Episode 21 – Social Work Conversations – Helping Police Officers by Understanding Law Enforcement Culture with former officer, Ron Wyatt

Episode 21 – Social Work Conversations – Helping Police Officers by Understanding Law Enforcement Culture with former officer, Ron Wyatt

Dr. Jones talks with former Police Officer Ron Wyatt about suicide in law enforcement, self-care for first responders, understanding police culture, and bringing rabid raccoons to justice.

Resources:

If you, or someone you know, are at risk for suicide, there are people who can help. We suggest one of the following:

 

Blue Star Directory

Social Work Clinicians in Kentucky who have had training to work with law enforcement officers and their families

https://trc.uky.edu/resources/

 

Emotional Survival” book

A guide for Law Enforcement officers and their families

by Kevin Gilmartin

http://emotionalsurvival.com/about.htm

 

Suicide Exposure in Law Enforcement Officers (research article).

Cerel, J., Jones, B., Brown, M., Weisenhorn, D. A., & Patel, K. (2018). Suicide exposure in law enforcement officers. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30298947

Middle Music: SERENITY by Jason Shaw is licensed under a Attribution 3.0 United States License.

 

Bio: 

Ron Wyatt, Jr.

Ron is a third generation law enforcement officer with 27 years of experience.  He has worked patrol, all manner of investigations, from murder, rape, and robbery to child abuse and served as field supervisor.  He was assigned as a Task Force Officer to the United States Marshal’s Eastern Kentucky Fugitive Task Force where he assisted with sex offender compliance. He recently retired from a mid-size Sheriff’s Office in Kentucky, where he served as Chief Deputy.

During his career, Ron has focused on training, tactical operations and investigations.  He is a certified Field Training Officer, Field Training Supervisor, Firearms (pistol, shotgun and rifle) Instructor, Taser Instructor and Armorer, Less Lethal Instructor, and a First Aid/CPR instructor.

Ron has trained with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, U.S. Marshals, ATF, Chattanooga SWAT and the Williamson County, TN Sheriff’s Office.  He is a graduate of the Lexington Police Basic SWAT School. He has completed more than 1,000 hours of training at the Department of Criminal Justice Training.  He is a graduate of the Criminal Justice Executive Development Program and he holds Kentucky Law Enforcement Council CDP certification as Law Enforcement Executive.

Ron was a founding member and commander of the Special Operations Section with the Sheriff’s Office.  He served as the Assistant Team Leader on the Special Response Team with a prior agency. His responsibilities with both of these positions included coordinating training and selection of team members, surveillance and raid planning.  Ron has participated in hundreds of search warrants.

Ron is married to his high school sweetheart and they have two children.  He is a former deacon in his church and has served in many roles there, including trustee and missionary to Haiti and Vietnam.  Ron was the first President and a founding member of Fraternal Order of Police, Kentucky River Lodge 87.

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TRANSCRIPT

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription and may contain errors. Please check the full audio podcast in context before quoting in print.

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Blake: [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the social work Conversations podcast produced by the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. My name is Blake Jones. Here we explore the intersection of social work research practice and education. Our goal is to showcase the amazing people associated with our college and to give our listeners practical tools that they can use to change the world.

Blake: [00:00:27] I’m joined today by one of my best friends in this whole world Ron Wyatt. Thanks for coming on Ron.

Ron: [00:00:33] Thanks for having me.

Blake: [00:00:34] It’s good to see you this morning and you and I have known each other for a very long time and just as friends and in really doing some work together with police officers and I’m just so thankful that you took your time to to come on today. I know you’ve got a lot of things going on in your life. So really appreciate that.

Ron: [00:00:53] Glad to be here. Thank you.

Blake: [00:00:55] I want to start out with kind of a humorous story that you told me about you know we’re going to talk about some things that are that are pretty tough in police officers and you’ve seen some things in your in your career as a police officer that have been very hard to see and we’ll talk about about some of those but I want to start out with kind of a humorous story that you told me you were working a shift one time and you got called out on a raccoon in Midway Kentucky is that right.

