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Chaplains, psychologists help police during tough times

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Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001 10:00 pm

After Monday's high-profile chase and shootings, a Lodi police officer didn't spare any words in thanking Bill Sherrill simply for being available.

As police chaplain for the past eight years, Sherrill has made it his business to be available to the officers and their families after critical incidents. Sherrill, who retired as a pastor from Faith Fellowship in April 1999 after 42 years at the helm, was the one who began the Lodi police chaplain program.

Since Monday evening Sherrill has spent time with the officers involved in the shooting, talked with the wife of one of the officers and has made follow-up calls others.

"I don't think people realize that officers don't know whether they'll make it back home" at the end of the day, Sherrill said. "That's the work of a policeman."

It is up to the officer whether they want to come to Sherrill and what they want to talk about related to the stressful event, whether it is faith-based or specific to the situation.

"I'm here so they can talk to me anytime about any problem," Sherrill said.

Robert Flint doesn't live in Lodi but the Concord psychologist has worked with Lodi police for about seven years, screening new recruits and debriefing officers involved in critical incidents.

He works with 20 Northern California law enforcement agencies, including the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department, and worked with Lodi officers after Monday's shooting. Some officers directly involved in the shooting have already come to Flint, while colleague Elizabeth Dansie, a marriage and family therapist, has come to Lodi to counsel officers as well.

The importance of Flint and others like him to law enforcement agencies has elevated in the past 10 to 15 years.

Most officers are educated enough to realize the risk involved if they don't debrief after a critical incident, Flint said.

It never used to be that way and because of the heightened importance of counseling, law enforcement agencies have managed to dramatically decrease the number of officers who retire after a critical incident, Flint said.

More than half of all officers involved in fatal shootings would end up retiring 10 to 15 years ago, Flint said. Now that number is 10 percent or less because of counseling officers receive.

It used to be the officers that ended up retiring and hadn't received counseling would "self-medicate" with alcohol to help them sleep and were more likely to have family problems, Flint said.

Flint's services aren't mandatory for Lodi police but highly recommended after critical incidents, Lodi police spokesman Lt. David Main said.

What Flint does with the officers is not psychotherapy but a technique to get the officers to share the emotional tension involved in the critical incident. As a result of that, sometimes the officers do seek psychotherapy.

Debriefing is something that has snowballed over the last 20 years, Flint said. It has sprung from the FBI's behavioral science department which has been in place for about 25 years and the International Association of the Chiefs of Police expressing interest in the technique about 20 years ago.

There has been a gradual awareness of the counseling.

The more the psychologists have proven themselves helpful to the officers the more law enforcement has come back to them, Flint said.

Flint's mother was a newspaper crime reporter and led him to this line of work, he said.

He has debriefed officers in many high profile situations recently including the two officers involved in shooting an undercover officer in Oakland last month.

Flint said it's emergency first aid on a psychological level.

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