Tragic cases like Celina Cass a challenge for investigators
Burlington, Vermont - August 3, 2011
"As a trooper, I can remember just about every mile marker where I had a fatal car crash," said Sonny Provetto, a licensed clinical social worker.
Provetto is a former Burlington Police officer and Vermont State Trooper. Now he helps other cops work through job-related trauma. He says the mental images of gruesome crime scenes stay with law enforcement officials long after the incident has passed.
For the hundreds of investigators working on the Celina Cass case in West Stewartstown, N.H., putting the little girl's tragic death out of their minds when the investigation is over could prove challenging. Provetto says incidents involving children rank fourth in job-related stress, behind killing in the line of duty, losing a partner or having a near death experience themselves.
"They will always remember exactly what it was like for them," Provetto said.
Stressors like these-- if left untreated-- can take their toll. Provetto says cops are twice as likely to commit suicide as die in the line of duty; 25 percent abuse alcohol to cope with their experiences and 6 to 14 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. But unlike war, police officers don't get to leave the geographical area that sparks the trauma.
"The only way police officers are going to stay healthy in seeing stuff like this is by having a great support system," Provetto said. "Being able to talk about it and process their emotions and not being afraid to process their emotion."
There is a peer support team at the Vermont State police and the Burlington Police Department has instituted a wellness program. But Provetto would like to see symptom recognition given more weight at the academy and then stressed at the administrative level.
"It's important when a police leader or administrator can share experiences with younger officers or subordinates because it allows them to make meaning of that stressful event," Provetto said.
The academy used to push a "hang tough" mentality. But now he says the mindset is changing as they try to shed the stigma attached to seeking help.
"We are now educating police officers that this is as important as any tactical type of training you're going to have that you are aware of how to manage your stress and how to take care of yourself psychologically," Provetto said.
Provetto says police departments in Vermont are under constant pressure to fill vacancies created by employee burnout and early retirement. He says stress is the top reason these cops are leaving and points out early intervention costs departments four times less than waiting until the issue escalates.
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