Ron: [00:01:26] That’s right. Perhpas not my finest hour but it was this bad to a rabid raccoon and a tree and Midway. And we’ve been having that issue and we finally located it. When I got there I found that there was about ten feet up in the tree clearly was either either had rabies or distempered or something. And only real solution was to humanely destroy it. And midway it probably wasn’t a lot going on at that time so we were the entertainment. Lots of kids you know young kids and I mentioned to the parents is that you probably want to put your kids up because I want to have to shoot this raccoon. And that was not really get the response that I expected so.

Blake: [00:02:06] So you just did your job right there.

Ron: [00:02:08] I had to do what I had to do. So it was it was the nightly entertainment. Midway I guess.

Blake: [00:02:14] Well you told me one time you know when I first started to get to know about police saying you told me you know I ask you what your job was like and you said it runs the gamut from you know the stuff we see on Cops you know high speed chases and tasing people and all that stuff to rounding up cows are cleaning up animals off the road or shooting raccoons in Midway Kentucky right.

Ron: [00:02:41] That’s right. In rural Kentucky law enforcement covers just about anything you can think of if you can’t figure out whose job to assign it to, generally the police get that.

Blake: [00:02:50] Yeah. So that’s such a broad thing. And I wonder if maybe you can speak from your experience about getting in to being a police officer. How did you change over time. What did you think it would be like and what did it. What did it turn out being like for you?

Ron: [00:03:08] For me, I had a I had a good experience and that my father and his father were both career police officers and I spent a lot of time with my grandfather while he was still working. So the first time I went on I was in a police car with the lights and sirens go on. I was probably 7 or 8 years old responding to a vehicle accident and I knew at that point that was what I wanted to do and always just always knew that’s what I was going to do. So perhaps my perspective is a little different because I grew up in that environment. But overtime law enforcement does take a toll on the officers particularly their families also. But it changes the person that you are. I have no regrets. I’m very glad to had the opportunity to serve my community. But it does come at a price.

Blake: [00:04:00] So you were kind of idealistic when you started out?

Ron: [00:04:06] Like most officers, iI was going to save the world by working hard and doing the right thing and catching the bad guy. You know that’s just not reality. In Texas it takes a few years for that to wear off but most officers that I know including myself did start out with with you know that saved the world mentality.

Blake: [00:04:27] And you did some undercover work right. Is that how you started your career. Tell us a little bit about your police career.

Ron: [00:04:32] I did when I when I first came to Woodford County. I had some law enforcement experience in Louisville I worked there for about two years. And when I came to Woodford County there was a drug problem and I was a new face. No one knew me. So I did some undercover work and worked on various drug task forces throughout you know at various times throughout my career. So I have some background in narcotics investigation.

Blake: [00:05:00] I’ll bet that was interesting to be undercover. Did you did you feel unsafe at times did you…

Ron: [00:05:08] Well I was pretty young. I was 22 or 23 so I don’t think I was smart enough to be scared honestly. And it sounds a lot more glamorous than it is really it’s living in a crappy apartment that has fleas and stuff like that and hanging out with people that you really don’t like. And you know you kind of have to be an actor. So it was a good opportunity it was exciting. It’s good. It’s a good opportunity for a young person with no kids. But it’s just not it’s no kind of life for a family. So.

Blake: [00:05:40] Yeah. So you did have a family after you started into your career. And you know you’ve shared with me that you worked quite a bit as lots of police officers do you. You saw lots of things. And and then you had a family. You had little kids and your wife and. And so how was that. For you. How did you deal with the trauma of your work and the stress and the long hours and you know having this young family. How did how did that work for you?

