In 1978, three Houston police officers took their own lives. A year later, three more did the same. Department leaders didn’t know what to do — but what they did was start one of the first police psychological services departments in the country. Chief Harold Hurtt says the move made an immediate impact.
“The HPD officer suicide rate fell to ZERO from the mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s. There have been some suicides since then, but NEVER at such a rate like it was back in 77 and 78.”
Now the psych department has six full time counselors who hold more than 400 sessions a month. Director Virdi Lethermon says they take their jobs seriously.
“This is not a game. Lives depend on what we do and whether we do it well. It’s not a game.”
Lethermon says police officers are regular people who have very stressful jobs. Many times for them there is no margin for error. That reality can take its toll.
“People come here in crises. They’re hurting and they’re charged with protecting the streets. But if they’re hurting, if they’re in crises, if they’re under stress then, they can’t do their job well.”
Former police chief Brad Bradford got a few smiles when he talked about the old days when the there was just one counselor and officers were hesitant about seeking help.
“The word starts to get around. If you have issue go talk to Greg. You got canines issues with your dog go talk to Greg. The department continued to grow. You don’t get along with your horse in mounted patrol go talk to Greg. But then by then poor Greg, he needed help. He needed couseling.”
If only things were that simple says Lethermon. Police officers deal with the worst of society on a daily basis. She recounted this story.
“When I first started working here I would tell the officers I’m a great hugger. And if you need a hug don’t ever hesitate to ask me for a hug. And I had an officer one day who was in a lot of pain and started crying in the session and when the session was over I was standing up to leave and he said to me I thought you said you give hugs. I need a hug and you didn’t give me one. And he was about 6’4-200 pounds and he asked me for a hug in the middle of his pain and no one on the street would believe that. That’s the kind of work we do.”
The psychological services division also pre-screens all recruits before they can wear the badge. While they can’t control what happens on the streets, HPD believes one thing they can do is make sure they hire the right people in the first place. Bill Stamps KUHF Houston Public Radio News.