The Peer Support Team at the City of Racine Police Department
911 – it’s what we dial during an emergency and first responders are present within a short period of time. As members of the public, we can count on first responders to help us when we are in a crisis situation. But not often enough do we consider who those first responders turn to when they themselves are in need. Police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, and doctors are just a few of those involved in various emergencies, depending on the situation.
During their training, the first responders’ main goal is to learn how to best protect and serve the community. Although it is important to provide responders with the resources that they need, it is just as vital to take care of their own needs as well.
Sargent Adam Malacara, the director of peer support at the City of Racine police station, started his own training on mental health awareness as a result of a personal experience. He recognized that suicide among police officers had started to become a problem. From there, he created the Peer Support Team to provide care and support for the police officers at the City of Racine.
The Racine Area Police Department’s Peer Support Team is made of trained colleagues to help their peers cope with any stress or trauma they have been exposed to within their professional and or personal lives. Peer Support is an avenue for talking about problems out with a coworker who is understanding and wants to help.
Malacara has worked for the City of Racine for 18 years and said the academy didn’t have any talk of mental health awareness when he was there.
“It is now changed,” Malacara said. “So I have asked the new recruits that have come through, how much they do. It is basically 8 hours out of 720 hours. They will do 4 hours of mental health wellness and 4 hours of suicide prevention – that’s it.”
Police officers expected to maintain their certification that they receive in the initial round of training. In addition to the mandatory training sessions, they have the option to attend further education conferences and training.
“There are other trainings that we can find online and if someone wants to go to that (training) what we do is we make a request to our training unit and if there is money in our budget for training they can attend,” Malacara said. “We are expected to have a certain amount of hours of training each year anyway to keep our certification.”
While these practices are standard for suicide awareness and prevention for civilians, they are also often used for those same first responders in need of personal help. Malacara took a problem within the police force and implemented materials, trainings, and external sources through the Peer Support Team.
“What we have changed here with our Peer Support Team is to bring more awareness to that whole issue because this is a stressful job and can cause a lot of stress, anxiety, depression which leads to alcoholism, divorce, suicide,” Malacara said.
As a police officer, Malacara has seen first-hand that if co-workers are going through something, they display alarming characteristics that are alarming. The way that Malacara brought this to the attention to the police force in Racine was as simple as a PowerPoint. Mandatory training is another way for him to spread this important message to fellow police officers who are responding to calls everyday.
“We have In-service every fall here, and it is three days,” Malacara said. “The whole department has to go … it’s part of that whole certification and mandatory training.”
Malacara emphasizes during his trainings that everyone is on the same team. Because they are peers, they provide support to each other because that will have lasting effects on the community that they protect and serve.
Racine County also provides support to first responders. “The County provides an EAP, Employee Assistance Program or counseling,” Malacara said.
Through this program, employees get three free counseling visits per year. After those appointments are used, further counseling is dependent on insurance plans.
For Malacara, preventing suicide is the biggest priority for the Peer Support Program. “What’s important to remember is that these untreated illnesses can lead to depression and if you don’t treat that, it can lead to suicide,” Malacara said.
When police officers are displaying those characteristics, it is because they are having issues or problems that haven’t been dealt with properly through counseling.
“A lot of what happens is we get accumulative stress or PTSD from these repeated exposures to traumatic experiences because we see stuff everyday,” Malacara said. “We see dead bodies, abused children, bad accidents, all of this type of stuff and it can start to wear on you.”
The motivation for the program started when a local department in Kenosha, Wisconsin, lost a few members of their team to suicide. Although Racine and Kenosha are not the same size as the Milwaukee force, they were still affected by those losses.
“One of them was a friend of mine so that is what speared me to really get this going here at this department,” Malacara said.
The Peer Support Team has expanded its forces to the families of the current officers and futures officers. Since those people are present in an officer’s life, they would also be able to take note to any behavior that is out of the norm.
“What do now as the peer support team is when new people get hired they have a swearing in ceremony at city hall,” Malacara said. “The day they have that swearing in ceremony, their family always comes in and we meet with the family beforehand. I do the training.t’s a broken down short version of the suicide training that I did for the department, for the family. Just to tell them these are some of the signs you can look for.”
According to Malacara, the police force has this mantra: “If you see somebody acting different, say something.”
The mission of the Peer Support Team at the Racine Police Department is to change the belief among many officers that seeking help is a sign of weakness instead of a sign of strength. Malacara and the Racine Police Department started this program as a way to prevent suicide within their own force.