Ron: [00:06:14] Well for me I had had a major advantage in that my grandmother was had been a law enforcement wife. And in addition to seeing you know to be married to my grandfather during World War II where he was in combat. So my wife and my grandmother became good friends and they were able to just really share those difficulties and the family – law enforcement families really. It’s a major sacrifice that they that they give because it’s so difficult you’re gone all the time. What you’re doing is it’s exciting. It’s fast paced and so when you come home and your wife wants you to take the trash out it’s kind of demeaning in a way. You just got done making some major decisions maybe life and death decisions. So it causes a lot of stress in a marriageAnd then I don’t have children when we first. When I was first in law enforcement I’d been on almost 10 years. By the time I had my first child so I was kind of set in my path.

Blake: [00:07:18] Yeah you’ve you’ve shared with me and I’ve kind of learned in my therapy work with officers that you know you you are problem solvers that you show up on a scene and something’s going on in your job really is to deal with that whatever it is. I mean anything from the raccoon to really life and death your life or another person’s life. And that is mentally exhausting. This hyper vigilant state that that cops stay in. Right. Bringing that home that’s exhausting you know trying to transition back home but then sort of feeling like you know you’re not supposed to have family problems. I’ve dealt with problems all day. My family is supposed to be a place where there aren’t any problems which is kind of a myth that officers have to get over right.

Ron: [00:08:08] Sure. I mean every family every family has problems. You know there’s going to be difficulties in school or behavior issues with the kids or you know police officers don’t make a lot of money so there’s always financial pressure to work more to work overtime. And there’s just not a lot of time for self care is what I would describe it. You know you don’t do the things that you did before if you had a hobby before you were in police work. Chances are you’re not really active in that after you know five or 10 years in the profession because you’re working all the time you’re raising children. In my case my wife was always you know employed full time so we were balancing her schedule my schedule the kids schedule you know the financial pressure of that. So a lot of your recreation or your relaxation time is kind of pushed out. And that’s that has a negative effect on the individual and the relationship both.

Blake: [00:09:02] Yeah. So back to the money thing. You know you don’t make a lot of money so there’s but there’s always extra work to do. Right. And I think firefighters do the same thing.

Ron: [00:09:14] Sure.

Blake: [00:09:14] You know they were at work there you know 24 on job and then on their 48 off they’ll go work at another county or something.

Ron: [00:09:22] Right there’s always an opportunity to make a little extra money whether it’s court time overtime federal grant overtime and again with the pay being fairly low. There’s a lot of pressure. You know financial pressure.

Blake: [00:09:36] Yeah yeah. So I think what you’re talking about is what Kevin Gilmartin calls emotional survival. And you know you gave me that book years ago it’s one of the best books I’ve read on that issue. But what are you what do you see as you know kind of the risks to -emotionally to police officers in their work.

Ron: [00:10:01] Well what happens to police officers is they see the worst in people. They see the worst behavior they see the worst violence even in small town environments you’re going to know a lot of the people. So you have that personal that personal contact I guess with people that you know it’s not just an anonymous person if you work a fatal accident there’s a good chance you’re going to know people involved or at least their family. And so you have that kind of separates you from the normal folks in your town or in your city. And you begin to your social circles will basically you know you start to only associate with other cops because you’re all weird schedules. You have a weird sense of humor pretty quick because if you don’t laugh at some stuff you’re going to go crazy. And a lot of people are offended by that. Or the normal conversations things that seem perfectly normal to the police don’t seem perfectly normal to other folks. There is a certain segment of society that just don’t like us. So you know I’ve personally been in several places where we went to a party or something with some of my wife’s friends or something. And once they found out what you do everybody might leave the room you might be sitting there by yourself. And after that happens a couple of times you just don’t go back. So it really narrows your social circle.

Blake: [00:11:29] Yeah. What did you do or what do you do because you still work. I should mention that you still work in the jail system and you do some undercover work there you do. Tell us what you do.

Ron: [00:11:45] I’m an investigator in the Regional Jail. And if there’s any crime that occurs inside the jail then I investigate and prosecute or take criminal charges on that. So if you put all the criminals in one place even if they’re locked up they don’t stop committing crimes and the opioid epidemic that we have just locking people up does not remove the desire for drugs and they will go to any length to get them.

Blake: [00:12:09] What’s the most unusual or creative way that you’ve seen that someone has gotten drugs into the jail.

