'These Men And Women, They're Battling With Things': Stressors Pile Up For Police In Boulder And Around The Country
From COVID-19 to anti-police protests and reform legislation, many officers in Colorado have been dealing with compounding stressors since the start of the pandemic. For some, these challenges are layered on top of existing mental health struggles related to on-the-job trauma.
During this time, Vinnie Montez, a stocky, broad shouldered commander in the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, saw that some of his co-workers were struggling. It occurred to him that members of the public may have little understanding of what law enforcement actually does. He thought about what officers give up, “personally and physically to do this job,” and decided to record a video about it, which now has 2.9 million views.
In his patrol car, talking to the camera, Montez describes some of his experiences, like showing up on the scene of a teen suicide and a car accident.
“Do you know what it’s like to say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ and not be able to get the family member’s agonizing screams out of your mind?” he asks. “Do you know what it's like to give CPR to a 17-year-old kid? To be covered in blood? To do everything you can to save his life but then have him die anyway?”
He posted the video last June, while protests were happening all over the country.
“Do you know what it’s like to try and forget about what you’ve seen, smelled, tasted, felt, heard and touched? Well I do… I don’t want medals and I don’t want your sympathy… give us a little credit for undertaking an incredibly complex and challenging job,” Montez said.
Meanwhile, people were demanding change and calling out racism, violence and over-policing, a movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but borne out of the distrust and trauma that many communities of color have lived with for a long time.
Colorado lawmakers had just passed the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act which changes the rules around deadly force, body cameras and officer liability — among other provisions. The legislation had bipartisan support
Low morale, stress plague departments
Like many others, Vinnie was absorbing messages like ACAB and “defund the police,” particularly through social media and television coverage.
“I felt like we were on an island for a little while and I felt like we were alone,” Montez said.
He describes the impact of messaging like “kill the cops” and “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards).
“I know not everybody thinks that way, but when you see that rhetoric and the overwhelming information about cops, especially online. Wow, that's a lot to take in,” Montez said.
Add in the COVID-19 pandemic and the perfect recipe for struggles within law enforcement took shape.
Protesters described police aggression towards them, using chemicals and rubber bullets.
The situation across Colorado was somewhat different. Many departments experienced small or sporadic protests like in Boulder. Still, mental health is a difficult topic for people in law enforcement to discuss; several individuals that KUNC contacted for this story would not speak publicly because it is so sensitive. Montez, however, wanted to speak up.
“I want people to know that these men and women, they're battling with things,” he said, referring to both past and present.
In a 2018 survey conducted by NBC News and the Fraternal Order of Police, a national membership organization, nearly 80% of police officers reported overwhelming stress on the job. A majority said this has led to lingering emotional issues, such as becoming easily angered, trouble sleeping and relationship problems.
Officers in Boulder are reaching out for help
“It was a heavy season. It's been a heavy season for about a year and a half,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
He worked on the police reform bill at the request of other sheriffs in the state.
“That turned out to be a marathon high stress deal... And in the meantime, our county's covered with ash and smoke from the wildfires. It was dark,” Pelle said.
The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office offers a variety of mental health services, like therapy through an employee assistance program and self-care training, but much of it is voluntary. The department does not require yearly behavioral health screenings. Some counseling is required, though, following certain traumatic events.
“So, we've done a good job of making services available,” Pelle said. “I believe what we haven't done a good job with and what we're trying to develop right now is that level of self awareness and self-assessment.”
But Pelle’s employees have been getting more help since the start of the pandemic. The department’s chaplains and peer support teams have been busy doing more outreach. Their team of psychologists has doubled their hours.
Meanwhile, in March, a tragic incident shocked the community. A gunman killed 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, including an officer with the Boulder Police Department, Eric Talley.
“I have a couple of deputies who were at King Soopers in the second wave and who were shot at and who had to help recover Officer Tally and stand guard over him,” Pelle said. “And they're hurting. So we're trying to help them as best we can and keep them engaged with professional assistance.”
Many see a link between mental health and ability to serve
Rebecca Allanson, the wellness director for the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, who was a police officer herself for 18 years, says the need for counseling has ‘gone through the roof’ over the past year.
“The fragility of the offices needing the services has increased,” she explained. “Anxiety, depression, lack of sleep. Some of the symptomatology is significant.”
In the surveys of community members and law enforcement following protests in Los Angeles and Columbus last summer, on the topic of wellness, researchers recommended the following:
“To implement and sustain the changes the community is demanding, the City of LA and the LAPD must address community trauma as well as the trauma experienced by its members. Unresolved trauma becomes the mechanism by which ‘history repeats itself.’”
The situation varies across the country. Still, in Colorado, Allanson says, preexisting trauma coupled with new stressors are pushing some officers to ask her for time off from work.
“‘It's impacting my family. It's impacting my ability on the job to be cognitively sharp so that I can be safe, so I can keep other people safe,’” Allanson says she hears.
Many who work in the field of law enforcement, including Allanson, say strong mental health is a key component of being able to serve properly.
Still, the reform priorities for the NAACP of Boulder County focus on implicit bias, jail conditions and giving police oversight groups real enforcement power.
“100 trillion percent related, and this is the part that we are not talking about. Mental health for the officers, in my opinion, needs to be where we put the money,” Allanson said.
Little research exists showing a direct link between poor mental health and specific harmful outcomes like excessive use of force. Instead, many advocates and citizens have argued for solutions like less policing and for routing law enforcement dollars elsewhere.
“‘Defund the police’ isn't saying get rid of the police. It’s saying apply them appropriately. And it's appropriate to have police officers who are in a good mental state,” Darren O’Connor, the criminal justice committee chair for the NAACP of Boulder County, explained.
State Rep. Leslie Herod argues that officer mental health has been part of the national conversation, pointing to the four officer suicides following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. She also notes that since 2018, Colorado has made millions of dollars available for officer mental health services as well as for co-responder programs, which pair clinicians with officers on certain calls for service.
But even when the funding is there, getting officers to use services is a persistent challenge: 90% of participants in the Fraternal Order of Police survey said the stigma around getting help is huge.
“I also believe that we need to have ongoing psychological evaluations for our officers just to ensure that they are fit to serve and to protect the community,” Herod said. “My dad was a law enforcement officer for 30 years. And so I know it's not an easy job. And I do hope that officers who need help get it and that their departments support them in getting that support.”
Some do, like Vinnie Montez. Years ago, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office commander had a breakdown after trying to save a teenager who had been injured in a car wreck. He describes feeling like he “hit a wall” and became emotional on the scene, something that had never happened to him before.
“I had seen so many things, heard so many things, experienced so many things that I was angry,” Montez explained. “Because I never dealt with those emotions. I just packed them away.”
He started working less and going to therapy through the department’s employee assistance program. During off-hours, Montez developed his personal identity by getting into stand-up comedy.
A year later, a new normal
On a recent summer evening in Boulder, kids climb all over a patrol car and people are eating tacos from a food truck. The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office is hosting several block parties, this one in a parking lot in a neighborhood near the airport. Montez chats with neighbors and takes pictures with kids.
“This event right here gives us the opportunity to show people the normal side of what we do. People see us when they’re in crisis oftentimes or when things are not going well,” Montez said. “But there’s always going to be people who are gonna come and protest us.”
A few protesters have gathered across the street, holding signs that say “Defund the police” and “No justice, no peace.”
A lot has changed for law enforcement in Boulder since last year. Some in-person events have resumed and morale is improving. But tension over policing persists as incidents of excessive force keep happening across the state.