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Wheeling Police, Ohio County Deputies Rely on Their ‘Brothers’ to Battle Job Stress

Police Learn to Lean on Each Other When Job Overwhelms

WHEELING — Ohio County Sheriff Tom Howard has a “switch.” He encourages his deputies to have one, too.

The “switch” is a metaphor for mentally turning off the day’s stresses that go hand-in-hand with being a law enforcement officer. Without it, the consequences can be harsh, if not tragic. And Howard and his department know that firsthand.

During a one-week period in July 2017, sheriff’s deputies, along with Wheeling Police and West Virginia State Police officers, had to deal with three devastating tragedies.

“We had two young people drown in the creek in the flash flood. My chief deputy John Schultz and I pulled the young man out of the creek and did CPR, but he was already gone,” Howard recalled. “And then we wanted to find Page (Gellner), to give her family closure. When her body was found in the creek days later, it was a deputy who broke the news to her grandfather. It’s something no one likes to do.”

Howard was referring to the July 23 flash flooding that swept Page Gellner, 18, and her boyfriend, Michael Grow, 23, into Brown’s Run in Ohio County. Both perished in the water despite rescuers’ best efforts.

A week later, tragedy struck the sheriff’s department when a deputy died by his own hand. Deputies and other officers who responded to the deputy’s home could not stop the ultimate outcome. That day in July rests heavily on the hearts and minds of all the officers who were there that day, Howard said.

The three tragic events brought deputies, police officers and other first responders to a group counseling session.

“I tell my deputies every day, ‘talk to me, talk to someone.’ I tell them it’s OK to show emotion. I want them to, but some believe there is stigma that it shows weakness.

“We are a brotherhood and we have to look out for each other. I tell people we (county, city and state officers) wear black, green and blue uniforms, but we all bleed blue, we are all brothers and we work together.”

But when he goes home , Howard said, “I turn the switch and my girls are my outlet.”

Howard has three daughters ranging in age from 11-15. He said when he’s home, he doesn’t even have a police scanner on although his middle daughter enjoys listening to the scanner and connecting with her father’s work.

Having a support group, whether of peers or non-police friends, is important to the well-being of anyone in law enforcement, he added. “And when I see one of my deputies showing signs of stress — short-tempered, withdrawing — I ask them to talk it out. It helps,” the sheriff said.

When Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger became head of the city police department in 2012, he immediately saw the need for a formal program to help his officers deal with the psychological effects of certain police and first responder events and scenes. He instituted the Critical Incident Stress Debrief system for the department and other local first responders. The program follows a set list of criteria that deals with anger, depression and other ill effects of tragic situations officers handle.

Schwertfeger enlisted the help of Sgt. Don Miller, who also serves as a prevention resource officer at Bridge Street Middle School, to head up the CISD program. Miller has a master’s degree in mental health counseling from West Virginia University. He also sought the advice of several Ohio County Schools counselors.

The city police counseling program became a necessity after a retired city police officer suffered a mental breakdown and fired shots at the Federal Building in Wheeling. The retired officer was shot and killed by a Wheeling police officer whose actions prevented others from being injured or killed.

“We always make counseling an option for officers, and after the Federal Building shooting our officers responded to two suicide shootings in the same week. We had a large presence at the counseling session after that,” Schwertfeger said.

As chief, he looks for signs of stress within his department and directs officers to either group therapy or private one-on-one counseling offered by the city.

Miller said he makes the initial contact with an officer involved in a critical or overly stressful situation within 24 to 48 hours. “What I see is the accummulated factors, not always a single event. Intervention protects the mental health of first responders … They can’t be distracted on the job,” Miller noted.

He said counseling sesssions have included police and members of the city fire department as well.

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