Ron: [00:12:18] Well there is a lot of ways to do it.

Blake: [00:12:21] <ha ha>

Ron: [00:12:21] But I think it would be safe to say without giving away any trade secret you can you can take a little Suboxone strip and put it inside your ear. That’s one that I’ve seen that you have to be pretty vigilant to catch that. But any place on the human body or in the human body that you can conceive of they’ve tried – in the mail through the mail over the wall through vendors. You know through staff.

Blake: [00:12:46] you know you know policing and you and I have talked a lot about therapists and how police officers need support and help in some of them need therapy and they need to see a mental health professional. And I wonder if we could talk about what would what do mental health professionals need to know about working with police officers specifically but first responders in general. What do we need to know. How can we help them. What should we do and not maybe not do.

Ron: [00:13:24] That’s a tough question. It’s a very difficult. Police officers are a very difficult group to work with. I’m a third generation police officer. I love law enforcement officers but they can be pretty unlovable. And so the most important thing for a therapist is to have the desire to work with law enforcement. It is going to be difficult. You can’t show up when the officer shows up for the first time. That’s a huge leap for it for that person to take because the police culture discourages that that’s weak. That is you know you must be crazy or you’re just not tough enough to take it. And I do think that’s improving the state of Kentucky’s Department of Criminal Justice Training it’s done a great job in really pushing officer mental health and proactive mental health but the culture is basically that you’re just weak if you can’t take it you just need to suck it up. And so if an officer was to actually make the leap to go and speak to somebody it would be bad if that’s the first time that therapist ever considered in a law enforcement officer what you have done for example which is learning how to learning how police officers think learning how their culture works. The only way you can do that is in a patrol car you can’t learn it in a book you can’t learn it watching a 30 minute TV show. You have to get out there and ride and see what happens on the street and see and hear and smell what goes on. And you have a better understanding of police culture and that to me is critical for – to have a successful relationship with so like that.

Blake: [00:15:13] Yeah. And you were instrumental in me really even starting to do ride alongs. And I enjoy them. They’re hard. You know on several levels I mean just kind of physically I rode the other night with the guy and you know he did a 10 12 hour shift and we didn’t eat the whole time because we were really busy going around to different things and you know that that was hard and it was it was just I was physically I was really hungry and just tired. It was late at night and then just the emotional aspect. You know I shared on this podcast before how I responded to suicide with a police officer and I didn’t go in and I didn’t look at the body but we went to this call really quickly. You know really fast. We were the first ones there and a guy had killed himself in the kitchen. There were you know his wife and his two little kids were out in the yard screaming you know it was just terrible. And I sat in his in his cruiser for an hour and a half he did his job. The coroner came took the guy away. Finally the house was dark and then we drove off and we went to some you know loud music call or something and that really struck me how in policing you go from those kind of intense, emotional moments to sort of mundane. And that must be exhausting.

Ron: [00:16:53] That’s true. I would say police work is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent Excitement perhaps or some variation of that. But you become desensitized there’s really not much you can see after a certain point that bothers you. You’re desensitized to that. But the impact on the families. You never. You’ll never forget hearing a mother scream after she knows she lost her child. More like the family that you describe. That’s the kind of stuff you know forget whatever you have to look at. A some point I think you’re just so desensitized it doesn’t bother you but it does take a toll and then you cannot help but bring that to you back home. And it’s very difficult on the families because when you come home you want to sit on the couch and you want to watch TV and you don’t want to talk to anybody. You’re not mad you’re just needed a little you need a little time to decompress. And I didn’t realize that it became you know for my wife and I think we got pretty good at communication. We’ve been together a long time. Twenty 25 years this year of marriage and we were together before that. But towards the end of my work career working the street if I didn’t want to talk I’d just come in and say as a she would talk a little bit of this if it was I could tell we were going to have an argument or it was going to be stressful I’d just say on a 30 minutes give me a half hour to process my thoughts to sit here in silence maybe maybe sit on my porch and listen to the birds tweet or whatever and then I was able to better change gears to engage with her on -You know she she has a job and she has issues in her life too and I don’t want to be an absent partner.

