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Feburary 2023 | Volume 17 | Issue 2

Establishing peer support can be a valuable first step in an officer wellness strategy. During difficult times, an officer may be more comfortable approaching a peer who understands the context and has experienced the same stressors. However, the challenges of establishing peer support services may seem daunting in small and rural agencies with fewer officers, smaller budgets, and expansive geography. Nevertheless, a recent pilot project demonstrates ways to address these challenges, putting peer support services within reach regardless of an agency’s size or location. A new guidebook, Implementing Peer Support Services in Small and Rural Law Enforcement Agencies, compiles best practices from this
pilot project.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), in partnership with Cop2Cop/Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and supported by funding from the COPS Office, provided training and technical assistance (TTA) to ten small and rural law enforcement agencies: Redmond, Sunriver, and Albany Police Departments and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon; Radford, Pulaski, Salem, and Virginia Tech Police Departments in Virginia; and Rock Hill Police Department and Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina.

Subject matter experts customized training for each pilot location according to the participating agencies’ goals, though all included practical skills such as effective communication, resilience, and risk assessment. In addition, subject matter experts provided instruction on selecting and training team members, writing policies, protecting confidentiality, and making appropriate referrals to community and mental health resources. Project staff provided additional support and resources as departments implemented their peer support initiatives. Common themes and considerations emerged from the work of the pilot sites and other agencies in the LEMHWA network. The new guidebook is a compilation of lessons learned to share with other small and rural agencies considering similar initiatives.

An agency’s leadership may understand the value of peer support but knowing where to start can still be challenging. A brief survey or focus group can provide insight into officers’ needs and perceptions about peer support. In addition, starting small with one aspect can make peer support accessible to departments with fewer resources. Partnering with neighboring jurisdictions to build a program together can also allow departments to do more with less.

A written peer support policy is highly recommended; this policy should be reviewed by the agency’s legal advisor. The IACP Police Psychological Services Section’s Peer Support Guidelines outline policy development; many jurisdictions also have statutes expressly governing peer
support programs.

Many agencies have minimal expenditures for peer support programs other than staff time. However, some earmark funds as part of their general training budget or under the umbrella of officer wellness activities. In addition, grants, such as the COPS Office’s Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) Program funds, can assist with these programmatic expenses.

Implementing Peer Support Services in Small and Rural Law Enforcement Agencies provides small and rural agencies with the information needed to implement a peer support initiative, including on the following topics:

  • Engaging supportive command staff
  • Establishing trust and buy-in
  • Identifying team members and leaders
  • Surveying needs and setting goals
  • Being clear on confidentiality requirements
  • Writing a policy and creating a budget
  • Initial and ongoing training of the team
  • Promoting peer support services to employees
  • Metrics and evaluation
  • Supporting the peer support team
  • Partnering with neighboring agencies and qualified mental health professionals

This new resource includes an executive summary that can serve as a checklist of essential factors that agencies will want to consider when implementing peer support services.

Additional Officer Safety and Wellness Resources

Policy Guidance:

Officer Safety and Wellness:

Small and Rural Agencies:

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