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Using peer supporters to help address law enforcement stress.

Police officers in crisis often seek help from their peers, and in every department, a few individuals who prove adept at helping others are turned to repeatedly. Law enforcement agencies attempt to capitalize on this natural phenomenon by establishing peer support programs. In doing so, they provide training to increase the effectiveness of these natural peer helpers while marketing their services so that as many individuals as possible become aware of the peer supporters' availability. Organized peer support programs also help agencies choose just the right individuals to meet the needs of employees in trouble.

A number of law enforcement agencies currently use peer supporters to help employees prevent and deal with stress.l Their experiences can help other agencies implement their own peer support programs.


Peer supporters serve two major functions. First, they provide a source of help for officers who are unwilling to bring their problems to mental health professionals because they mistrust "shrinks," would feel stigmatized for not being able to handle their problems on their own, or are afraid that entering therapy might hurt their careers. While peer supporters cannot provide the level of service professionals can, they still can help considerably.(2) Furthermore, peer supporters usually are more accessible than professional counselors.

Second, peer supporters can refer receptive officers to professional counselors. Many officers are more likely to take advantage of professional counseling services when a referral comes from a trusted peer than if they have to make an appointment on their own or follow the suggestion of a family member. In this regard, peer supporters act as a bridge to professionals.

Like professional counselors who are also sworn officers, peer supporters offer instant credibility and the ability to empathize. A large cadre of trained peer supporters can match fellow officers with those who have experienced the same incident, thus heightening the empathy inherent in the peer relationship. For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) operates three peer programs, each with a separate focus, linking officers with peer supporters who are critical incident survivors, victims of sexual assault, or recovering alcoholics.

In addition, because of their daily contact with fellow officers, peer supporters are in a better position to detect incipient problems before they become full blown. As a result, peer support programs are "proactive and preventative in nature."(3)


Peer supporters have three major responsibilities: listening, assessing, and referring.(4) By listening, peer supporters provide an opportunity for officers under stress to express their frustrations, fears, and other emotions to another person who understands from personal experience how they are feeling and why they are upset. As one peer supporter said, "Most of the calls I get are about work-related anxiety due to department problems, not street problems. I become a sounding board, giving them an opportunity to vent."(5)

By listening, peer supporters also can assess whether the officer's problem is of a nature or severity that requires professional - and immediate - help. With proper training, peer supporters can note the signs that indicate an officer may be suicidal, homicidal, severely depressed, abusing alcohol or other drugs, or have other serious problems. If the officer has a serious problem, the peer can refer the person for professional help. Professional stress programs provide peer supporters with information about available referral resources in addition to the department's own stress services. For example, when a peer supporter in San Bernardino was asked by another officer whether he could contract AIDS after cutting himself while subduing an HIV-positive suspect, the peer arranged for an expert in HIV exposure from a local hospital to talk to the officer.


Experts agree that peer supporters prove especially appropriate for assisting officers involved in shooting incidents and officers with drinking problems. Many peer supporters are recovering alcoholics who can link fellow officers with detoxification programs, inpatient treatment, and Alcoholics Anonymous groups. These peer supporters also may attend support group meetings with officers beginning the recovery process and, as sponsors, may follow up on their attendance and help them to avoid or deal with lapses.

Officers who have been involved in critical incidents themselves can provide effective support to fellow officers who become involved in shootings. These officers often feel that no one can understand their turmoil except another officer who has experienced a similar incident. Furthermore, after being relieved of their weapons, interrogated, and subjected to a departmental investigation and possibly a civil suit, these officers often feel equally or even more disturbed by what they perceive as their department's lack of support. Reflecting the valuable role fellow officers can play, BATF mandates that all special agents in charge use the agency's peer supporters after every shooting that results in death or injury. While peer supporters should not provide counseling, they can and do help other officers realize that the fear, anger, and other emotions they may experience after a critical incident are normal under the circumstances.