Blake: [00:18:34] Yeah.

Ron: [00:18:35] So I learned to just say hey I’ve got to have this time right. I need this little block of time to to change the channel in my mind and to put something maybe something terrible maybe just something stressful or maybe just a real busy night. Nothing in particular critical incident wise but sometimes you just need that little bit of space.

Music Interlude: [00:19:11] <gentle acoustic guitar music>

Ron: [00:19:11] And once I verbalized that to her and explain to her I’m not mad I just need this time to get my mind into you know back to being husband father parent that sort of thing.

Blake: [00:19:23] Yeah I think that’s really good. And so much of my work in therapy with families is is that communication of of you know letting each other know what you need and not assuming not thinking you know they’re mad at you or whatever but that they just need some time. Now the flip side of that is you know the officer that comes home and spends six hours playing video games. Right.

Ron: [00:19:51] Right.

Blake: [00:19:51] That’s not good either. And that’s you know that’s checking out and that’s kind of hanging out and waiting for your next shift to start but that 30 minutes that you ask for it sounds like that was really helpful for you just to kind of debrief mentally.

Ron: [00:20:09] It was yeah it worked out great for me. And by explaining that she doesn’t feel like I’m holding something back from her either she’s left out or it’s just that’s part of being a partner and explaining what you need yet at that time.

Blake: [00:20:22] Yeah. Ron I want to talk with you a little bit about the health and mental health risks that police officers go through and been doing some reading by John Volante who does a lot of research in this area and he studies things like high blood pressure and you know sort of the physical symptomology that that happens. But being a police officer is really physically tough you’re in and out of your car a lot there’s a lot of repetitive motion. You wear a heavy vest heavy gun belt. So there’s that physical sort of breakdown you’re riding around a lot. You’re eating fast food.

Ron: [00:21:07] That’s right.

Blake: [00:21:08] A lot. And I know that you’re you know you and I run together some times a week. We try to be physically active. But how about the. I wonder if you could speak to that physical break down and kind of advice that you would have about getting around that and then let’s move into the mental health issues that we see in our work.

Ron: [00:21:33] Well I think the last study that I saw says that the average lifespan in the United States is 72 years. The average lifespan of a police officer is 58 years. So I do think it takes a physical toll for the reasons that you mentioned. You know there’s not a lot of good healthy food options at 3:00 in the morning and you know there just isn’t. So you have to really take take responsibility for your own health like that. Again we talked a lot earlier about financial pressure work and a lot of off duty jobs the time to exercise is the first thing to go because it’s you know you your time for your individual self. That’s the first thing to go. Other things take priority over that. So it does take a toll on you physically. And you have to really really it takes a lot of effort to stay fit. In law enforcement a lot of folks are working 12 hour shifts now and after 12 hours in the patrol car and all that gear it weighs about 35 pounds roughly. And you get in and out of the car many many times you know in all kinds of weather and you know whatever bad has happened is always on the third floor somewhere it’s never on the first floor.

Blake: [00:22:51] Right and who feels like going to the gym and where not after.

Ron: [00:22:54] Nobody – You just don’t have the energy to do so.

Blake: [00:22:56] Yeah.

Ron: [00:22:57] I mean compound that with bad choices and you have a lot of health issues.

Blake: [00:23:03] So the other thing we see in our work is mental health issues and specifically trauma. You know we just did a national study where we asked people – asked officers about their exposure to suicide how many suicides have they witnessed in their career. The average number was 30 and some of them described them describe what they remember what they saw what they smelled. You know all of those things so there’s that. There are those kind of traumatic events. But you’ve you’ve taught me about this cumulative trauma. The little I think you are someone calls them little bee stings.

