Suicide Rate Up: HPD forms Peer Support Unit

Tom Kennedy

The suicide rate at HPD is sadly over and above the line of duty death rate – maybe even double.

The Department has created the Peer Support Unit of chaplain/officers and here is how HPD is treating the situation.

As one of the chaplains put it, these fellow officers want to be there to serve “as a relief valve” when officers are feeling extraordinary stress from the job, the extra job, the marriage/home life, from health issues and the financial obligation portion of their lives.

Does this newly formed unit work with HOPA, the Houston Officers Peer Assistance team formed by HPOU four years ago?

Yes.

Does the unit work with HPD Phycological Services counselors?

Indeed, it does.

Work with the Police and Clergy Alliance (PACA)?

It sure does!

How about the prayer warriors in the prayer rooms at HPOU’s Breckenridge Porter Building and on the second floor of 1200 Travis?

Yes!

Are the personal details of these private, highly stressful situations kept in confidence?

Absolutely!

The message here is that there is so much stress going around amongst Houston officers – and those in any department in America for that matter – that no peer support stone need be left unturned.

But no person can explain the program’s goals better than Lt. Linda Zamora, who heads up the Peer Support Unit. In an interview with the Badge  & Gun, Lt. Zamora was forthcoming.

“The goal of the Peer Support Program is to provide emotional, spiritual and tangible support to all of our employees, both classified and civilian, during times of personal and professional crisis and to help them mitigate potential and real challenges in their personal and professional lives,” Zamora explained.

She said it was the idea of Police Chief Art Acevedo, who saw to it that the unit was patterned after one formed in Austin, where Acevedo served as chief before coming to Houston.

Zamora said, “The Austin Police Department has a similar program. However, I believe ours is more comprehensive, as we have combined several programs within the Houston Police Department that have a peer support nexus into one unit that has been placed within the Employee Services Division, under Commander Paula Read.

“We are still building the new programs and there is still more development to be done before we are fully operational department-wide as planned and envisioned.”

She pointed out that there were other employees involved with the research and proposal for such a program, saying, “Assistant Chief Pete Lopez was originally tasked with researching various programs and ‘best practices’ and then drafting a Peer Support Program Implementation Recommendation to Chief Acevedo. He sent that document up on Jan. 9.”
The chief directed Assistant Chiefs Lopez and William Dobbins to head up a Peer Support Committee, involving Lt. Zamora “along with some current members of this new unit.”

“One consistent theme that Chief Lopez found in his research is that the success of a peer support program is related to the oversight provided by trained mental health professionals who will guide our training and oversee our program.

“In essence, we have partnered with our Psychological Services Division and Dr. Stephen Tate, who has been instrumental in helping us identify the proper training our eventual peer support volunteers will be required to take.”

The unit has already devoted time and energy getting the word about its priority (Houston police officers) and purposes.  Senior Police Officer Barry Curtis works as the coordinator for PACA and the Peer Support Volunteer program in the unit. In an interview, Officer Curtis clearly demonstrated how serious he and other officers in the unit are taking their tasks.

“We’re just trying to be able to reach as many of our fellow officers as we can to help them in their times of need so that mole hills don’t become mountains,” Curtis said.

“We want to nip things in the bud and help officers to have long happy, healthy careers and continue to serve our great citizens in our great city of Houston.”

Hurricane Harvey, which destroyed the homes of so many HPD officers, posed a serious stress problem for many storm-affected and overworked officers. Curtis believes the Harvey stress levels rose and haven’t exactly been leveled off after more than a year.

Curtis said he and his partner, Officer Betty Sinclair, another PACA and Peer Support Volunteer Coordinator for the unit, prayed with many of their colleagues who were victims of Harvey.

“If they desire prayer, knowing we are chaplaincy-trained and believe in the power of prayer, we provide it when we are requested,” he explained. “We will pray for people and that is shown to be a very comforting thing.

“Usually we see if in a conversation there’s some type of faith foundation where they would desire that. We do make it known that we do pray. I’m not reluctant to tell people that one of the things we do is offer prayers. When they say that’s what they want that’s when I follow through.

“During Harvey there was one of the biggest requests for prayer when my partner and I were spending time in the prayer room at the Union and at Travis. All ranks and civilians were requesting us to pray for them and with them. We were quick to meet those needs.”

Officers Curtis and Sinclair work with HPD Chaplain Monty Montgomery and Associate Chaplain Vince Johnson. These two stalwarts handle the highest priorities in the day-to-day workings of the Department and often take the lead at funerals of current and retired HPD officers.

Another high priority on the group’s agenda is recruiting.

“We are also recruiting and will soon be training for our peer support volunteers, both classified and civilian employees,” Curtis explained. “We just started recruiting civilians and are in the process of vetting them. Once we vet them, they will be trained.”

“Once they complete their training we will start deploying them. They’re going to be at their assigned stations. We will start monitoring them and when they have a referral, we’ll pass on any resources we have that will help them refer officers and civilians to the right resources for help.”

“We’ve found that problems usually center around financial stress, health problems, extra job challenges or marital challenges. We try to plug them into a resource that will help them through that challenge.”

Zamora provided some bulleted points of the benefits “that I see to having a Peer Support Program for our department.” And they are:

 

  • It exemplifies a sincere interest and value for the care and well-being of our own without judgment
  • There is a reduction in self-destructive habits and harm by our employees
  • Protects our investment made into our employees
  • Saves careers, thereby reducing attrition
  • Reduces complaints against our members
  • Reduces liability to the city
  • Typical punitive-orientation is exchanged for compassion and a responsible response
  • Enhances the quality of life for our employees at work and at home
  • Healthy employees will have a positive, synergistic effect on our community stakeholders
  • Relational Policing is enhanced
  • Potentially, all these points and more, will save our employees’ lives, as well as save time, money, and resources while also increasing efficiency and productivity