Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Start taking stress of police work seriously again

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When a friend and senior police colleague popped by my place just after supper in September 1989, I didn't realize that his visit would remain forever etched in my mind.

We sat out on the front steps with a glass of wine talking about a number of things, including his appearance at a public inquiry the next day. The scrutiny that the police were facing was extreme, complemented by a seemingly equal measure of one-sidedness.

He left in good spirits. I totally missed that his "see ya" really meant goodbye.

The next day became one of those where-were-you-when moments. A bunch of cop buddies and I were up at Clear Lake for an annual golf tournament. There we got word that my colleague never did make it to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry where there was sharp focus on the shooting of a native leader, the constable who shot him and the follow-up investigation.

My friend took his own life instead.

Some of the evidence made clear that it had all become too much. A letter he wrote shortly before his death reads, "Nothing is private anymore, not even a grieving constable's mental condition. The media eats it up and the circus act continues."

He saw the constable's anguish. Did he recognize his own?

From him, though, came a seed of good that has since helped hundreds, maybe thousands.

It came from the inquest into his death.

Provincial Judge Charles Rubin wrote that the city and its police department should "do all that is necessary to accomplish the expansion and improvement of stress-related counseling and services needed to provide the preservation and protection of the professional integrity of our City of Winnipeg police officers."

Mayor Bill Norrie and the board of commissioners went to work bringing wellness out of the closet.

Psychologist Dr. Bill Davis was brought in to give meaning to Judge Rubin's words and the Winnipeg Police Service Wellness Program became the Cadillac, a nationwide benchmark.

Winnipeg has seen its share of wounded officers, but it's the other, subtle trouble that can be as perilous as the romanticized dangers that play out in the imagination of television and movie writers.

Living the news can be an unyielding burden. Bill Davis's priority was to facilitate normalcy for those who have faced the extraordinary and return them to the game.

He went to work in the aftermath of police shootings and other exceptional moments. He tackled the self-doubt and the what-if guilt that's part of police work. He put perspective to second-guessing, public bashing and the effect of dealing with the community's blackest hearts.

He worked with officers and families meeting challenges of all description. For some, the issue may not have been police related, but with Davis in place and his thousands of appointments there was some testament that the service was living up to Judge Rubin's words of working toward the healthiest possible work environment.

In the years that followed, international recognition was evidenced by New York City's invitation for Davis and his crew to travel there and lead the attack on post-traumatic stress that emergency workers there suffered in the immediate wake of the World Trade Center disaster.

The Cadillac ran like a top for 14 years.

Davis gave 12 months notice before retiring in 2004. The notice allowed city's brass ample time to find a replacement and provide the needed transitional training.

But as Bill Davis retired nobody was there to take over. The Wellness Program was without a formal base of expertise. And seven years later it remains without that base.

In a recent Free Press interview, Winnipeg Police Association president, Mike Sutherland says, "we've been asking for a full-time psychologist, literally, now for years.

"There's not only the physical danger, the legal jeopardy, (but) then there's also the intense public scrutiny and in some cases intense public criticism, in some cases, from the media and in some cases, from people...without any real level of expertise or understanding."

Sutherland speaks of mental health and the Internet Child Exploitation Unit. "How many times can you look at vivid depictions of children being violently and sexually exploited without it having an impact on you."

Winnipeg has a "very young police population ... and the demands of the job are high."

Sources say that the service is continuing to seek a replacement for Davis. In the meantime psychological help is available on a contractual basis. That's a Band-Aid in need of permanency.

My friend wasn't the first cop I knew that took his own life. There have been others since.

The "grieving constable" that he wrote about buckled to the pressure that never quit. Far away, and in his early 40s, he died of alcohol-related heart disease in 1999.

Losing my friend was tough. I hate watching his legacy die.


Robert Marshall is a former

Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2011 J6

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