July 13, 2020
Trone bill promotes confidentiality for mental-health services for first responders
U.S. Rep. David Trone is confident his bill providing confidentiality for federal law enforcement officers using peer-support counseling will be passed, saying it has bipartisan support.
The bill recognizes law enforcement officers are being asked “to do too much” and often “to deal with issues that other trained professionals could help them handle,” said Trone, D-6th. “They see so much trauma every day, every month of their lives.”
While the bill is for federal officers, it also calls for officials to develop a report on best practices and professional standards for peer-support counseling programs, and to post that report online in the hope local and state officials use it, Trone said.
It was the suicide of Montgomery County, Md., Officer Thomas “T.J.” Bomba last fall that led Trone to sponsor the bill.
Bomba died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being found Oct. 14 on the top level of a Silver Spring, Md., parking garage, according to a department news release.
In the wake of Bomba’s death, Trone hosted a roundtable with Montgomery County emergency service officials to discuss mental-health care needs. On May 1, he and U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., introduced legislation for the Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support Counseling Act, or COPS Counseling Act. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., introduced a companion bill the Senate has already passed.
Trone said there’s a stigma that can make officers fearful of talking to people about the things they’ve seen. The trauma they experience can lead to insomnia, depression, anxiety and suicide.
The proposed legislation would prohibit peer-support specialists from disclosing the contents of counseling communications. It outlines exceptions, such as when there is an “explicit threat” of suicide or imminent serious harm or if the information relates to the abuse or neglect of a child, or older or vulnerable person.
If and when the bill becomes law, the attorney general — working with the Health and Human Services secretary — is to develop a report on best practices and professional standards for peer-support counseling programs within two years. That report and a list of training programs is to be posted on the Department of Justice website.
Different jurisdictions might not want to make their program exactly the same, and the federal government shouldn’t make it “totally prescriptive” for local and state agencies, Trone said. But it will benefit those agencies to have access to guidelines for best practices, he said.
The bill has the support of Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore, Hagerstown Police Chief Paul Kifer and county Emergency Services Director R. David Hays.
Hagerstown Police, the sheriff’s office and county emergency service personnel have access to Employee Assistance Programs that provide confidentiality and don’t notify the employer about who has used them, officials said.
For example, the county’s 24/7 access to a clinician is provided through a third-party administrator that invoices the county based on a fee per full-time employee count, according to an email from county spokeswoman Danielle Weaver. No information is shared with the county about when an employee or family member uses that service, she wrote. That service is provided for all full-time county employees and their dependents, including the sheriff’s office, fire and EMS.
Kifer said he’s happy with the confidentiality the city program provides and it has worked well for the department.
Hays and Kifer said there are instances when they know certain people are getting counseling because they responded to a traumatic event and, as department heads, they make sure responders to that event get some kind of counseling.
For county emergency services, that’s a critical incident stress management team, a group that includes behavior health professionals and volunteers through the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. It also can involve one of the association’s chaplains, usually one from the responder’s local community because there can already be a “closer relationship” with that person, Hays said.
Sometimes just being able to “get it off their chest” is what they need, Hays said.
Kifer said Hagerstown Police also requires an officer who has had three “use of force” incidents within a year to see a psychiatrist, even if those incidents were justified. Kifer referred to it as an “early warning system” to see if an employee might be struggling with something or if more training is needed.
Use of force includes use of a firearm, taser, baton or pepper spray, Kifer said. Chasing and tackling a suspect is not considered use of force if there is no injury, he said. However the department is looking at such things more critically because of national events, he said.
State Del. Neil Parrott, Trone’s Republican challenger for the Sixth Congressional District seat in the Nov. 3 election, said it seems the policy Trone wants to put into law is already being followed. But, Parrott said, it wouldn’t hurt to put it into legislation.
Parrott questioned Trone’s support for police in general, referring to Trone’s vote in support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Among the things that proposed legislation would do is expose police officers to civil liability for their actions in events such as no-knock search warrants for drug raids, Parrott said.
The House passed the bill in late June. Whether it will pass in the Senate is in doubt.