This past week was tough sledding for most of us at MPD. In addition to the "usual" calls that illuminate the human condition at the worst moments, our world turns upside down and sideways when the victims are children. One two-year old murdered, one six month old baby was admitted to a local hospital suffering from significant injuries, and the death of a three week old baby from a tragic accident will reduce grizzled veterans and rookies alike to tears. Given the innocence of children and their particular susceptibilities as vulnerable (and voiceless) victims, I believe that cops are truly caught trying to balance our "mission" of fact finding with the sensory overload of shock, disbelief, grief, anger, and sadness. And right when I think that we've hit rock bottom, MPD was dealt another unfathomable body blow when news came of yet another colleague (the second one this year) who had been given life-altering news of cancer. You must understand, cops who hope to not only "survive" but to "thrive" in this profession are conditioned to be control freaks to some extent. People expect that when the call for restoration to order goes out, the cavalry comes to the rescue to take hold of the situation and to bring back some degree of "normal." From an officer safety standpoint, cops learn that it is important to control a volatile scene and the subjects that are a part of that scene; once control is established, you can then begin the process of investigating the situation and considering the best possible resolutions. We are in the business of fixing things and making them better. But when you can't "fix" it, when bad things happen to young children, when you can't "fight" a diagnosis of "terminal," it rocks your world and leaves you searching and questioning for answers that may never be known or revealed . . .
As police officers, detectives, and forensic investigators, there are seemingly times when the litany of victims and incidents we respond to are not easily reconciled. The protracted exposures to graphic sights/sounds/smells and experiences stay with you. There will be times when you can't sleep, can't eat, don't feel like doing anything, and you feel like getting up from the couch takes too much energy. It is times such as these when it is critically important that the Department AND the individual employee(s) must commit to developing and enhancing a multi-pronged infrastructure of coping strategies in order for us to press forward. We are fortunate to have an excellent employee assistance program led by Tresa Martinez, who has cultivated a niche of support initiatives that is specific to protective service workers (i.e. police and fire).
You can't be a good guardian to the community without also being a good guardian to those who provide services. Thus, our people are terrific in activating a series of safety nets (critical incident debriefings, peer support, administrative leave, check-in's, counseling, etc.) for those who are in need of additional support or for those who just want to talk about their feelings and experiences as a means of constructive self-help in furthering their own health and wellness. And recognizing that an officer's family also has needs that cannot be taken for granted and knowing that someone close to an officer should be aware and alert to subtle changes that may surface, a grass roots movement began last year from within the Department. Calling themselves "Families Behind The Badge," the group is something of a support group to one another as well as to their family member or partner.
It is also important to have a support system surrounding our cops away from the workplace. Every recruit class I have ever taught gets "the talk" about maintaining and expanding the network of people you associate with who are NOT in any way related to policing. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with fraternizing with cops . . .but don't make this practice exclusive. The dangers of only associating with other cops is that there can be a "we" vs. "them" mindset that can evolve, if not properly checked and balanced with the perspectives of others.
I also ask potential hires about what they do for themselves when dealing with stress. I am encouraged when many I speak with say that they have a friend/partner/spouse who they can talk to about anything and everything. No filters. It so important to open up and talk about the feelings that are being experienced---while not necessarily sharing the graphic nature of the "call." Vigorous exercise comes up frequently. Relaxation therapies and mindfulness practices have been invoked with increasing frequency. And many of these aspirants cite their close ties with family to help them navigate turbulent times. One potential recruit turned the table on me during this past hiring process and asked what I did to try to stay centered given the demands of my job?!? I told them that walks with my wife (Jane) help me to clear the cobwebs, I call my Mom every day for a dose of unequivocal love and support, and my faith (particularly when I make the time to reflect and pray) all contribute to helping me "rebound" and face the next day and it's unique challenges.
While mental health and wellness programs are essential mainstays in keeping our employees properly centered and positive, don't ever underestimate the value of what it means to these officers to receive positive feedback from our constituents! Who doesn't like to be affirmed in their work from time to time?!! When an officer receives a thumbs-up, a "thank you," a card, an email or a phone call placed to a supervisor, it means a lot and validates the incredible effort it takes to do this job. It's easy to find fault. . .how about "catching" someone who is more than meeting and exceeding your expectations? As I stated at the outset of this blog, I was in a state of melancholy last week. Despite the efforts of Jane and my Mom, I found it difficult to get out of this "funk" I was in. And then, through the magic of a late night email, came the kind of booster shot I was pining for (by the way, for those who are Catholic, I had just finished up with the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary . . . Hmmmmm :) :
"Dear Chief Koval:
This letter is long overdue but still important. We hope you'll spare a few moments to read it.
In January 2015, my wife and I received a call to our home (in another state) from our adult daughter. She has lived in Madison for many years and advised us that she was addicted to heroin and in need of help. Without help, she believed she would soon be dead. We hadn't heard from our daughter in years and were quite shaken.
My wife and I traveled to Madison and confronted her. By then, she had changed her mind and was unwilling to seek professional help. She left our meeting and began hiding from us. For days we searched all the places we knew to look in hopes of finding her and getting her into treatment. Simply put, we had no luck. Eventually we walked into the police station downtown and had an incredibly fortuitous meeting with a Lieutenant who was the Officer-in-Charge (OIC). We explained our situation and the Lieutenant talked to us about the opiod problem in Madison and the general protocol for people in our situation. In addition however, she showed a tremendous amount of empathy and communicated a willingness to help when/if she could. Over the course of the next week or so, we met with several different people at the PD to give information, descriptions of our daughter, etc. Obviously, when able, several different members of your department put forth effort to help us find and save our daughter. Eventually, one of your officers located her and confronted her and ultimately helped us get in contact with her again. Shortly afterwards she checked into Tellurian for detox and addiction treatment. Today, she has been clean for over a year. She is sharing a new apartment with her boyfriend of many years (who has also detoxed and gone through treatment), and has a new job in Madison. In January she had a baby boy, (our first grand baby), and has been an excellent mother so far.
While we know that our daughter faces many difficult days and many difficult choices over the course of the rest of her life, there is no doubt in our minds that the outcome would have been much different if not for everything your officers did for us. Because of the efforts of your officers, the Madison PD has earned our respect and gratitude in perpetuity. It would have been easy to perceive us as parents of, "just another addict," and not let emotions or humanity figure into their actions. To the contrary, your group simply did what was right and we are so grateful. Today we hear from our daughter almost every day. We've been up to see our grandson and family 4-5 times in the last year and we've had more joyful days together in the last year than we'd had in the ten years prior.
They say, "a hero is someone who steps up, when everyone else backs down." Sir, you have several heroes working for you and you should be really proud of them. Give them a raise...or an award...or a pat on the back. However you choose, let them know that they are respected and appreciated by at least one family that's crossed their path.
When you get a letter like that, you feel ready to take on the world again!