Cops find help with peers in Detroit

George Hunter
The Detroit News
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Detroit police Sgt. Tim Firchau was on the scene when the bodies of two children were removed from a freezer in a Detroit townhouse. He says the image is difficult to shake.

“Having worked in homicide for 12 years, I’ve probably seen every type of horrific death you can imagine,” Firchau said. “But seeing two small children in a freezer ... it still gives me nightmares.

“Shortly after that, my wife committed suicide,” Firchau said. “The department told me, ‘you’re screwed up; you can’t come to work.’ But I was told, ‘it’s not duty-related; you have to find your own help.’ But where do you go to get help?”

Officers like Firchau now have a place to turn: The department’s Peer Support Group. The group, formed in May 2015 at the behest of police Chief James Craig, allows officers a chance to meet and discuss the stresses they deal with both on and off the job.

“Before this, you felt like there was nobody to talk to,” said Firchau, who was among the officers who responded to the Martin Luther King apartments in March 2015, after the bodies of 13-year-old Stoni Blair and 9-year-old Stephen Berry were found in a freezer. Their mother, Mitchelle Blair, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“You don’t want to burden your loved ones with these details,” Firchau said. “Now, we have someone to talk to, which helps a lot.”

Police officers — especially in violent cities like Detroit — deal with constant stresses, which may be why more officers nationwide last year committed suicide than were killed in the line of duty.

In 2017, 140 officers committed suicide, while there were 129 line-of-duty deaths, according to a study released in April by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization that advocates for people with disabilities.

“First responders are heroes who run towards danger every day in order to save the lives of others. They are also human beings, and their work exerts a toll on their mental health,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in a release accompanying the study.

Craig said other departments he’s worked in have had peer support groups. “There’s a need for it here,” he said. “I saw that our officers were under a lot of stress, and I asked ‘what about having a peer support group?’ It didn’t exist.

“The group has grown beyond my expectations,” Craig said. “I think it’s really making a difference. These officers are there for each other.”

A 2016 study by the American Psychological Association found that officers’ exposure to stressful incidents was “statistically significantly correlated” with drinking and post-traumatic stress disorder, while the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2009 that nearly one in four officers had suicidal thoughts.

Detroit officer Kimberly Gabriel said while cops often see horrific things, combining that with everyday stresses also can cause problems.

“We’re exposed to some bad things on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “You don’t want to bring it home, so you carry it with you. It’s a difficult job. Responding to scenes where little children are shot, or injured or abused ... seeing people during their worst situations is difficult.

“Peer support allows officers to have someone who understands what you’re going through,” Gabriel said. “It’s an outlet. Officers may not trust going to the department if they’re struggling, but they may feel more comfortable going to a peer.”

There are 33 officers signed up for the program, which falls under the umbrella of the department’s Medical Section. Lt. LaShanna Potts of the chief’s office said applicants for the voluntary program are screened.

“There’s an interview process,” Potts said. “You have to have been involved in a critical incident to join, and during the interview, applicants are scored on things like empathy.

“We hear a lot of things, and we have to ensure that what we hear is kept confidential,” Potts said. “Our officers, unfortunately, see more bad things than most police departments. A lot of people think we’re robotic, but every baby death, every shooting takes a toll. Officers carry these things with them.”

The group meets regularly at police headquarters. Participating officers are excused from their regular duties for the day. In addition to the meetings, officers undergo training on things like relieving stress and suicide prevention.

In addition to the meetings, members of the group reach out to officers and their families who are dealing with trauma.

“We’re in the process of creating a website; we want officers to be able to reach out of us through the website anonymously and get help that way,” Potts said. “A lot of times commanding officers or peers will refer officers to us, and ask if we can reach out because they’ve noticed a change in behavior.”

When Sgt. Tony Potts, Lt. Potts’ husband, was asked to discuss the traumatic incidents he’s dealt with, he said: “We don’t have that much time.”

“I’ve had two officers (who were co-workers) commit suicide, where there was a cry for help and it was ignored. I tried to tell supervisors to get help for one of them, and the attitude was ‘don’t worry about it.’ A week later, he’s not at work; we do a wellness check and he’s lying on the floor with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“In the old days, if you were dealing with something (traumatic), you’d meet with other officers, have a few drinks and try to laugh it off,” Sgt. Potts said. “Some officers, not dealing properly with these incidents, wound up to become alcoholics, or commit domestic violence.

“Now, this group has done a lot of good and positive things,” he said. “I think it’s morphed into a program that will be the model for other police departments across the country.”

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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