NEW ALBANY — Legislation signed into law last month is expected to help build mental health support for officers across Indiana and the U.S.
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, visited the New Albany Police Department on Monday to discuss Senate Bill 867, the Law Enforcement and Mental Health and Wellness Act.
It is designed to provide resources to help law enforcement agencies establish or add to the mental health services offered to officers. Donnelly co-sponsored the bill, first drafted in April 2017, with fellow Hoosier Senator Todd Young, a Republican. It was signed into law in January by President Donald Trump.
Donnelly was joined at a news conference by New Albany Police Chief Todd Bailey; Toby Deaton, vice president for the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police; and New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan, who opened the media event by recognizing Donnelly's efforts.
When he took the podium, the senator referenced the risks police face when on the job.
“Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every single day to protect us here in Indiana and across the country,” Donnelly said. “Sometimes they experience situations that really defy description, the things that our officers walk into. When they knock on the door, they never know what's going to happen on the other side.”
The new law makes available grants to fund peer mentoring programs. It also requires that the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services develop tools for mental health providers, so they can better understand law enforcement, “a culture of its own with challenges of its own,” Donnelly said.
The law provides opportunities for access to evidence-based therapies that may be most beneficial to officers, and calls for the study of the effectiveness of crisis hotlines. It also requires annual mental health wellness checks for police.
The legislation builds off work the senator already supported regarding military service members. The bipartisan Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, which originated in the U.S. Congress and was passed in 2014, requires annual mental heal checkups for all military personnel.
Extending the mental health evaluations to law enforcement is just as necessary, Donnelly said.
“It was a team effort," Donnelly said of the legislative effort that resulted in the law. "It wasn't Democrats or Republicans — it was Hoosiers coming together to try to make it so that these men and women who protect us every day know that we have their back. And we're doing everything we can to make sure they have all the resources they need.”
Chief Bailey said in his more than 26 years in law enforcement, he's seen and experienced a lot of the challenges that are common to officers — graphic and fatal car accidents and crimes scenes. He's even had people try more than once to hurt or kill him.
But it's not rare, especially for an officer who's been in the field a while.
“Almost every police officer you talk to will have that experience or a similar story,” Bailey said.
Situations involving an officer-involved shooting, he said, are very traumatic.
“If you are unfortunate to have been ... in an officer-involved shooting, your life was in danger,” Bailey said. “And you have to within your own mind reconcile what exactly just happened.”
That means the officer has to process not only that they were in danger to the point where they had to use deadly force, but also reconcile the act of actually doing it.
He called the peer mentoring part of the new law a great asset, and one that can directly affect officers in the department. The law provides funding for training mentors in how to assist their colleagues, and how to recognize when help is needed beyond their capabilities.
“It's so much easier for an officer to talk to a colleague than it is some stranger,” he said. “Even if that stranger is a health care professional.”
Deaton, speaking on behalf of the Indiana FOP, said the organization has a focus on addressing the rising number of officers affected by post traumatic stress disorder and police suicides, and this law will support that effort and increase awareness.
“One of the the top priorities of the FOP has been the psychological health [of officers] as they continue to serve and protect the citizens of their communities,” he said. “This legislation will assist in that mission.”
The law, Donnelly said, is a step in protecting those who protect the communities.
“They work so hard and so long on a constant basis to protect us and to keep us safe,” he said of police. “It's an extraordinarily difficult job and we should never forget that the men and women behind the badge are moms and dads, sisters and brothers.”