News | Stressed-Out Cops: SLCPD uses counseling to keep troubled cops on their beats 

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He’s back from a tour of Iraq and reportedly has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It is said he went off his meds and was suicidal. Police have responded to his home on several occasions for reports of domestic violence. He carries a gun.

He also wears a Salt Lake City Police uniform.

This isn’t the case of the Salt Lake City Police officer arrested Jan. 3 at his West Valley City home for domestic violence. That officer has been placed on leave, pending an investigation.

Instead, this is the story of another officer who is still walking the beat for the Salt Lake City Police Department. All appearances are the returned Iraq veteran will continue to serve, having completed therapy sessions ordered after he was kicked out of a bar for drunken rants. City Weekly isn’t naming him because he has not been charged with anything.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank says he is confident the public is safe with the returned Iraq veteran officer wearing a badge. The police department, Burbank says, has resources to heal officers experiencing troubled times.

Stress is part of the job. Always has been. Sometimes stress turns into alcohol problems or flashes of anger taken out on suspects. Often, police stress leads to domestic violence, according to the National Center for Women & Policing, which cites surveys showing violence in 25 to 40 percent of police families.

That the Salt Lake City Police Department worked with a troubled officer following his return from Iraq, is, Burbank says, a story of successful policies for identifying cops in trouble and getting them into therapy.

The returned Iraq veteran was ordered to therapy after a bar scuffle on New Year’s Eve 2006, according to Salt Lake City Police disciplinary records.

He had began harassing security at the club, showing his Salt Lake City Police badge and demanding security guards show their own identification “because they were in police jackets,” the chief’s letter of reprimand says. As the night continued, the officer became increasingly drunk and was twice thrown out of the bar. When Salt Lake Police officers investigated, the officer was “uncooperative, argumentative, used profanity and made demeaning comments to or about officers and employees of the club.”

When discipline was handed down to the officer this summer, the chief’s judgment was suspension from work for 20 hours without pay and mandatory attendance at six hourlong counseling sessions with a therapist.

Contrast that with recent discipline handed down by the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, which, in September, gave a one-year suspension to a St. George police officer for fighting in a Mesquite casino. The St. George officer had been charged.

For the SLCPD officer thrown out of the bar in Salt Lake City, there was no police report to record the incident. Burbank says his officers just happened to be on the scene responding to an unrelated call at the time. Police weren’t responding to the scuffle with security guards and, in their view, no crime occurred. Burbank says there was no reason for a police report. Still, he admonished officers for not bringing the incident to his attention sooner.

Not mentioned in the SLCPD disciplinary records released to City Weekly is that the night before the New Year’s incident at the bar, the officer’s wife had called police to the couple’s home to report a fight.

The officer’s wife was worried because he had talked of killing himself, according to records of the responding agency, which is located outside of Salt Lake City. She reported he smashed a computer, then had taken an anti-depressant washed down with a wine cooler, got in a car and drove away, possibly with two handguns. He was found later that night by Salt Lake City Police. The wife told responding officers that the incident occurred three weeks after her husband had stopped taking prescribed medications.

It was one of several times—before and since—that police were called to the officer’s house for reports of domestic disputes. In none of the cases did the wife claim her husband had hit her. In two incidents, the returned Iraq veteran called police after his wife slapped him across the face.

Several times, the wife intimated to responding officers she had not reported previous domestic violence incidents for fear her husband would lose his police job. Her husband acknowledged telling his wife police would never believe her if she complained, since he already had informed his brothers in blue she was crazy.

Burbank says he was aware of the officer’s full history when determining appropriate discipline and therapy. The chief has the option of referring officers for fitness-for-duty evaluations—examinations by medical professionals to determine if officers should remain on the job—and does so once or twice a year. But this was a case in which Burbank didn’t feel he needed a second opinion.

“We were very concerned,” Burbank says. “[But], whenever I look at discipline, if actions of an officer don’t rise to a situation where I am going to terminate, I have to look at how to prepare the employee to come back to work.”

At the chief’s disposal is an employee assistance program that offers free visits with therapists. The SLCPD also employs a “peer support officer” dedicated full-time to keeping an eye on the mental health of fellow officers and getting them therapy when needed. The department calls in out-of-state specialists when needed and mandates counseling for officers who experience on-duty trauma.

Burbank says police departments aren’t immune from problems that plague the rest of society.

That’s something Salt Lake City residents may want to keep in mind next time they’re pulled over.

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More by Ted McDonough

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