April 19, 2018
To help better prepare Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies and emergency dispatchers for stressful situations and coping with the aftermath, the agency is taking part in a pilot program for “mindfulness.”
The practice teaches about “consciously attending to the present moment with as much wisdom and clarity as possible without bias or pre-judgment,” said Laura Bartels, executive director of the Mindful Life Program in Carbondale.
And while it might sound “soft” in the context of law enforcement, the program is beneficial to those in high-stress jobs like policing because it teaches skills that allow “inner well-being,” Bartels said.
“It’s about, ‘How do I respond in high-stress situations in a way I feel good about and doesn’t lead to burn out?'” she said.
Sixteen members of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office — including dispatchers, deputies and front office staff — are two weeks into the eight-week program, which meets for two-and-a-half hours once a week, said Alex Burchetta, director of operations for the Sheriff’s Office.
The idea for participating in the program came from Brett Loeb, the director of the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center.
Loeb said that when he worked as emergency dispatch supervisor in Grand Junction before coming to Aspen, he and his staff dealt with officers being shot, committing suicide and other emotional, traumatic incidents.
“I realized that, especially in dispatch, there’s not much to help people deal with mental traumas,” Loeb said.
So when he came to Aspen, one of his priorities was to find a way to help his staff deal with those traumas, as well as other issues like “compassion fatigue.”
He said he met Bartels at a Pitkin County wellness open house and took the eight-week mindful life course offered by her program along with one of his supervisors. Loeb said he’d never had any experience with meditation and other contemplative concepts taught in the course, but has found it valuable not only in his professional life but his personal life, too.
“It really struck a chord with me,” he said.
The course teaches participants to accept the actual results and realities of a situation — rather than get caught up in expectations — and not worry about things a person can’t control, Loeb said. It also teaches people to accept that they’ve done their best and not second guess their actions, project their personal insecurities or beat themselves up over what happened in the end, he said. For example, he supervised a dispatcher who told him she pictured her own child while talking a parent through CPR on their child.
“You can imagine how unhealthy that is,” Loeb said.
The practice is about understanding your values and acting in line with them when presented with a difficult situation, Loeb said.
That includes understanding emotional triggers and controlling them, he said. It’s about how a person shows up — for a shift, for a conversation, for a talk with your kid about homework — and whether the words and actions expressed therein line up with those values, Loeb said.
“If you can do that most of the time, it leads to genuine happiness,” Loeb said. “I truly believe it’s making me happier and less stressed and less of a person I don’t want to be.
“It’s better than anything I’ve seen in our industry.”
Burchetta said mindfulness can allow deputies to envision how to react in difficult situations, not get caught up in emotions and focus on the task at hand. It also can cut down on the traumatic aftermath a deputy might experience in dealing with, for example, the death of a child or a fatal car accident.
“Often we send people out and we let them fall apart and then spend the next few days trying to put them back together again,” Burchetta said. “Seldom do we act proactively to deal with situations in the moment.”
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said it’s the only program the agency has ever tapped to try to help his staff’s mental health before a tragedy occurs.
The pilot program is costing Pitkin County’s Wellness Program $2,500 for the 16 people to take the course, Burchetta said. It could continue in the future if it proves beneficial, he said.
“I think it’s great,” Burchetta said. “It’s an interesting program and it’s definitely new for law enforcement. I think people will see a tangible difference.”