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Hillsborough panel looks at programs for jailers

TAMPA — It's a tough job.

The recent Hillsborough County jail abuse flap has focused attention on the strain of working in a detention facility.

Research shows that divorce, substance abuse and suicide rates are higher for law enforcement in general than national averages, due in part to the pressures of the job.

So one thing members of an 11-person commission reviewing Hillsborough jails most wanted to know when they met Friday was what the Sheriff's Office does to help stressed jailers.

The programs are there, jail administrators told them.

Employees can take a stress management class or a physical fitness in-service. Deputies dealing with the aftermath of a crisis, psychological trauma or disaster can turn to the critical incident stress management team, comprised of trained mental health and law enforcement personnel.

A voluntary peer support program offers employees and family members someone to talk to when things get tough.

And deputies can get six free sessions with a psychologist for themselves or family members through the employee assistance program. But do they?

Commissioners didn't hear a lot of firm numbers on how effectively such programs are utilized.

Michele Hamilton, director of human resources, offered a few: About 12 percent of employees or their families take advantage of the employee assistance program each year, for example.

But many of the programs are confidential and voluntary, so statistics are hard to keep. "We're not saying we want X percent to be taking advantage of these programs," she said. "It just depends on what is going on in their lives."

Commissioners wanted to know how well supervisors are trained to spot deputies who might need psychological help.

Mandatory "fit for duty" evaluations by supervisors have been in the single digits since 2005. About 1,500 people work in the jails, but only four were referred for psychological evaluation in 2005, one in 2006 and three in 2007, according to Richard Swann, director of risk management.

"I am amazed at how low the numbers are," said commission member Linda McKinnon, head of the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, asking how that compares with other agencies.

Swann said he hadn't researched that, but didn't think they were missing referrals.

Commission chairman James Sewell said after the meeting that the numbers aren't a surprise. Mental health awareness has been slow to take hold in law enforcement. "It's hard, because we generally think we'll be looked down upon," he said.

The commission meets next from 6 to 9 p.m. April 15 in a location to be announced. It expects to issue findings and recommendations by Sept. 1.

Sheriff David Gee created the panel in February, amidst a flurry of abuse allegations from inmates, including booking video of quadriplegic Brian Sterner being dumped from his wheelchair by a deputy.

Hillsborough panel looks at programs for jailers 04/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 10:24am]
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