Why In-house Police Stress and Corrections Stress Counselors Need to be Independent
Police stress and corrections stress arises from two basic causes: the stress intrinsic to the job, and the stress associated with poor or even negligent management. In the former instances, officers may be reluctant to open up to police stress peer counselors (sometimes called “stress officers”) because they are concerned about their confidences being shared with management. This concern is heightened when management itself, or departmental practice, procedure or policy, is a cause of the stress. Even the most well-meaning police stress counselors, who adhere strictly to professional standards of confidentiality, can be put in difficult positions when they believe their counselees have a righteous legal case against management. This can be blatant harassment, or subtle hard-to-prove discrimination. It can be formal procedures which put correction officers at unnecessary risk of harm by inmates or informal practices of favoritism which force police officers to compromise their integrity. When there are added complicating union-management conflicts; I pity the hapless police stress counselors who have a triple allegiance: to their counselee, to the union, and to the bosses who gave them their jobs, evaluates their performance, and signs their paychecks.
One of the cornerstones of a counseling relationship is trust, and the willingness of a counseling client to be candid and self-disclosing. For therapy to be most effective, a client can’t just be honest in what is said, but needs not to be evasive or withholding in what isn’t said. The more a counselee censors what he or she says to their counselors, the less effective the counseling. Peer counselors or professional psychotherapists who are accountable to third parties and must share information about what transpires in meetings, or opinions about their clients progress or lack there-of, are obligated by every professional code of ethics to inform their clients about this fact. Police stress and corrections stress counselors do not necessarily need to have formal credentials, and thus may be exempt from the standards licensed psychologists, clinical social workers, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, and other members of professional organizations, agree to adhere to.
I’m not about to hold my breath waiting for departments to voluntarily assure this confidentiality. Unions typically put such issues at a much lower priority than economics benefits, which is understandable but unfortunate. In fact, I doubt there are any strong advocate groups for promoting strict standards of confidentiality for in-house police stress peer counselors. Only when departments are big enough to afford to hire professional therapists, as some should be congratulated for doing, do they assure a relatively high standard of confidentiality. Even if the opportunities existed, there aren’t enough professional therapists available who even want to work within a police or correction department as an employee assistance counselor. Peer counseling is a vital service and part of a continuum of treatment which should be available to all law enforcement professionals. Not all officers need to see a professionally trained psychotherapist. Police stress peer counselors, and corrections peer stress officers, are dedicated, talented individuals. They frequently act as gatekeepers, deciding when their officers need more intensive treatment. Some go on to get professional degrees and join the ranks of the few of us with both law enforcement and psychotherapy training and experience.
I have written about psychological evaluations , (click here) Doing the right thing and being treated wrong, about the primary role of a police stress counselor being one of providing counseling rather than evaluations and opinions which may be used in litigation or fitness-for-duty reports. Any aspect of the client-counselor relationship that lessens the willingness of the client to be forthcoming will tend to sabotage the outcome. This is one of the similarities between this relationship and the attorney-client relationship. Also, just as in the legal system, the appearance of a conflict of interest is important to consider, only for somewhat different reasons. In court, the appearance of a conflict of interest may taint the outcome of a trial because of the decisions made by the judge or prosecutor. In a therapy or counseling relationship, the appearance of a conflict of interest may cause the client or counselee to be less open or even downright dishonest. The purpose of counseling is to remediate symptoms, to enhance well-being, to return an individual to a previous state of functioning. Ideally it is not to advocate on employees behalf against employers who may have wronged them, although in the real world therapists often do, and should, become advocates for their clients. Advocacy may become a secondary aspect of the relationship, but isn’t the same as therapy.
When entering into a counseling relationship for help with a management-stress induced problem, the client needs to have a clear understanding of the purpose of the therapy, and what role the therapist is going to take should there be disciplinary or legal ramifications. There should be no questions as to the primary allegiance of in-house counselors. They must answer to their own professional and personal codes of ethics when it comes to confidentiality. They must not be in a position where their superiors can order them to reveal confidential information. Nor can they be in a position where their jobs or advancement may be compromised if they take a stand of behalf of an employee contrary to what management perceives as being in their best interests.
Management needs to understand that when they develop an in-house police stress or corrections stress program, they have to take the good with (from their perspective) the bad. They need to hire or assign individuals who not only have the ability to provide the peer counseling and stress debriefing, but who are willing and able to stand up for their clients against management when appropriate. And they must develop creative assurances within the job descriptions and personnel policies to assure confidentiality between peer counselors and in-house police therapists and the employees they counsel. This requires a divergence from the quasi-military structure in law enforcement, where rank is all. I have seen patrolmen and patrol women stress officers, C.O. stress officers and state trooper stress officers all stand up to higher ranking superiors, often at some peril. Some pay a price for this and are seen much the way assertive union officials are seen. But at least the union stewards and officials have protection. I have also seen referrals from certain department’s stress officers to certain therapists dry up because management dropped a hint or two that the therapist was too zealous in advocating for clients.
One way to help maintain the independence of in-house counselors is to have unions write these protections into contracts, and have outside arbitration mandated for any actions taken against in-house counselors. Ideally, such protection shouldn’t become an “us vs. them” issue between labor and management, as it is in the best interest of all concerned to maintain the mental health of employees and remedy any management problems which may add to police stress or corrections stress.