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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

September 2023| Volume 15 | Issue 10

York County covers 990.71 square miles in rural Maine, with a population estimated at 216,000 by the 2022 U.S. census. The county is patrolled by 300–350 sworn law enforcement, depending on the season; some agencies bring on seasonal employees in summer when the population swells with visitors. The Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) identified small, rural departments, such as York County, as having especially high risks of suicide and adverse mental health impacts among law enforcement officers. Because the departments within the county were too small to support departmental peer support teams, they joined together to develop a countywide team. The York County (Maine) Law Enforcement Peer Support Team was established in the fall of 2020 to provide officers with support while ensuring some level of anonymity.

The initial peer support work group consisted of a core of members invested in supporting their fellow officers. They developed a team policy, created an application, and began recruiting. Since the initial work of the core committee, the team has grown to 17 officers, with the numbers varying over the three years of its existence as members retired, moved, and took parental leave. As the team expanded, it added four mental health clinicians who volunteered their services; these clinicians support group debriefings following the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) model and are available for consultation and referral assistance.

As the team has grown, it has reached many officers throughout York County. There have been many requests for group and individual support, and leadership has been open to participation. Following a critical event that made national news, the team activated and provided four concurrent group debriefings for responders, including a separate one specifically for administrative and leadership staff. These debriefings supported over 70 officers from multiple departments who responded to the event and inspired the Maine Chiefs of Police Association to initiate development of their own peer support team.

Currently, the team has provided group debriefings or defusing for 14 separate incidents across the county, as well as numerous sessions of individual peer support for officers. The team distributed a brochure to all departments across the county, allowing many officers to connect with peer support resources discreetly. The brochure also provides information on normalizing stress responses and reactions, how to support and promote resiliency, and community resources available to the officers.

Feedback from peer support participants has included statements such as, “The team seemed stronger and relieved at the end of the debrief” and “This was a great experience! I think the biggest impact our conversation had was to normalize how he was feeling and all the physical/emotional/mental reactions he was having difficulty understanding.” Feedback like this demonstrate the team’s success in normalizing the mental health impacts of the job and in connecting participants to resources.

As the team has increased in number and expanded its network of resources, it has made taking care of one’s mental health, through seeking support and other means, into a normal expectation throughout the county following critical incidents. Conversations about mental health have become more open and direct. This culture shift among law enforcement officers has translated into greater support in their communities. In recognition of the peer support team’s role in this shift, at the Maine Chiefs of Police annual awards ceremony, the 2022 award for outstanding contribution to law enforcement in the state of Maine was given to the peer support team coordinator, Deputy Bob Carr. Deputy Carr and co-coordinator Officer Kaitlyn Sawyer received the 2022 Caring About Lives in Maine Award. The recognition and awards for the team members acknowledge the leadership demonstrated by the team in normalizing the impacts of stress on law enforcement and the need for officers to support each other and themselves.

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