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Group looks for help addressing mental health crisis for police in Washington

(Seattle Police Department)

More than 200 law enforcement officers in the U.S. have taken their lives in 2019, according to the latest numbers from a group that tracks and verifies the statistics.

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In New York City, the city’s police department recently described it as a “mental health crisis” among law enforcement, and it’s prompted concern at the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police.

“We’ve seen, unfortunately, the steady increase of law enforcement mental health issues related to PTSD and the trauma associated with the profession as well as an ever-increasing rate if death by suicide with law enforcement [nationally],” said Washington Fraternal Order of Police Executive Director, Lynnette Buffington, adding that the group recognized police need some support in this area.

That’s why the organization is launching an effort for a new specialized Washington license plate.

Washington already has the specialized Law Enforcement Memorial (LEM) plate to help support families of officers killed in the line of duty and maintain the Law Enforcement Memorial in Olympia. This new plate would be different, and requires approval from the Legislature if WAFOP can get enough signatures to qualify.

“The revenue from the plate will go toward health and wellness initiatives for law enforcement with a special focus on mental health,” Buffington said.

Initially, she says the money would be used for a type of peer to peer counseling program known as Critical Incident Stress Management.

“To allow for law enforcement or other first responders that have been exposed to a critical incident to start working through a prescribed protocol with peers to address some of those concerns. Then they’re able to actually seek additional mental health support as they go through this process,” Buffington explained.

“As we build that we want to build a statewide team that can go into areas if there’s been a major critical incident, and then we aspire to have regional teams that can deploy as well as teams that support the families of the officers if there’s a major critical incident in an area impacting multiple officers and the community,” she added.

While there are some existing programs like this now for officers, Buffington says law enforcement agencies are not funded to the level they need to be.

Even more important, she says, is that the programs they hope to create with revenue from the license plate would be independent of the work place or the employer, which Buffington says is crucial.

“As we’ve seen with society in general addressing mental health, depression, PTSD, these are hard things to talk about in the light of day and we’re just coming to a level of acceptance with that in society, and in a profession like law enforcement, it’s even harder to talk about,” Buffington stressed.

“So we need to find places that it’s comfortable, and it’s safe, and it’s a protected conversation – so we want to provide that funding,” she added.

Buffington believes this type of awareness and support could be a game changer for another large issue: Bridging the gap between cops and communities.

“This is an opportunity to really change the conversation about mental health, especially in our first responders and the sustained exposure to trauma that they must have.”

She says part of that is understanding the challenges law enforcement faces, and that that sustained exposure they experience means every incident they respond to is also bearing the weight of everything that officer has been exposed to on prior calls.

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“These exposure maybe aren’t big headline making incidents, there just this sustained, repetitive exposure to things that you and I and the average person can’t even imagine,” Buffington said.

“And so if we’re able to talk about it, bring it to light, remind people of these statistics and the challenges with doing the job of law enforcement, and/or being a first responder, I think we can really change the conversation we’re having in our communities about bridging the gap between community members and the law enforcement community,” Buffington continued.

That’s why they’re hoping everyone will hope support this effort to create this specialized license plate. In order to get it to the Legislature for consideration, WAFOP must gather 3,500 signatures.

Anyone can sign the petition, and while there is no obligation to buy the specialized plate if you sign, the plates will be available to the general public.

Money raised by sales of the specialized plate will go to the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police Memorial for law enforcement officer health, wellness and training.

If you want to show your support, you can sign here.

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