Peer supporters help officers and their families during times of crisis not only by spending time with them but also by performing services for them. Peer supporters in San Bernardino painted one widow's house and cut another widow's grass. When a wounded officer was hospitalized, peer supporters fed the officer's cat. Supervisors in several departments call on peer supporters to stay with the family around the clock for a week after an officer is killed.

Stress can come from a variety of situations, even those that do not result in injury or death. Illinois State Police peer supporters refer officers with money management problems to the state's credit bureau for assistance. Officers having trouble making credit card payments can work out an arrangement in which the credit card issuer prohibits further use of the card but imposes no additional interest on the money owed until the officer can pay it back. According to a peer supporter with the Michigan State police behavioral science section, "Money problems are a sign of or a source of stress for many officers, so it's entirely appropriate for peer supporters to link them with organizations that help them manage their money."(6)


Peer support can occur in a variety of settings. Peer supporters may respond to other officers' requests to meet and talk. A peer supporter in San Bernardino may get a radio call asking, "Are you clear for an 87?" - a request to talk that does not reveal the purpose of the meeting. In the New Haven, Connecticut, Police Department, officers can page the peer supporter of their choice 24 hours a day.

Some peer supporters always wait for other officers to come to them, but many will approach a fellow officer when they observe the person having difficulty. Usually, their approach is subtle. Rather than announcing, "I'm a peer supporter, and I'm here to help you," they say something like, "It seems like you've been coming on duty late the last few days. What's up?" A great deal of peer support takes place spontaneously around the water cooler, over coffee, or wherever an officer and a peer supporter happen to run into each other.

Officers who take time off to recover from a serious injury or illness often feel isolated and frightened. As a result, employees from the Palo Alto, California, Police Department receive training in workers' compensation law so they can visit at home officers who are disabled to provide support, information about their rights to workers' compensation, and assistance in navigating the complex reimbursement system. Officers involved in a shooting also can feel upset over their change of duties and the legal procedures that often follow. Peer supporters in the San Antonio Police Department prepare officers for these events, emphasizing that, while the change may last several months until any litigation has been resolved, it is only temporary.


Recruiting and Screening

Program directors use different approaches to recruit peer supporters. Some announce the position in police department and association newsletters, departmentwide memos, at roll call, and at union or association meetings. The Erie County, New York, program received several referrals from police associations when the vice president of the Western New York Police Association, a network of law enforcement unions in the region, sent letters to its union members promoting the concept of peer support and inviting members to apply. BATF reviews its files to identify agents who have survived critical incidents. Reviews of past alcohol-related adverse actions identify possible candidates for the bureau's alcohol peer support program. Bureau staff counselors sometimes identify candidates from among their clients.

A police department in Texas combined several steps for recruiting peer supporters. First, the agency asked officers to volunteer. Then, it gave all officers in the agency a peer survey form to complete and return anonymously on which they ranked every officer in the department on a 1 to 5 scale (1 = totally unqualified) in terms of how effective each would be as a peer supporter. The form provided a short description of what peer support was and a brief overview of the activities peer supporters would conduct. Before analyzing the responses, a team of three psychologists interviewed the applicants about why they wanted to be peer supporters and what skills they could bring to their roles. The psychologists also asked a series of situational questions designed to assess the volunteers' communication and listening skills, as well as their ability to solve problems and empathize. To qualify, volunteers had to be approved by a psychologist and ranked highly by their colleagues. Interestingly, the six individuals selected by the psychologists also had the highest average ratings among their colleagues.(7) Peer supporters who have been recommended by their fellow officers are more likely to be accepted in their new roles than if sworn personnel had no say in their selection.(8) However, rejected applicants may become resentful and damage the peer support component by criticizing it in front of other officers.

An agency's command staff should approve of the selections, as well. Administrators who disagree with the selections often do not encourage their use or make referrals and even may not allow peer supporters to spend on-duty time helping other officers.

