DALLAS, TX – Dallas police are planning sweeping changes to the way they handle officers involved in shootings and other traumatic incidents.
On the heels of six shootings by police last month, commanders will now mandate that officers who fire their weapons go through more frequent psychological counseling and that they remain off the streets for a full month.
Assistant Chief Tom Lawrence told officer association leaders of the plans Thursday. Some of the ideas are still preliminary. But he said the new strategy starts immediately for shootings. The changes gave the association leaders some pause, but Lawrence framed the idea as a way to keep officers in good mental health.
He said officers are deeply affected when they use deadly force.
“There is an emotional and psychological impact on you,” he said. “Whether it is good or bad, that’s up to the individual.”
Robert Arredondo, president of the Dallas Latino Peace Officers Association, said he is open to a new policy, as long as police officials allow tweaks when necessary. He said he particularly liked the idea of helping out officers who otherwise just feel like they have to shake off bad incidents.
“Those officers are sometimes not thought about,” said Arredondo, a homicide sergeant. “A lot of folks think it comes with the job, that it comes with the territory. You’re going to see bad stuff sometimes. And you’re supposed to just take it. Officers are supposed to not have feelings.”
Desk duty for month
The current department policy calls for officers in shootings to go on administrative leave for five days, which basically means they are paid to stay home. When it’s time to go back to work, the officers must first undergo a psychological evaluation and qualify at the shooting range. They must also have follow-up chats with psychologists several months later.
The new policy would temporarily assign the officer to restricted duty at a desk job or a lighter assignment such as community affairs for 30 days. Lawrence said such assignments could help officers reconnect with supportive residents.
After the initial psychological counseling, officers would be required to undergo additional counseling 30 and 90 days after the shooting. Before returning to regular duty, they also will have to be evaluated in reality-based training scenarios.
Lawrence said Chief David Brown had already been considering changes to the department policy. But the wave of recent shootings by Dallas police served as a catalyst.
Lawrence added that not enough officers were taking advantage of the counseling that is currently available, likely for fear of looking weak.
“It is not a sign of weakness,” Lawrence said.
The new policy is mandatory for officers who shoot someone. Lawrence, however, is also working on a plan to encourage officers who witness traumatic events to seek counseling. He said he wants to empower division commanders to make the decision whether those officers need to seek psychological care in those cases rather than having the orders come from formal policies.
He mentioned officers who saw the body of 5-year-old Katherina Gonzalez at a Lake Highlands apartment complex this past weekend as an example of a time when officers might need to seek help. Kathrine was found hanged in a closet of a vacant apartment. A 17-year-old cousin has been charged in her death.
Arredondo agreed that such cases might call for additional counseling for the officers involved.
“You see a child who is the same age as your child hurt or you see an officer killed in the line of duty … those things are traumatic,” he said. “Sometimes it takes an officer time to figure all that out.”
The restricted-duty part of the new policy, however, could be a sticky issue for Arredondo and other association leaders. Officers can’t work off-duty security gigs while on restricted duty. Lawrence said he wants the associations to offer ideas to help mitigate the financial loss.
“Unfortunately, some of these officers, particularly the younger ones, rely on part-time jobs,” Lawrence said. “We’re going to try to come up with some alternatives to help them if they need help with a mortgage or a car payment or something.”
Beyond the money issue, the association leaders say they will take a wait-and-see approach.
“We’re happy they are trying to think about the officers’ well-being and look forward to working with the chief on this issue,” Dallas Police Association President Ron Pinkston said.
Dallas Fraternal Order of Police president Richard Todd said he agrees with the general approach to helping officers. But he wants to work the bugs out so officers don’t suffer.
“It’s not their fault somebody did what they did and they ended up in a shooting,” he said. “And it’s not fair to punish the officer.”
Message to officers
Pinkston added that he wants officials to do more research to ensure that the new initiative isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the recent shootings and that it will truly help officers. Lawrence said he is doing that.
Dr. Al Somodevilla, who was a Dallas police psychologist for about 35 years, said he worries that adding new hurdles to get back to work will send the wrong message to officers.
“If an officer is involved in a very good shooting where there is not even a doubt about the shooting, the message is still, ‘You’ve done something wrong,’” he said.
Somodevilla said he has never heard of another department giving an officer in recovery that much time away from his or her primary duties. He said it sounds good in theory, but he doesn’t know if it’s necessary in every case.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police said Thursday that he isn’t aware of any other departments with requirements as restrictive as the new Dallas guidelines. The Fraternal Order of Police has the country’s largest membership of officers. The organization has heavily studied emotional issues for officers.
Pasco, who is based in Washington, said counseling is positive because “shootings are a far more traumatic experience than television police shows would lead you to believe.” He said the Dallas police 30-day time frame isn’t unreasonable. But he shares many of Somodevilla’s concerns.
“Some folks will need more time and more counseling than others,” Pasco said. “Everybody reacts to these things differently. You can’t take a cookie cutter approach to this.”