By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
It’s been a year since three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers were killed in an ambush attack, but officers—and their leadership—are still coping with the aftermath.
The events started with the officer-involved shooting and subsequent death of Alton Sterling on July 5, 2016. This incident sparked unrest across the city leading to large-scale protests. (In May 2017, the Justice Department acquitted officers of any charges in this incident.)
Then on July 17, just two weeks after the shooting, three officers were killed and three badly wounded when Gavin Long of Kansas City, Missouri ambushed officers who were responding to shots fired. Two of the officers killed were with the local police department and one was with the local sheriff’s office.
Dealing with the Aftermath
“The trauma is still affecting us every day,” Chief Carl Dabadie, Jr. of the Baton Rouge Police Department told attendees of the 2nd annual Gulf Coast INLETS seminar in New Orleans. Chief Dabadie was joined by Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, of the East Baton Rouge Sheriffs Department, to share how their agencies responded to this incident and how they’re working to help officers recover.
“We’re trying to get back to what we call normal, but it’s still a struggle,” said Chief Dabadie. “We all went to the scene and the emotional trauma that is still facing us today is crippling.”
The ambush shooting of officers has had lasting effects on individual officers. “There are continuous instances on these squads where officers aren’t showing up for work or, if they do show up, they’re in another world,” said Chief Dabadie. “There are drastic personality differences. We have peer counseling and we’re getting them into it, but the hardest thing for officers to do is to ask for help.”
How to Prepare for a Large-Scale Event
Chief Dabadie advised attendees that they need to prepare for such a series of events. “This can happen anywhere. An officer-involved shooting sparked all of this…don’t think it can’t happen in your jurisdiction,” he said.
He had some recommendations for other agencies dealing with such an event:
- Restrict officers’ hours. During the protests, officers were working 12-hour days for 18 days straight, which was physically and mentally tough for them. Officers were wearing a lot of gear and working all day in the July heat of southern Louisiana. “When we asked them if they needed a break, they all said they were fine,” said Chief Dabadie. “We missed those signs that they were depleted. You’ve got to give officers breaks and rotate them out of high-impact and high-trauma areas so they can decompress and recover.”
- Have a peer-counseling or a chaplain team in place. Be sure to train supervisors on behavioral signs that indicate high-levels of stress. “Supervisors are the ones seeing officers every day and they’ll be the ones to recognize signs of stress including personality changes, sloppy appearance, or regularly calling in sick,” said Chief Dabadie.
- Be prepared for public criticism. During any large-scale event, agencies will face scrutiny and criticism by the public and the media. “We did have officers in body armor [during protests], which we knew we would be criticized for, but officers have to be protected,” said Sheriff Gautreaux. “Dallas changed the whole game—a threat to officers exists so we’re going to have SWAT there.”
- Establish strong working relationships with neighboring agencies now. It is critical to have a pre-established relationship with other law enforcement agencies. “These events were too big for any one agency to handle alone. If we hadn’t had collaborative help from each other, things would have come out differently,” said Sheriff Gautreaux.
- Be proactive about building community relationships. Fortunately, both agencies had built strong community relationships and were able to leverage those relationships during the protests. “Community leaders didn’t want to see those protests get out of hand either. They were on the front lines keeping people calm,” said Sheriff Gautreaux. “There were three days of intense protests and 183 arrests, but only one officer and one demonstrator were injured.”
- Make mental health a priority during the event and long after. Officers had gone through a very traumatic event and they need to know the agency cares about them. Make sure help is available and officers know how to get it.
Steps Toward Changing the Culture of Policing
During the INLETS presentation, Chief Dabadie and Sheriff Gautreaux didn’t shy away from their personal difficulties following this event. “In my 42 years in law enforcement—I was Chief of Police for 27 of them—I’ve been blessed and fortunate. I’ve lost personnel to accidents and sickness, but this was the first time I’ve lost anyone in the line of duty due to a violent act,” said Sheriff Gautreaux. “We all come together as one in those moments, but we have to do that every day.”
These law enforcement leaders emphasized the need for officers to get help when they need it. “We, as police, think we have to carry this big bad load on our back,” said Chief Dabadie. “We each say ‘I can carry this as long as I have to,’ but you’re human and you can’t carry that load forever.”