Peer Support in Law Enforcement

by Eric S. Snow, Instructor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail:

            As violence and hostility rise in the United States, law enforcement officers are forced into an increasing number of critical incidents, such as officer involved shooting, line of duty deaths, and active killer situations.  One area that is often overlooked is the mental wellbeing of police officers.  In recent years, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide in the military have become common concepts, but most people are unfamiliar with the same issues in America’s law enforcement officers.

However, some law enforcement agencies in Virginia have embraced mental health programs for police officers.  Officers and dispatchers are being trained as peer support personnel and departments are adding Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams to assist officers and their families during times of crisis.  One role of CISM teams is to conduct defusing, debriefings, and post critical incident seminars.  Defusings occur immediately after the event before the officers have ended their shift.  The purpose of a defusing is for the officers to begin processing their emotions by discussing the event.  Debriefings should occur within 24-72 hours after the event and they continue the progression of processing emotions.  Defusing and debriefings also provide an opportunity for education of the officers on physical and psychological issues they might experience.  These should only be conducted by trained CISM members.  Post Critical Incident Seminars are more in depth assistance for officer in the months after the event.  These events typically last several days and allow officers to discuss the situation and their thoughts, feelings, and emotions with others who have been through similar events.[1]  Several states, including Virginia, have Law Enforcement Assistance Programs (LEAPs) who offer trainings and host PCIS events.  The Virginia organization, VALEAP, was founded in the wake of the April 16th shootings at Virginia Tech[2].

In 2012, based on the effort of Delegate Joseph Yost, Virginia added members of Critical Incident Stress Management Teams to the list of individuals with privileged communication by enacting code section §19.2-271.4.  This section applies to public safety personnel as well as emergency services personnel and allows these first responders who have been involved in critical incidents to discuss the events with peer support personnel without the fear of those individuals being called to testify or having the information released to a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request.  Several exceptions apply to this rule: the officer could waive privilege, criminal activity is revealed, the peer support member witnessed the actual critical event, in order to prevent a crime or threat to public safety, the officer intends to lie during the investigation, or the officer poses a threat to themselves.[3]

A significant amount of research has been conducted on law enforcement stress and critical incidents, but a disconnect between academia and practitioners, which is often seen in many disciplines, results in much of this valuable information being unseen and unused by the individuals and departments who need it most.  Research has centered on stress, anxiety, and depression among police officers[4], police suicide[5], stress and police marriage[6], police subculture and stress[7].  Additionally, some of the research has involved recognition of signs of stress by police administration.  One article featured an interesting partnership between the Cleveland Police Department, the Partnership for a Safer Cleveland, and the United States Army to train police supervisors on indicators of stress for subordinates and first line supervisors.  The program provided laminated cards with indicators and warning signs as well as incentives for seeking help or assisting others in the department[8].

Law enforcement is an ever changing profession and departments must be willing to adapt in order to be successful.  Tactics for active shooters, traffic stops, and criminal investigations are much different today than they were twenty years ago and agencies must be willing to adapt in the area of mental health for officers as well.  Basic academies and law enforcement agencies train officers to be physically prepared for the job, knowledgeable on the laws for enforcement, and fully capable with their issued weapons and equipment before they are allowed to work.  The same standard should apply for the mental wellbeing of each officer.



[1] Add reference

[2] Additional information is available at

[3] Code of Virginia, section §19.2-271.4

[4] Olsen, A. C., & Surrette, M. A. (2004). The interrelationship among stress, anxiety, and depression in law enforcement personnel. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 19(1), 33-44. doi:10.1007/BF02802573

[5] Chopko, B., Palmieri, P., & Facemire, V. (2014). Prevalence and predictors of suicidal ideation among U.S. law enforcement officers. Journal of Police & Criminal Psychology, 29(1), doi:10.1007/s11896-013-9116-z

[6] Roberts, N. A., Leonard, R. C., Butler, E. A., Levenson, R. W., & Kanter, J. W. (2013). Job stress and dyadic synchrony in police marriages: A preliminary investigation. Family Process, 52(2), 271-283. DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2012.01415.x

[7] Unnithan, T. R. P. (2015). In or out of the group? Police subculture and occupational stress. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 38(2), 279-294.

[8] Chapin, M., Brannen, S.J., Singer, M.I., & Walker, M. (2008). Training police leadership to recognize and address operational stress. Police Quarterly 11(3), 338-52.