BY KEITH D. SQUIRES, COMMISSIONER OF THE UTAH DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY
Today is one of the most challenging times for those who serve in law-enforcement. Yet, for the right individuals, we have one of the most rewarding careers available.
I greatly admire those who choose to serve on our team and can make the cut. The basic concepts of policing remain, yet the police officer of today is faced with a myriad of societal problems, administrative requirements, increased restrictions and public criticisms. There is significant potential for danger on every shift and the violent incidents we handle in a career are numerous. The advances in technology are impressive, but often cause us to ask more and more from the same individual officers. In 1980, we had 420 UHP troopers covering our state.
In 2010, that number was 424. Since then, 24 positions were added, largely due to legislative changes in the safety inspection program. These small increases in our numbers are remarkable when you consider our population growth, highways added and the increased number of vehicle miles traveled in our state. The skills we are able to develop, the people we are able to help and the tremendous amount of public safety services we provide with the amount of resources available is a testimony to the great skills and professionalism of the men and women who serve in our Utah Highway Patrol.
The stresses of the officer’s job can be significant and unless carefully managed, can lead to very real health and safety concerns. Some of the traumatic scenes we respond to and incidents we investigate can impact us in ways we don’t realize. Recently, I was sharing a story about a violent crime investigation that I participated in with a group from our DPS State Crime Lab. My purpose was to personally illustrate how important a resource our forensic team is in assisting police officers while investigating serious crimes. The tragic case I was describing to them took place early in my career and involved a beautiful seven-year-old girl who was brutally kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered. Our state crime lab played a key role as part of that investigative team. I was surprised to find myself becoming very choked up this many years later as I recalled the details of what had happened to that dear child. This was a very difficult case for me to work.
I had been the first officer to arrive on the scene when the child’s parents discovered her missing from their yard and helped organized an extensive neighborhood search. I was also the department’s forensic photographer at the time and worked with detectives throughout the week to document evidence at all the related crime scenes. I clearly remember how much it hurt when we located our victim and discovered how violently she died. Although I talked with fellow officers about the technical aspects of that investigation, I had never really talked with anyone about how directly seeing the brutal details of what happened to this innocent child had impacted me emotionally.
The incidents that officers see and manage are unlike any other government responsibility. Turning to alcohol or bottling up feelings can have long term negative consequences.
Our UHP troopers and SBI investigators will handle many very traumatic incidents in the course of their career. During each, they must remain composed and focused on their duties in order to take care of all the first aid, officer safety and investigative needs that are required to ensure that lives are saved, people are protected and justice is served. Yet, I’ve learned over the years that we must allow ourselves a way to process these extremely tragic and difficult incidents in a healthy and realistic manner.
The incidents that officers see and manage are unlike any other government responsibility. Turning to alcohol or bottling up feelings can have long term negative consequences. Not all officers will react the same to what they are exposed to. We are all individuals, but sometimes, just knowing from peers and counseling professionals that the emotions we are feeling are normal, can go a long way in helping deal with the stress and challenges of this very unique work. I appreciate the caring initiative shown by our own personnel in developing our DPS Peer Support Group this past year. This program was proposed and developed by UHP Sergeants Brent Shelby, Rob Wilkinson, and Trooper Aaron Colvin. Many others have become involved and are contributing to this valuable resource. This program creates an opportunity for our officers to reach out to fellow officers and other well trained professionals when they are coping with handling a traumatic incident or difficult personal situation. Since its inception, many of our personnel around the state have gone through a special three-day training that provides them with information and resources related to helping fellow officers, dispatchers and other support team members as they are dealing with difficult situations.
There are also health professionals available who are part of this program. Their service is available 24/7 through peer support officers in each of our sections along with a special email address that has been shared with our employees. There is no up the chain reporting involved and the sole purpose of this program is to be a resource for helping each other when needed. It has been very well designed and I have received excellent feedback on the service being provided.
The great part about our police service is that we have many very caring people who have chosen to manage our societies most difficult situations as officers. We also have learned how we can better help each other cope with the stresses of our jobs. I wish this kind of resource were available when I began my career. We have come a very long way since then. I’m glad to see how we are better recognizing the needs of the dedicated men and women who serve our department and our distinguished profession. I’m confident that the added care and resources from our DPS Peer Support Team will provide a great long-term benefit in helping our troopers and agents enjoy long and successful careers. I’ve been contacted by officers from other agencies interested in taking our program to their administrators in hopes that they can initiate something similar. This is a clear example of how great ideas can come from those who are closest to the issues. My thanks again to all of our Peer Support Team members who continue to develop this innovative resource for fellow members of our department and to all of you who serve our citizens every day in such a needed, caring and professional way.