Some law enforcement agencies accept applicants for peer supporter positions solely on the basis of a desire to help troubled colleagues. This is a mistake; instead, the program director needs to develop selection criteria and institute recruitment procedures to ensure that only qualified officers are chosen and accepted. An effective peer program depends on screening out inappropriate officers. Peer supporters should be selected based on some combination of the following criteria:

* A reputation as someone whom others already seek out for informal peer support and who keeps information confidential

* Quality of social skills and ability to empathize

* Previous education and training

* Several years of experience on the street

* Nomination by other officers

* Approval or recommendation from the chief or other command staff

* Information provided in a letter of interest

* Previous use of the program

* Ability to complete the training program successfully.

While some officers who have recovered successfully from critical incidents should be chosen, peer supporters also should have a variety of experience so that it becomes possible to match peer supporters with officers under stress based on the similarity of their critical incidents. In addition to officers who have experienced shootings, officers can be selected who have experienced the death of a police partner, been alcoholics, or lived through family traumas, such as the death of a child or spouse.

Because officers usually are extremely reluctant to turn to anyone of a different rank for peer support, individuals of all ranks should be encouraged to become peer supporters. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that peer supporters not assist "...supervisors, subordinates, or relatives."(9) Program staff should try to train several sergeants and lieutenants as peer supporters so that senior officers have someone of their rank they can go to for assistance, as well as to increase support for the peer program among command staff. It also is important to recruit nonsworn employees and family members as peer supporters. Civilian personnel may feel uncomfortable sharing problems with officers, while family members may feel that they can receive empathetic treatment only from other family members.

In the past, some programs have required that officers have counseling certificates or degrees in order to become peer supporters. At one time, the Dallas Police Department required that peer supporters be state-licensed counselors. The New York City Police Department required its peer supporters, most of whom worked with other officers with drinking problems, to have completed all of the requirements leading to state certification as alcoholism counselors. However, most programs do not have such stringent requirements, and such certification is not necessarily a prerequisite to becoming an effective peer supporter. Still, in many states, certification serves an advantage by making conversations between peer supporters and other officers privileged communication.

Finally, officers should volunteer to be peer supporters, and no external rewards should come with the position, such as enhanced chances for promotion. Only truly voluntary participation can ensure that the assistance peer supporters give will be perceived as genuine and, therefore, will prove beneficial.

Initial Training

Peer candidates generally receive 3 to 5 days of training. The DEA provides 64 hours of initial training, leading to certification of peer trauma team members, who then must receive 24 to 40 hours of additional training every 3 to 4 years to remain certified.

Training should focus on developing skills for active listening; recognizing and assessing officers' problems; determining the need for referral to professionals; and selecting the proper resource to provide professional assistance. Training also may cover problem-solving techniques, dealing with death, and responding to relationship problems.

Training must emphasize the need for peer supporters to avoid providing therapy, to know their limits as to what they can offer and do, and to contact professionals freely and immediately if they have questions about how to proceed. Training also should stress the need for peer supporters to maintain strict confidentiality unless employees pose a threat to themselves or others or have committed crimes. In such cases, peer supporters must explain what information cannot remain confidential.

Training typically involves lectures, demonstrations, and role-play exercises. In some programs, staff members videotape simulated support sessions and critique the interchange. The 3-day training program provided by the Long Beach, California, Police Department is divided into three parts: explanation, demonstration, and performance. During the training, instructors present psychological principles and later demonstrate them in a simulated counseling setting. The class then breaks into small groups to practice the skills under the instructors' supervision.(10) Trainers in the Rochester, New York, Police Department assess trainee proficiency using a 5-point scale to rate the officers on such parameters as openness to learning and supervision, self-awareness, listening skills, objectivity, and the ability to maintain confidentiality. The trainees must achieve a defined level of proficiency before being allowed to work as peer supporters.(11)

