_color="#000000" button_border_hover_color="#000000" button_link="https://www.dropbox.com/s/k6tlq1nlt7da0r8/Police-Report-PEW.pdf?dl=0" button_link_type="url" button_link_target="_blank" has_container="" in_column="1"]VIEW COMPLETE PEW REPORT [/ce_button]
longer-linelonger-line
They Wear BlueThey Wear Blue

Blue Courage is billed as a transformational two-day leadership development workshop designed for self-improvement, increased engagement, stress-management, developing resilience, igniting culture change and combating cynicism in police officers.

You can't be "swamped" by emotion, or ignore it

N.H. session leads officers through Blue Courage training

CONCORD, N.H. — A workbook, a journal and pen, a textbook — and a mirror.

Those were the tools of a recent workshop that’s part of a program called “Blue Courage,” an initiative to help cops better handle stress, be mentally healthy, and think more clearly and differently.

At a two-day gathering here, officers got the workbook, called “Blue Courage: The Heart and Mind of the Guardian,” and a book titled “The Nobility of Policing,” which includes a foreword explaining its aim to reignite passion for the job of policing. The mirror is symbolic of what the program instructors ask of law enforcement officers — to look inside themselves deeply and personally reflect on the career they chose.

The workshop includes lectures by the instructors, time for small group discussions, and bigger classroom exchanges. The goal is to teach officers to leave what Blue Courage deems the “impoverished environment” — characterized by negative emotions like cynicism, detachment and stress —and instead enter an “enriched environment,” where officers develop a healthy well-being, high character, and empathy.

It almost goes against what law enforcement officers have been taught their whole careers — to not engage with their emotions, one officer said at the workshop in late April that was attended by police from all over New Hampshire.

Daniel Schmer, an instructor and a retired Kansas City (Missouri) Police Department officer, said that though policing culture has a lot of bravado in it, understanding emotions is important to health.

“You don’t want to be swamped by them, but you can’t be detached from them. We really want to use emotions to inform reason,” Schmer said.

An opening exercise of introductions had officers reveal honest confessions about why they were there. One commented that he had lost fondness for the job, but not fondness for the people he works with. Another said he wanted to re-ignite his love for policing.

The Blue Courage instructors, who travel to departments all over the country teaching others how to implement their curriculum, said that the physical well-being of officers directly correlates to the stress they endure. Instructors noted that police officers die 10 years younger than the average population.

The Blue Courage curriculum is taught through a series of nine modules, with titles such as Police Culture, Resilience/Hope, and Respect. They involve officers reflecting on these topics through exercises that require them to think of personal examples. One exercise asked officers to discuss the positive and negative aspects of police culture; another asked officers to think of examples when they felt respected and disrespected.

The workshop discussions are also driven by case studies, which ask the officers to reflect on how a situation could have been handled better. One case study, though not explicitly stated, was based on the 2009 arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which sparked national conversations about racial profiling in policing. Gates, a black man, was arrested by police who responded to a call about a possible break-in. Gates had returned from a trip to China and was trying to get into his own home, but the door was jammed. Former President Barack Obama later called a “beer summit” at the White House, hosting Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the officer who arrested him. (The charges were dropped.)

The case study contained details about both the officer’s and professor’s backgrounds, including the officer’s career track and the professor’s age and path in the academic world. The officers at the Concord workshop were asked to analyze how they could have handled the call better, forcing them to think past the explicit details about the incident and instead focus more on the mindset of the two characters involved. The discussion evolved into an analysis of the professor’s life, what his experience with police might have been if he’d lived through the Civil Rights era, and how this might affect his reactions to police. Officers also analyzed the other side, pondering what the police officer might have felt being accused of racial profiling.

Other exercises addressed how to physically manage stress. The instructors led a tutorial on tactical breathing, what they called “16 Seconds to Clarity.” Officers were asked to close their eyes and breathe deeply in and out in counts of four. The interruption to the normal pattern of breathing, toward a more focused one, is supposed to help officers change their emotional and physical dynamics and navigate heightened stress.

Many found the program helpful, including Nate Lindsay of the Manchester Police Department, who noted it could help improve relationships between police officers and others, including the public. 

“The mental health of a police officer is more than just about that police officer. The mental health of the police officer is that police officer, the next person they deal with, and the next person that they go and see, so I really think the program is going to be good. It’s going to be a huge help,” Lindsay said. 

“The mental health of a police officer is more than just about that police officer. The mental health of the police officer is that police officer, the next person they deal with, and the next person that they go and see, so I really think the program is going to be good. It’s going to be a huge help,” Lindsay said.

Like Lindsay, Schmer said teaching officers to connect with their emotions will assist them in creating better relationships overall.

“When we are better able and not disconnected, not living in that impoverished environment, we naturally can connect with (the community). We naturally connect at home,” Schmer said.

Troy Pickering, a sheriff with Strafford County and former patrol officer, said that though he liked the idea of the program, officers resist change, and in order to work, the program has to be implemented in all ranks of the department.

“It’s got to start from the top and the bottom and work its way up, and the biggest problems I’ve seen in police departments — and why I want to see higher-ranking officers in there — is because you can’t just look at the patrol guys and say, ‘You need this training. You need to change,’ ” Pickering said. “This change has to be throughout the agency, so you need your sergeants, your lieutenants, your captains.”

How a shooting affected an officer: A chase, and unshakeable memory 

This statement from Syracuse Police Officer Patricia Sergeant was read into the record at the sentencing of Quashar Neil in early May of this year. Neil was convicted of attempted murder for firing at Sergeant during a high-speed chase in November 2015. Neil was being pursued for firing at someone else.

He was sentenced in Onondaga County Court to 40 years to life for attempted murder and other charges in connection with the events that November.

***

Thank you to the court for giving me an opportunity to be heard. I am very grateful that I am alive today to be able to do so.

The incident on Nov. 19, 2015, has had a traumatic impact on my life. The actions of Quashar Neil on that night will forever be with me and my family. I often have flashbacks of seeing the gun come out of the window and the hooded male point at me as I was seated in my patrol car, then see the muzzle flashes as I dove for cover as he tried to kill me.
 

After the shooting stopped, the chase began. My mind raced thinking about not losing the vehicle, but also terrified that I may crash my patrol car and be injured or crashing and allowing him to try and kill me again. I would play the scenario in my mind all of the time.
 

When I was sent home that night, I had to tell my daughter why I was home, why I was home so early. As I explained the incident, she started to cry, which just devastated me, thinking about what could have happened. She is now burdened with the fact that someone wanted me, her only parent, dead because of the job that I do.

As a result of Quashar Neil’s actions, I began having severe anxiety attacks. I felt that someone was squeezing my throat and crashing my chest. That was followed by breaking out in hives for over a year and a half. I had to leave from and miss work for several days due to those outbreaks.

We all know the dangers of being a police officer, but it’s people like Quashar Neil who have no regard for human life and no respect for authority that have made this job even more dangerous in recent years. 

Being a single mother of mixed-race children, the comments made during this trial have been very upsetting. This was not a lynching. It had nothing to do with Quashar Neil’s race. It had to do with the fact that he tried to kill me.

All too often, lawyers in the media try to make people believe these outrageous lies when they don't have all the facts.

After hearing the physical and emotional toll this incident has had on me and my family, I hope that you understand why I’m asking you to impose the life sentence for Quashar Neil. I don’t want Quashar Neil to ever have a chance to hurt me or any of my co-workers again.

Thank you for allowing me to express how his actions have affected me.

Officers from various departments listen to a lecture on stress-management during the two-day Blue Courage training.