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Officers' mental health a priority for Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety

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Police tape blocks off part of Rose Street while Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety personnel discuss a homicide investigation on Rose Street on Saturday, June 26, 2021. (WWMT/Jay Shatara)

Law enforcement officers face pressures that researchers say can put them at risk of mental health stress and other related problems.

Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Chief Vernon Coakley said being aware of officers' mental health concerns and providing resources to help them are some of the department's many priorities regarding officers' well-being.

"The mental health of the officers of KDPS is very important to me," Coakley said. "They're human beings. This is a humanistic profession and sometimes we forget that these men and women aren't robots; they have families to go home to."

Coakley said with this in mind, the department checks in with officers routinely and after traumatic events.

"We get professionals into the building if someone's in need or a group is in need," Coakley said. "We check on one another."

That awareness of fellow officers' mental health follows an overall trend in studies examining the effects of law enforcement's potentially dangerous jobs.

Recent studies have looked into the need for routine mental health screenings in law enforcement agencies.

An October 2020 study by JAMA Network looked at the prevalence of mental illness and mental health care use among police officers at a large, urban police department.

The survey of 434 police officers found 12% had a lifetime mental health diagnosis and 26% reported current symptoms of mental illness.

"Of these officers, 17% had sought mental health care services in the past 12 months, but officers reported interest in help if a few key concerns were met, including confidentiality assurance," the report said.

Another study, by the National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, found that correctional officers' stress levels are so high, 27% of officers reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I've been in this profession for 28 years," Coakley said. "I've had an array of emotional roller coasters from the job."

For officers, the on-the-job stress is real.

Coakley said he first experienced it early on during his younger days as a law enforcement officer in Detroit.

"I saw a baby that was in my hands and he died while we were transporting it to the hospital and then a couple hours later I had to go home to my one year-old," Coakley said.

Many years later, that memory stuck with him.

Coakley's first-hand experience of the dangers of policing enforces for him the importance of mental health awareness regarding his fellow officers.

"Trauma happens to law enforcement too, and we have to continue to lift law enforcement up; public safety officers, first responders, keeping them safe too," Coakley said.

Editor's note: This story is part of a partnership with Southwest Michigan First's "First & 42" digital news platform. Additional stories can be found on News Channel 3's "First & 42 " web page.

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