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Friday, April 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison police involved in shootings can get help to deal with trauma, but they don't have to

The city of Madison requires little of officers who become involved in critical incidents.
The city of Madison requires little of officers who become involved in critical incidents.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen
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Even routine police work can be stressful, but the trauma of being involved in a shooting is so scarring it can often hasten the end of an officer's career.

According to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, 70% of police officers involved in shootings nationwide struggle with the subsequent trauma so much that they opt to leave the profession within seven years.

But the Madison Police Department retains a much higher rate of its shooting-experienced officers, says Lt. Kristen Roman, who coordinates stress management services for police. Roman, who's been with the force for 23 years, says she doesn't have solid numbers but estimates that only 20% of Madison police officers leave within five years of a shooting.

Such success is all thanks to the culture of Madison's police department, its training methods and resources for employees, Roman says.

Addressing the trauma that accompanies a shooting or a similarly tense encounter -- called "critical incidents" -- in the line of duty can be a tricky and delicate ordeal, according to Roman and Tresa Martinez, who heads the Critical Incident Stress Management program for all city employees.

The stress -- which may not immediately emerge -- can last for weeks, months or even years. But forcing officers to receive care when they don't want it can be traumatizing itself, adds Roman and Martinez.

So even though the threat of post-traumatic stress disorder is very real, the city of Madison requires little of officers who become involved in critical incidents. Nearly everything is optional, although the city does keep an eye on those involved with the occasional check-in.

In November, Madison police officer Stephen Heimsness was involved in a "critical incident" when he shot and killed Paul Heenan, who was drunk at the time and had mistakenly wandered into a neighbor's house.

The Dane County District Attorney and Madison police both cleared Heimsness of any wrongdoing, but he has yet to return to active duty, in part because the MPD is currently investigating three additional complaints surrounding the officer. Any assistance or therapy provided to Heimsness through the city in the months since would be confidential information.

According to Roman and Martinez, the only thing required of an officer after a critical incident is participation in a one-on-one "defusing" session that takes place before the officer goes home. Defusing allows officers to vent to a stress management provider -- like Martinez or Roman -- who inform them how a critical incident can affect their lives and what services are available to them.

Beyond that, nothing else is required unless an officer's work performance is affected. After defusing, it may be decided that a "debriefing" meeting is warranted, where all officers directly involved in the incident convene to share thoughts and strengthen support, Martinez says.

Attendance for the debriefing is not mandatory for anyone, although other police departments do require it, Roman says. It remains an optional exercise, Roman and Martinez say, because the "vast majority" of officers choose to attend anyway and it has the potential to traumatize someone if forced to attend.

"It needs to be a comfortable, safe resource for people to access," says Martinez.

According to investigative files released March 1 by police, Heimsness, who has been on the force for 15 years, cried to investigators as he recounted the shooting nearly 44 hours later. He was due to return to work on Dec. 2, but he eventually thought it too stressful and requested to return to administrative leave after eight days on the job, according to police files.

Roman says the city's Employee Assistance Program provides a limited number of therapeutic sessions. The program will also reach out to family members of officers.

Once sessions are maxed out, the assistance program will help connect officers to a private practice therapist. Even then, Roman says the department will continue to check in with officers down the road, especially on anniversary dates.

"We put information in your way all the time about how to get help," Roman says.

Such resources aren't simply reserved for officers who experience critical incidents in the field, however. Roman says that when the day-to-day stress accumulates, officers can also use services provided by the assistance program.

While many take advantage of those services, there is no assurance the available help will fix everything. Martinez says some people do overcome the trauma, but others don't.

"It can potentially turn an officer's life upside down," she says. "It can have a very serious impact, as well as in their families."

Fortunately, says Roman, the department rejects the idea that asking for help connotes weakness. "The culture is such that that taboo and that stigma isn't really there," Roman says. And that's why the department doesn't require employees to seek help, she adds.

"We do feel that there's an environment and enough information and trust that individuals will ask for help and know how to ask for help."

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