The San Bernardino program invites staff members from a county employee assistance program that serves law enforcement officers to attend at least part of the training so they will not feel as though the peer supporters are competing with them for clients. Staff members from another program encourage peer supporters to meet with private practitioners to allay fears about taking away their business.(12) In fact, peer supporters will need to refer some individuals to area professionals. As a result, these professionals should attend at least some of the training so they understand the nature of the peer support program.(13)

Follow-up Training and Program Monitoring

Most programs provide follow-up to the initial training to reinforce or expand the peer supporters' skills, enable them to share and learn from their experiences, and monitor their activity. The peer supporters for the Rhode Island Centurion Program meet every 2 months for 2 hours of additional training provided by clinical staff from the inpatient hospital the program uses when clients need hospitalization. The training addresses topics in which the peer supporters have expressed interest, such as confidentiality and suicide indicators. Every 3 months, the Counseling Team, a group of professional therapists in San Bernardino, California, that provides stress services to a variety of area law enforcement agencies, offers a free, 3-hour follow-up training session to all peer supporters.

Staff from the Counseling Team and some other programs require that peer supporters complete contact sheet logs.(14) The Counseling Team also asks peer supporters to complete a simple checklist for each support session. The checklist includes a case number and an indication of whether the person was sworn or nonsworn; male or female; management or nonmanagement; and on-duty or off-duty. Also included is a list of stress-related issues for which the employee received support, ranging from problems with co-workers to financial concerns to substance abuse. The forms serve as a means to determine whether any peer supporters are being overworked, not only on the basis of the number of hours they have been spending on support but also as a result of transfers. By using these forms, the director of the Counseling Team learned that two of three homicide detectives serving as peer supporters in one agency had been transferred, leaving the entire responsibility for peer support with one remaining detective. By asking peer supporters to record their current shift assignment, the forms also detect if too many peer supporters are working the same shift, leaving other shifts uncovered.

Finally, the forms may point to temporary departmentwide problems that may need to be addressed. For example, in one department, three-fourths of all peer support hours were being devoted to relationship problems; within a few months, 19 officers had gotten divorced. As a result, the Counseling Team offered a seminar on marriage and family support to the peer supporters.

Stress programs must monitor burnout among peer supporters, both in terms of the ongoing, everyday support and also following particularly intense incidents. If peer supporters seem overwhelmed with their caretaking responsibilities, the program manager may need to get outside help. Local victim/witness assistance programs and chaplains can meet this need. To help prevent peer burnout, the DEA offers an annual workshop called "Healing the Healer" for all clinicians and peer trauma team members who have responded to a critical incident in the previous year.


Several potential weaknesses of peer programs exist. First, peer supporters cannot substitute for the services of mental health professionals. Just as some officers are reluctant to seek professional help, others are unwilling to talk with peer supporters because they want to be counseled by a professional or because they fear a lack of confidentiality in talking with a peer.

Indeed, confidentiality stands as perhaps the knottiest issue related to using peer supporters. Failure by peer supporters to maintain - and for management to respect - the confidentiality of what other officers say to a peer supporter can sabotage a peer support program. Some agencies try to ward off such threats. BATF emphasizes that peer supporters "are mandated to maintain total and complete written reports are made or maintained." Unfortunately, the office grapevine may spread word of an employee's troubles, inadvertently damaging a peer supporter's reputation. Georgia's peer support program may solve this dilemma. There, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council staff set up peer support teams in each of the state's 10 emergency health regions. Members of each region's team provide peer support to the public safety agencies within its jurisdiction, so employees need not turn to a co-worker for help.(15)

More important, however, communication between peer supporters and officers usually is not considered privileged conversation under the law, regardless of department rules, because peer supporters are not licensed mental health professionals. As a result, courts and police supervisors have the legal right to ask what was said during these interactions. This lack of confidentiality under the law can present a major barrier to peer support during critical incident debriefings.

