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GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Great Falls Police Sgt. Rich LaBard responded to a call that not only changed his life, but the lives of other police officers at his agency and others in Montana.
In August 2004, LaBard was the first officer to respond to a shooting on the northwest side of Great Falls.
In an effort to locate the shooter and save children on the scene, LaBard was forced to make one of the most difficult judgment calls imaginable — walking away from a victim who had been shot in the chest and leaving him to die. The severely injured man on the sidewalk grabbed the officer's pant leg as he continued toward the house.
LaBard's voice shook as he told the story, despite years gone by and repetition of the story for groups of law enforcement officers, first responders and their supporters, the Great Falls Tribune reported
The presentation in May was LaBard's third to a group completing the Great Falls Police Department's Citizens' Academy.
"There is a dark side," LaBard said of police work during his presentation, "you need to keep that in check."
The shooting call marked the start of the officer's struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. LaBard's case progressed slowly then made its presence known years after the initial trauma with intense symptoms of flashbacks, hyper-arousal and avoidance.
After ultimately seeking inpatient treatment, LaBard became the "poster officer" for PTSD at the department. His experience inspired him to take a leadership role by offering support and sharing his story.
"Every traffic stop is potentially uneventful or potentially fatal," LaBard told the group. "How do you survive 20 years of that?"
The answer to that question continues to change in the world of law enforcement, along with the perception and understanding of post-traumatic stress.
Mark King is one of four chaplains serving the Cascade County Sheriff's Office. King and the other chaplains complete a training program in Washington state for law enforcement called the Police and Fire Chaplain's Training Academy.
There, King says, he learned how to be an effective "guardian of the guardians" — someone dedicated to guarding the well-being of those who protect the community.
"It's a mission I hold dear," he said.
King visits the sheriff's office and the detention center weekly to talk with deputies and detention officers. He usually rides along with one of the deputies after making his rounds.
King has been working to build relationships with officers and earn their trust since being sworn in in December.
"I understand they need to be guarded," he said.
Despite his careful approach to joining the team, King says he won't shy away from an officer who may need to talk. "I have no problem going up to someone and saying, 'I understand you're having a tough time.'"
In King's experience so far, giving the officers an opportunity to vent and hear their feelings out loud is a helpful first step.
"Most times they can put a finger on what they need next," he said.
The GFPD is filled with "guardians of the guardians" as well.
LaBard's case of PTSD increased awareness of post-traumatic stress among his fellow officers and the department's administration.
"The culture has changed," Great Falls Police Sgt. Rob Beall said. "I know that because my phone rings."
Beall is a peer counselor at the GFPD. He answers calls from officers who need to talk about difficult calls or other challenging moments on and off duty.
Beall answered a call during LaBard's breaking point of sorts in 2012. LaBard suffered a stress-induced flashback and subsequent memory loss. He recalled "coming to" with a duty roster of GFPD officers in his hands. After years of buildup and avoidance, he called Beall for help.
"That's honestly how I became involved in this," Beall said.
Beall was familiar with the effects of post-traumatic stress and grief through his personal life. He said he lent a sympathetic ear to his fellow officers without realizing he was providing peer-to-peer counseling.
Beall said that fellow officers stepped in when he needed help, and when LaBard called he was more than willing to do the same.
"Part of peer support is being willing to take the phone calls or step in at any time," he said.
Law enforcement officers are trained and required to keep their emotions at bay during calls. The act of opening up contradicts that training, Beall said.
Changing and enforcing protocols promote an understanding of normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. For example, supervisors check in with officers one-on-one after mandatory critical incident debriefings, when the team discusses a tough call after the fact.
LaBard noted in his talk that officers can ask for a debriefing if they need one. He also explained that there was no debriefing after the 2004 shooting call. He never learned the man on the sidewalk lived. There was no opportunity for a supervisor or fellow officer to tell him he made the right call.
"Early intervention is the point," Beall said of the GFPD's program, "before it becomes consuming and debilitating."
Another change LaBard helped implement was easy access to information about the Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, offered to city employees. LaBard told the group he asked about the program once, but by the time that person tracked down the contact information for the EAP he decided he didn't need to call.
Now that information is printed on magnets attached to file cabinets around the department. It's made readily available to officers and staff members who need it.
Officer Frank Torres said the counseling referral provided through the EAP coupled with peer-to-peer talks with LaBard have been a "lifesaver."
Torres said he was going through a divorce when he started at the GFPD more than five years ago. He said personal issues and a "grouping" of troubling calls gave him a rough time.
"What officers do and see — it changes you," he said, adding that sometimes he doesn't realize how much a call has impacted him until he talks about it. "The program works and it works really well."
Torres shared concerns about the rate of officer suicides on a national level. He says all law enforcement agencies should be implementing similar programs and protocols to look out for their own.
"These guys are our family away from our family," he said of fellow officers.
That's why Beall answers calls from officers at other agencies, even during his off time.
"There's absolutely work to be done," he said of battling the stigma associated with PTSD and mental health issues.
LaBard was eager to talk to anyone who would listen after completing his inpatient treatment.
The administration the GFPD listened carefully. Now other agencies are looking at the department's program as a model.
LaBard said they haven't sent a GFPD officer to that inpatient facility in a while. "Guys will say something before their whole life's a wreck."
Thanks in large part to the "guardians of the guardians" who answer the calls.