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New Tampa Police Chief implements a new mental health division for her officers

Posted at 5:28 PM, May 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-10 17:28:33-04

TAMPA, Fla. — After being on the job for just a few months, Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor wants to develop a program to help her officers' mental well-being.

So, the chief sent a lieutenant and three officers to a mental health symposium, specifically for officer safety and wellness.

ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan sat down with the chief for an interview about the new program and her desire to create a holistic approach to help their physical and mental fitness.

She realized after George Floyd's murder and the ensuing protests, it's been a challenging couple of years for police officers all over the country, including right here in the bay area.

"I knew for years before when I worked here that mental health was a real issue for police officers," O'Connor said. "What we see day in and day out, is not typical."

Even though she's new on the job, she's prioritizing her officer's mental well-being after her personal experience early on in her career.

"I knew from a police shooting that I responded to in 1995, that trauma was reality for police officers," she said. "When you see two of your fellow officers, you know, basically, laying on the ground, you don't know if they're gonna make it or not, you know, with a year on the department, the reality was there in my face."

And, to put that in perspective?

On average, police officers experience 188 critical incidents over the course of their career and the average person encounters just seven critical incidents in a lifetime. So, the chief is developing an in-house wellness program with the help of one of her lieutenants.

"Instinctively, we internalize everything that we see and everything that we do," TPD Lieutenant Kert Rojka said. "So, that takes a toll on an officer. Whether they know it or not, it takes a toll on them over a career."

Rojka was tapped to help create that new mental health division within TPD.

"We want to set up peer support for the officers, we want to engage our chaplaincy more," he said. "We're looking at financial wellness for our officers, emotional support, peer to peer connection. There's a lot of aspects of the officer safety and wellness that she wants to implement. And, we're going to do it quickly."

Rojka hopes this will help officers tear down the mental health stigma that still exists.

"For the officers, they need to know it's okay that we're human," Rojka said. "It's okay to know that, you know, we have some bad days that we encounter. And it's okay if you need to speak to someone about those bad days. It's all right."

And for those struggling with PTSD right now?

Chief O'Connor is sending her officers to a new trauma therapy program called, 'Operation Restore' run by the Franciscan Center in Tampa.

''I went through the program myself seven years ago, and I intend on sending as many officers to it as I can afford,'' she said.

Reverend Rick Malivuk runs the three-night, four-day workshops with various group therapy sessions. He said officers form a bond and find they're not alone throughout the process.

The workshop follows a 'Critical Incident Stress Management' program, a form of psychological first aid. It's an intervention protocol, developed specifically for dealing with traumatic events and helps process those memories, instead of letting them fester inside.

''The terminology is 'suck it up, buttercup.' And one of the elements that we teach is that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength,'' Malivuk said.

Malivuk said 'Operation Restore' is attended not just by law enforcement officers but fellow first responders like EMT's, firefighters and dispatchers.

The peaceful grounds, expanding eight acres along the Hillsborough River is conducive to help build resiliency and coping mechanisms.

"I really think a holistic approach is important, not only to keep themselves physically fit, but mentally fit," O'Connor said.

Chief O'Connor is also giving out a book by Kevin Gilmartin, who is a psychiatrist and former police officer.

He wrote a book called, "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement." She ordered 1,200 copies and will give a book to every officer.

Meanwhile, a new behavioral unit also run by Lieutenant Rojka includes four officers and four field clinicians, who go out together on all mental health calls.

It started about six months ago, but it's already been a much-needed resource, especially for those in the community, who need mental health support.

There are approximately 5,000 mental health-related calls per year within the City of Tampa. And of those, TPD averages around 2,400 baker acts per year.

So, this new behavioral unit not only helps in the moment but Rojka said they can follow up when needed, making a personal connection.

"My unit has the ability to go out establish rapport relationship," Rojka said. "We give them city cell phones, so they have a number they can give to the client to say, 'Hey, call us when you need us.' And so they have that immediate connection with the officer and the clinician. And I'll tell you, my team is absolutely terrific."

"A mental health call for service can really go one way or the other. And I think with a more intervention type of an approach rather than reactive, I think that that can only be a win-win for those, you know, those that need the services the most," said Chief O'Connor.

Chief O'Connor wants to expand the behavioral units in the future, going from four co-response teams now to 14 units in a year.