For example, during stress debriefings after critical incidents, officers who participate in the incident sometimes make statements that could be construed as admissions of wrongdoing, including comments that begin with such phrases as "I should have..." or "If only I had...." Law enforcement agencies cannot offer immunity from civil and criminal litigation to clinically unlicensed officers who participate in a debriefing to offer social support and are asked later to testify at departmental hearings or in civil and criminal proceedings about what they heard. As a result, program staff must warn officers who obtain counseling not to say anything incriminating during a counseling or debriefing session with other officers or when speaking privately with a peer supporter. Because peer supporters can be subpoenaed to testify during officer use-of-force trials and administrative hearings, they should not participate in group or individual debriefings following such incidents. However, licensed professional program staff who conduct debriefings and who are protected under certification law in state statute and by Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence cannot be forced to testify.

Even peer supporters who have considerable training in counseling - but still are not licensed - may not be protected by confidentiality laws, depending on the definitions of various types of counselors in state statutes. A Massachusetts state trooper had nearly 300 hours of formal training in stress management, psychology, and related courses and several years of counseling experience both at a local chemical-dependency treatment center and his department's employee assistance unit before being assigned to the unit full time. Although he was not licensed, he considered himself a social worker. Moreover, because his department's policy deemed confidential all counseling provided through the employee assistance unit, the peer supporter told other troopers seeking his help that their communication would be kept in confidence.

In March 1995, a woman filed assault and battery and other criminal charges against a trooper whom the peer supporter had assisted; the trooper was suspended from active duty. The peer supporter subsequently provided additional help to the trooper on several occasions. The peer supporter's records were subpoenaed for the trooper's trial, but the supporter petitioned for a protective order, alleging that because he was a social worker employed by the state, his conversations with the trooper were privileged communication.

Disagreement centered on the state's definition of a social worker. The law specified that "all communications between...a social worker employed in a state, county or municipal governmental agency and a client are confidential,"(16) but the court maintained that the peer supporter was not, in fact, a social worker because he was not licensed. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court later upheld the confidentiality of the trooper's conversations with the peer supporter.(17)

Finally, communication between peer supporters and other officers is never confidential if the officers being offered support appear to be a danger to themselves or to others, have engaged in child or spousal abuse, or have committed other crimes. To minimize legal complications, agencies should consult with a local attorney regarding their state laws and court rulings pertaining to confidentiality.

Confidentiality issues notwithstanding, in some situations, using officers to provide peer support to colleagues in the same agency may not prove effective. BATF officials prefer not to use peer supporters who are located in the jurisdiction of critical incidents involving large numbers of agents because the peer supporters may be too severely affected themselves by the incident to be able to help their colleagues. For example, after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the BATF flew in eight peer supporters who contacted affected agents, their family members, and agents from other jurisdictions assigned to investigate the explosion. In the initial stage, the peer supporters allowed the visiting agents to continue their work without debriefing them but tried to remain visible, a task facilitated by the number of agents who already knew some of the peer supporters. Peer supporters also stayed with survivors and their families at hospitals and in homes.

About three-fourths of the agents' spouses attended the first voluntary meeting with the peer supporters in Oklahoma City. At this meeting, the peer supporters discussed the symptoms of stress the agents and their spouses could expect to experience. A second meeting with spouses included their children. Next, the peer supporters approached all of the BATF employees, starting with those who had been in the building at the time of the explosion. Anticipating that some employees might be intimidated by mental health professionals, only peer supporters ran these initial sessions. Individual-level contact continued as the peer supporters encouraged everyone to approach them voluntarily. The employee assistance program mental health professionals were then integrated into the process.

Finally, in some jurisdictions, general issues of legal liability may make it unwise to establish a peer support program at all. For this reason, the Metro-Dade Police Department's stress program does not include a peer component, while the New York City Police Department requires that its peer supporters become certified alcoholism counselors. Agencies need to examine the issue of liability carefully to determine whether they will be immune from lawsuits if a peer supporter trained by their agency is accused of causing harm to another officer.


