Utah leaders say police officers need mental health support now more than ever

State lawmakers are expected to consider legislation that would earmark $5 million to help police and fire agencies provide mental health resources to its employees.

The morning after a West Valley City police officer was hit by a bullet, Chief Colleen Jacobs told reporters last month that after such a traumatic experience, an officer is going to have scars.

Not just physical scars, she said. Emotional wounds.

That’s why West Valley City’s police department has a licensed clinical social worker on staff, available to speak with any employee who may be struggling, including the officer who was injured in that parking lot shootout.

“At the forefront of our concerns is their healing process,” she said. “Both physically and mentally.”

Until recently, Jacobs’ department was one of the only agencies in Utah that had a therapist on staff. Salt Lake City police recently added an on-staff social worker, whom officers and dispatchers can speak with about their mental health. But they remain a rarity in police departments across the state.

The need for these sort of in-house services may be especially high recently, considering that more officers in Utah were involved in police shootings last year — and more were shot at — than any other year in the previous decade. Eight officers were hit in shootouts in 2021, though none died, according to a database maintained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Yet there’s still an unmet need for mental health services in Utah’s police agencies, police officials have said — one that may get a legislative fix this year.

Helping officers ‘safely cope’

In West Valley City, every officer is required to see the department’s licensed mental health worker twice a year, Jacobs said.

Officers who have been involved in shootings, she said, are entitled to additional support from a peer support group and must be evaluated by a psychologist before they can return to work.

Having an in-house mental health worker is something that Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said she wished her department had — but can’t budget for right now.

She said Unified police had a grant that paid for its officers to see an outside therapist, but it expired this year.

“Every police department’s goal is to get one,” Rivera said of hiring an in-house therapist, “because I truly believe if we are not mentally healthy, then we cannot help our communities as well as we want to.”

If an officer has shot at someone, Rivera said her department requires that officer to go through two therapy sessions before returning to work.

If any red flags are identified in those sessions, she said a peer support group would then get involved to work with and support the officer. Officers also are encouraged to notify the department if they feel they are not ready to return to work.

In December, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown bolstered his department’s ability to help officers by hiring a full-time mental health counselor.

“She brings a deep desire to helping others in law enforcement,” Brown said in a statement. “In her short amount of time with our department ... she is helping our officers and professional staff to prepare and help them safely cope with the psychological strain of their duties.”

A need for privacy

Police experts who spoke with The Tribune agreed that officers need more mental health resources to deal with traumatic events.

But Ian Adams, the executive director of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police, noted that having the ability to consult with a mental health professional in confidence was critical.

Adams shot and injured a man while working as a police officer in West Jordan in 2014. The man, Timothy Peterson, was intoxicated and suicidal, and had pointed a metal bar at Adams that had been fashioned to look like a gun.

Adams said the only wellness check he got from the department at the time was a fitness-for-duty evaluation.

He said many officers are afraid to speak about their emotions in those evaluations because what they say could be reported back to department leaders.

“How useful as a therapeutic intervention would it have been, if at the beginning of [a therapy session],” Adams asked, “the psychologist said, ‘Now, remember, anything you say will be going back to your boss’?”

The FOP started a program in 2015 to allow officers struggling with PTSD or other emotional trauma to see a therapist in a private setting.

State funding could be coming

Making mental health help readily available for more officers has been on the minds of Utah lawmakers.

Retired Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt urged state leaders in an October interim committee hearing to earmark state funding so agencies across Utah can get the care they need.

When his department contracted with a company to provide therapy for its officers, Watt said the company found 78 “red flag” cases among police and Ogden firefighters.

“Suicides, broken marriages, failed families,” he said.

Watt said those in the department — especially those who have displayed “red flags” — can get confidential therapy. But he said it’s come at a cost to the department.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, told the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee in November that he wants to take the first step to secure state-funded, confidential mental health resources for law enforcement employees and their families.

He presented a bill that would earmark $5 million in departmental grant funding for mental health providers, who would contract with an agency to provide periodic screenings. The providers also would perform health assessments within 12 hours of a staffer being involved in a “critical incident.”

That includes police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and others.

Wilcox emphasized that the funding would not only help current employees, but their spouses and children as well. It also stands to benefit retired first responders.

“It reflects the reality that families, by and large, pay the price,” Wilcox said.