Ron: [00:23:50] I’ve heard it called that – I wouldn’t take credit for that. But there is a cumulative trauma. I think you build up. I would describe it as armor you know you build up armor when you go to work. There’s a whole process of putting on your uniform you put your armor on. You begin to get into your work mindset to protect yourself not just physically but emotionally from what may happen and you may go. Week a month a long time period and not have anything like that. But every day you have to be prepared. So you do put on your armor every day.

Blake: [00:24:24] Yeah. And people cope with it sometimes in very negative ways like drinking.

Ron: [00:24:29] Sure. And it’s no secret that I’m sure that there’s a high divorce rate amongst police officers there’s I’m sure there’s a high alcohol abuse rate. There’s just you know that’s that’s just part of the police culture.

Blake: [00:24:43] Yeah. And the most tragic outcome is suicide among police officers. And I believe it’s about twice the rate as it is in the regular population. And you know when someone dies in the line of duty you and I just ran a 5 k in honor of Officer who was killed down in Richmond. I believe a couple of years ago and we rightly honor him. You know we have celebrations, we support his family. But when someone dies by suicide it feels like that’s sort of pushed down. And it’s a secret in police culture.

Ron: [00:25:23] That’s absolutely correct. Police suicide is our profession’s dirty little secret. I don’t think my opinion is that it is vastly under reported. I think that more officers take their own lives every year than are killed in the line of duty. And as I retired when I retired and you know I started working on that project together you know I thought that was something that we should really really consider are we prepare and our officers for what they’re going to face. And you know we will train as a police department we’ll send you to all kinds of specialized training to use a radar unit or to go to a shooting school or a driving techniques or interview and interrogation. But we don’t we traditionally have not spent a lot of time preparing our officers for emotional survival and I do think that that is changing. And the Department of Criminal Justice Training is doing a great job in leading that but it requires a cultural change. And I don’t think we’re there yet.

Blake: [00:26:28] Yeah I agree. I hope that it’s changing. I think it is changing as well. You know with with police officers you have kind of this lethal combination of of of course access to weapons and knowing how to use them maybe alcohol use hopelessness. And you know I’ve seen officers be suicidal when they got demoted or when something you know they messed up on the job and they got shamed somehow by their department or they got their gun and badge taken away they got put on light duty and it was so shameful to them that they wanted to take their life.

Ron: [00:27:10] Unfortunately as a profession we shoot the wounded. There’s not a lot of sympathy. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes in police work because of a mistake and police work can be devastating not only to the officer but to the public and to whoever is involved in this may be you know we’re not talking about maybe getting a speeding ticket wrong. You may have to use deadly force in a situation and turns out it wasn’t quite like you thought it was or some innocent person was injured. So we don’t tolerate a lot of mistakes. And rightfully so but that’s a lot of pressure to work under you.

Blake: [00:27:48] Yeah. We’ve talked about some very difficult subjects today. On today’s podcast and we just want to make sure that everyone who is listening to this is safe and that they know that there’s help available for them. So if you or someone you know is feeling suicidal or in crisis in some way whether you’re a police officer or anyone really you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number at 1 800 273 8255. Again that number is 1 800 273 8255.

Blake: [00:28:27] Well Ron, I really want to thank you for spending your time with me today. Just thank you for your friendship your the way you use your life to to help other officers even though you’re retired I mean you could have retired and just gone off and gone hunting and spent your life that way. But you’re you’re very active in your support of the police community. And I just really appreciate you. Thank you.

Ron: [00:28:52] Well thank you. Appreciate you having me. And thank you for your work that you’ve done for taking the time and making the commitment to understand police culture and for the work that you do.

Blake: [00:29:05] You’ve been listening to the social work conversations podcast. Thanks for joining us. And now let’s move this conversation into action.

announcer: [00:29:16] This production is made possible by the support of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. Interim Dean Ann Vail and all the faculty and staff who support researching contemporary social problems and prepare students for the social work profession. hosted by Dr. Blake Jones produced by Jason Johnson with thanks to our Webmaster Jonathan Hagee. Music by Billy McLaughlin. To find out more about the UK college of social work and this podcast visit http://socialwork.uky.edu/podcast