It took about a year for the nightmares — the same images coming over and over — to stop.
In them, Kansas City Police Officer Melanie A. Madonia rushed to help a 4-year-old girl who was lying face down after accidentally shooting herself in the head. But each time Madonia gently rolled the girl over, instead of seeing the girl’s face, Madonia saw her daughter’s face.
Madonia knew she needed help coping, but she never reached out. It’s not easy for a cop to do that.
Few realize the extent of what police officers and first responders see on the job every day — the lingering impact it can have, the trauma and stress it can breed, experts say.
Mangled bodies. Domestic violence. Neglected children living in homes with roaches on the walls and no food in the cupboard.
“We have been caregivers and protectors of everyone else but we haven’t done a great job of taking care of ourselves,” Police Chief Darryl Forté said. “But if we’re not OK psychologically and emotionally and physically then we are not going to be able to provide the best services.”
To help, Kansas City police officers, dispatchers, crime scene technicians and others have begun attending a new program at the police academy.
In four-hour sessions, they learn how to recognize, avoid and deal with situations that can trigger stress and anxiety associated with secondary trauma, which is witnessing trauma experienced by someone else.
The sessions help them improve their home lives as well as their ability to relate with the community, so they no longer dehumanize people and issues as means of coping, organizers said.
“This offers education and options to help us better do our jobs and better serve the community,” Forté said.
Last August, Truman Medical Center officials approached several law enforcement agencies about participating in the training. Only Kansas City accepted. Organizers used a $65,000 grant from the Jackson County mental health levy to design the training model. Truman provided administrative and staff support.
Now, police departments in other cities are asking for the program. Kansas City police recently went to Rockville, Md., to speak about it.
Police officers have a high divorce rate, retire early and fall victim to a number of physical and emotional maladies, said Capt. Darren Ivey, who along with a group of officers and others helped develop the training. Some officers deal with job-related stress by working out excessively, he said. Others gain weight or pick up unhealthy habits like smoking or chewing tobacco.
“The way cops deal with that is we push it aside, we joke around it and after a while, we begin to lose compassion,” Ivey said. “So as a police officer, do you really want me to come to your house and handle a very stressful experience when I am not emotionally well myself?”
The emotional toll can reach a boiling point.
Just this month, a police corporal in McKinney, Texas, resigned after a bystander’s video showed him pointing his handgun at teens and wrestling a teenage girl to the ground after responding to a disturbance at a neighborhood pool.
Earlier that day, Cpl. Eric Casebolt had answered emergency calls that included a man shooting himself in the head and a teenage girl threatening to jump off her parents’ roof. Those situations took an “emotional toll” and put Casebolt on edge, his attorney, Jane Bishkin, told CNN.
Kansas City police officials want their officers and workers to have ways to handle stressful situations.
During the training sessions, participants learn techniques and strategies to address trauma. They are taught muscle relaxation exercises, breathing techniques and other calming methods that can be performed at home or work.
In one “mindfulness” activity, participants are given a snack size candy bar. Rather than wolfing it down, participants are to slowly chew the candy and become aware of the texture of the peanuts and smoothness of the chocolate and caramel before swallowing. The idea is to slow down and enjoy the current moment instead of remaining fixated on a past experience.
“I was thinking that these people are going to laugh us off the stage,” Ivey said. “The biggest thing was that they were very open to it.”
Participants also are instructed to pen promises to change or improve specific areas of their personal lives. Class organizers monitor their progress by checking in two weeks after the training and then two months later.
“We needed to co-create with them something that would meet their unique needs and honor them,” said Beth Sarver, a trauma specialist with Truman Medical Center Behavioral Health who helped Ivey conduct the initial training sessions.
So far, 120 officers and civilian employees have gone through the training sessions, which are held twice a month.
The sessions are voluntary for now, but Forté said he plans to make them mandatory for all department employees.
For Madonia, the training “wasn’t a fix but it was an awareness and it opened doors to other things,” she said.
Her nightmares began after she responded in September 2008 to a shooting call in the 3100 block of Bellaire Avenue.
Adults in the kitchen had heard a “pop,” rushed to the living room and found 4-year-old Angelena Jimenez on the floor with a .22-caliber handgun nearby. Ambulance workers rushed her to the hospital in critical condition.
Madonia visited Angelena at the hospital the following day.
But 20 minutes later, as she rode in an elevator, Madonia received word that Angelena had died.
Ten minutes later, a crying Madonia was dispatched to settle an argument over a burrito.
“I wiped my face and I got back into my patrol car and I waited until I got home to deal with it,” she said.
Days later, she attended the girl’s funeral. Only six people were there.
“It really struck me that this beautiful gift from God could grace this earth for four years, leave and only six people were affected,” Madonia said.
Madonia keeps the girl’s funeral program on a bulletin board in her current office at internal affairs, next to the funeral pamphlets of her grandfather, uncle and a friend, along with several inspiration quotes and pictures of her daughters.
“I just don’t want to forget that,” she said.
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