SC LEAP Supports Law Enforcement After Trauma and Stress
Charles Barranco had been the Aiken police chief for just seven days on January 8, 2012, when one of his officers, Sandy Rogers, was fatally shot. It was the second officer the Aiken Police Department lost in the line of duty in 37 days. Officer Scotty Richardson was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop in December 2011.
One of the first phone calls Barranco made after he got the news of Rogers' death was to Eric Skidmore, program manager of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program. "I knew we would need their assistance," Barranco said.
SC LEAP provides services for law enforcement employees and their families in times of stress and trauma. It conducts training sessions for peer counselors and has a network of volunteers, mental health professionals and chaplains across the state. The program — a partnership between the State Law Enforcement Division and the state departments of Natural Resources, Public Safety, and Probation, Parole and Pardon Services — was created to serve the more than 17,000 sworn officers in 260 local law enforcement agencies across South Carolina, along with their family members.
"It's a great resource. In law enforcement and fire service, we're here to help others. There are times when we're the ones that need assistance. Having folks available throughout the state that have real life experience in similar situations, it really makes a difference," Barranco said. "We deal with some things that most folks don't see on a daily basis. The day-to-day stress becomes cumulative. When you have a critical incident, like an officer-involved shooting, people need help, and they deal with it differently."
That's where Skidmore and his staff come in — taking calls 24 hours a day, ready to provide assistance with trauma and other issues officers face.
"I describe (SC LEAP) like the hub of a wheel with spokes going out. In the center is the staff of SC LEAP, three full time staff and one full time volunteer and probably 200 peer support personnel. They're mostly sworn officers who have been through training, mental health professionals, chaplains and nonsworn personnel. We're in the center of the hub, and we're constantly being deployed around the state."
Skidmore said police chiefs call in SC LEAP to provide peer teams to lead sessions in their departments, help departments counsel and address addiction issues, find referral resources for their officers who are struggling with work-related or personal issues, and assist in the wake of an officer's death or line-of-duty injury. The SC LEAP staff and peer support team is deployed to serious incidents — such as an officer-involved shooting or an officer suicide — more than 50 times a year.
"It used to be a few times a year, but as chiefs and sheriffs realized what they were getting was a peer support element, that's made an incredible difference as we try to provide care to state and local officers," he said.
The peer support element is especially popular with departments that use the program's services. "Officers will listen to chaplains and mental health professionals, but if it's on a scale of one to 10, they will listen to other cops at a maximum level. They will listen to another officer who has had a line of duty shooting. It's the power of peer support," Skidmore said.
Peer team members who have been through a line of duty death will talk about their own experiences and offer thoughts on how they made it through the tragedy. There are debriefing sessions, open meetings, and one-on-one counseling with officers and families taking place in the hours after the tragedy until days, weeks and months later.
SC LEAP also provides seminars for officers who have been through a traumatic event and continue to suffer lingering effects, whether they are dealing with PTSD or simply don't feel like themselves after an incident. Some of the typical high-stress incidences include a line-of-duty killing of a fellow officer, a multicasualty incident, any significant event involving children, a serious line-of-duty injury, an officer involved shooting or an incident that draws excessive media coverage.
York Police Chief Andy Robinson said SC LEAP responded to his community in early 2018, when a York County Sheriff's Office detective was killed and three other officers wounded, including an officer with the York Police Department.
Robinson said he reached out to Skidmore to be sure the York Police Department was doing everything it could to support the officer and his family. SC LEAP hosted a crisis management briefing, gathering all law enforcement personnel to explain the facts of the case and allow for questions. Representatives of SC LEAP held a brief teaching session on stress reactions and then talked about next steps. SC LEAP also met with families of the officers.
"I think it is important that services such as SC LEAP are available to law enforcement because, first, smaller agencies do not have the resources nor the experience to handle many situations that representatives from SC LEAP are able to provide," Robinson said. "Second, and thankfully, most agencies rarely experience incidents of such magnitude as the shooting we experienced this past year, and if they do, it is not very often. Having access to trained and experienced professionals such as those who volunteer and work for SC LEAP are invaluable resources to agencies of all sizes across our state."
"Without SC LEAP," he said, "many officers and agencies may not receive the assistance they need to handle traumatic events and the stresses created by these events, or at a minimum they would have a difficult time trying to navigate the recovery process on their own."
Robinson suggests other departments become familiar with SC LEAP's service and attend one of the training sessions the group hosts around the state.
"If you have not used SC LEAP, hopefully it is because you have not needed them, but that can all change in an instant, so knowing where to go and who to contact when serious incidents occur is critical and time sensitive," Robinson said. "Better to be prepared and not need this service than to need it and not know what it is or what they can do to assist you."
Aiken's Chief Barranco had similar advice for other departments dealing with a difficult event: "Take care of the situation at hand, but make the call to SC LEAP early. The earlier you get folks in to help your staff, the better off you're going to be."