Professional stress services will remain essential for helping law enforcement officers cope with the pressure of police work. However, peer support programs can provide outlets for officers who are unwilling or not yet ready to seek professional help, make professional services acceptable to reluctant officers, and furnish assistance that only peers may have the time or understanding to provide. A number of law enforcement agencies already have demonstrated that officers will welcome - at least over time - the help peer support programs can provide. Moreover, when employees get the help they need, their agencies also benefit. Sensitively and conscientiously implemented, peer support programs can provide a significant source of assistance in every law enforcement agency.

The Benefits and Limitations of Peer Supporters


* Provide instant credibility and ability to empathize

* Assist fellow employees who are reluctant to talk with mental health professionals

* Recommend the program to other employees by attesting credibly to its confidentiality and concern

* Provide immediate assistance due to accessibility

* Detect incipient problems because of their daily contact with co-workers

* Less expensive than professionals


* Cannot provide the professional care that licensed mental health practitioners can

* May try to offer full-scale counseling that they are not equipped to provide

* May be rejected by employees who want to talk only with a professional counselor

* May be avoided by employees because of the fear that problems will not be kept confidential

* Require time, effort, and patience to screen, train, and supervise

* May expose themselves and the department to legal liability


1 The information in this article is based on a literature review on law enforcement stress and stress programs, as well as in-person and telephone interviews with program directors, mental health providers, law enforcement administrators, union and association officials, officers, family members, and civilians associated with law enforcement stress programs at a number of agencies. The programs researched for this article were selected based on the suggestions of an advisory board consisting of police psychologists and practitioners and the recommendations of law enforcement mental health professionals gathered at an FBI law enforcement symposium in Quantico, Virginia, in January 1995. This research project was supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Contract OJP-94-C-007. See Peter Finn and Julie Esselman Tomz, Developing a Law Enforcement Stress Program for Officers and Their Families (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997) and "Reducing Stress: An Organization-Centered Approach," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1997, 20-26.

2 Law enforcement therapists emphasize that officers who become peer supporters are not trained to provide counseling and, to avoid misunderstanding about their role, should be called "peer supporters," not "peer counselors."

3 M. McMains, "The Management and Treatment of Postshooting Trauma: Administration Programs," in James T. Reese, James M. Horn, and Christine Dunning, Critical Incidents in Policing (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1991), 191-196.

4 Nancy Bohl, director, The Counseling Team, San Bernardino, California, interview with the authors, July 27, 1995.

5 Peer supporter who requested confidentiality, interview with the authors, July 26, 1995.

6 Jeffrey Atkins, Michigan State Police, behavioral science section, interview with the authors, June 20, 1995.

7 W.C. Mullins, "Peer Support Team Training and Intervention for the Police Family," in James T. Reese and Ellen Scrivner, Law Enforcement Families.' Issues and Answers (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1994), 205-212.

8 Ibid.

9 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Peer Support Guidelines, Alexandria, Virginia, 1993.

10 R. Klein, "Police Peer Counseling: Officers Helping Officers," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1989, 1-4.

11 G. Goolkasian, R.W. Geddes, and W. DeJong, Coping with Police Stress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1985), 57.

12 E. Schmuckler, "Peer Support and Traumatic Incident Teams: A Statewide Multiagency Program," in James T. Reese, James M. Horn, and Christine Dunning, Critical Incidents in Policing, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1991), 318.13 Supra note 4.

14 For an example of a detailed peer log, which may ask for more information than most peers can or will provide, see Blau, Psychological Services for Law Enforcement (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994), 181.

15 Supra note 12, 315-323.

16 Ma. St. 112 Section 135A.

17 Gilbert M. Bernard v. The Justices of the District Court of Cambridge, 424 Mass. 32, 673 N.E.2d 1220.

Mr. Finn is a senior research associate for a private firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a special officer with the Belmont, Massachusetts, Police Department.

Ms. Tomz, a former research associate for a private firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has recently returned to school.
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Author:Tomz, Julie Esselman
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:May 1, 1998
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