Monday, January 13, 2014

Getting Inside A Cop’s Head: Interview with Ellen Kirschman, Police Psychologist

By Mark Young
Dr. Ellen Kirschman
Fiction writers are always trying to figure out what makes a cop tick. What makes cops run toward danger rather than fleeing from danger? Are there any psychological motivations and stresses that might make a law enforcement officer crack or cross the line between law abider and law breaker? How far can their characters be pushed in the novel until their world collapses?

 There are a few writers who have been granted a rare glimpse into the cop culture—their motivations, their fears, and their worst nightmares. Police Psychologist Ellen Kirschmen is one of those unique individuals who has gained access to police culture for more than thirty years. 

Ellen wrote about cops in her doctorate dissertation titled Wounded Heroes. Her first book, titled I Love A Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, was motivated by her desire to help law enforcement families cope with the stresses of the job. Later, Ellen wrote Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know to help mental health professionals and others to know how to relate to cops. Several months ago, Ellen came out with her first mystery novel, Burying Ben, a story about a female police psychologist trying to survive the police culture as a civilian, a woman, and a political liberal. The world of main character Dot Meyerhoff is turned upside down when a rookie cop by the name of Ben—whom she is counseling—unexpectantly commits suicide and leaves behind a note blaming Dot for his death.

MARK: Ellen, welcome to Hook’em and Book’em. I would personally like to thank you for helping those in law enforcement face the psychological challenges of the job. In my career, I have witnessed the damage the job has done to these officers and I know the barriers you must have faced during your career. Thank you! 

That being said, I also must add that I know that in some cases harm has been inflicted on officers when psychologists did not understand the police culture, they violated confidences, or when police departments used these psychologists as a means of discipline to force the cop off the job.

I imagine it is a fine line you must tread when trying to help these officers and their families. Before we get into this subject more deeply, please explain to our readers how you became a police psychologist and what are the goals of this unique professional?

ELLEN: I was working as a clinical social worker in a psychiatric clinic. Several of my clients were married
to cops (this was a long time ago when there were few women officers) and the stories they told about their home lives were quite distressing. When I asked my clients to invite their husbands to a session, not only did the husbands never show up, their wives quit therapy soon after. All this piqued my interest: what was it about the job that created such problems for families? More out of enthusiasm than experience, I put together a class called "I Love a Cop" at my local community college. The first session was filled to capacity and there were 40+ women on the waiting list. I had stumbled into an unfilled need. 

There are approximately 250 police psychologists in the US. By that I mean those whose practices are primarily devoted to public safety and who belong to recognized police psychology organizations such as the police psychological services section (PPSS) of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Over the past several years, the profession has received recognition as a specialty by the American Board of Professional Psychology. In brief, the goal of the profession has been to apply behavioral science principles that are ethically and empirically based to problems facing law enforcement at both the individual and organizational level.  The four basic domains of police psychology practice are assessment, organizational consultation, intervention, and operational assistance. Many, if not most, police psychologists have assessment practices. My background is in the consultation and intervention domains. 

MARK:  The police culture is very guarded for obvious reasons—public scrutiny, possible civil or criminal sanctions, and fear for the safety of their families to name a few. It would seem your success in helping officers might depend upon how they got to your office—voluntarily seeking counseling or department-mandated Fitness For Duty (FFD) evaluations. Please define the differences between the goals of voluntary counseling and FFD evaluations?

ELLEN: My practice has always been voluntary. In fact, I spent twenty-five years consulting to one agency where my office was located on the flight path between the briefing room and the locker room. This was an unusual decision made by the officer-led task force who hired me. They wanted to normalize counseling and make it part of healthy self-care. Officers had the option to see me in a private location as well. I did a lot of counseling "on the hoof." Apparently, standing up and talking while leaning on the doorsill doesn't count as therapy. Neither does talking in patrol cars or in the locker room.

There are two major differences between voluntary counseling and FFD evaluations. 1) In an FFD the client is the agency who requests the FFD, not the officer; and 2) There is no confidentiality for the officer in an FFD. In voluntary counseling a clinician could lose his or her license for violating confidentiality. The only exceptions are when the client is a danger to self or others, abusing a child or an elderly person, or incapable of caring for self.

MARK: Under what conditions are FFDs ordered by the police departments?

ELLEN: FFDs have never been my speciality. Your readers are best served by checking out the FFD Evaluation Guidelines published by the PPSS. According to those guidelines the purpose of an FFD is to determine whether the employee is able to safely and effectively perform his or her essential job functions. A FFD is considered when there is an objective, reasonable basis, founded on direct observation, credible third party report, or other reliable evidence, that the employee's ability to work safely and effectively is in question. An FFD should never be used as discipline. Nor, for that matter, should mental health providers ever be used as stand-ins for decent supervision.  

MARK: Let’s switch gears for a moment. You have just released your first novel titled Burying Ben. What is the gist of this novel?

ELLEN: Dr. Dot Meyer has barely settled into her new job as department psychologist for the Kenilworth Police when Ben Gomez, a troubled young rookie that she tries to counsel kills himself. Overnight, her promising new start becomes a nightmare. At stake is her job, her reputation, her license to practice, and her already battered sense of self-worth. Dot resolves to find out not just what led Ben to kill himself, but why her psychologist ex-husband, the man she most wants to avoid, recommended that Ben be hired in the first place. Ben’s surviving family and everyone else connected to him are determined to keep Ben’s story a secret, by any means necessary. Even Ben, from the grave, has secrets to keep. By the time she uncovers the real reasons behind Ben’s suicide and brings the people responsible to justice, Dot has not only resurrected belief in herself, she has also acquired some surprisingly useful new skills: impersonating a public official, burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon. 

MARK: What motivated you to write this story?

ELLEN: I was delusional. After writing two non-fiction books, I actually thought it would be easier to make things up. It isn't. I've always worried that a client of mine would kill him or herself and I've wondered how I would cope with the guilt. Writing Burying Ben gave me a chance to work this out on paper. Writing fiction is payback time. I get to take pot shots at cops, at my fellow psychologists, at my ex-husbands, and myself. Lastly, and most importantly, it is time to talk about police suicide and the fact that officers are two, perhaps three, times as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty.

MARK: You found switching from non-fiction to fiction to be challenging but I suspect you are having fun. Am I right?

ELLEN: Very challenging but a lot more fun. Writing non-fiction is a journalistic endeavor. The challenge is to get your facts right and present them in an understandable, readable package. Fiction requires the writer to capture the reader's imagination so that he or she is locked into the story, cares about the characters and wants to know how the whole thing turns out. Non-fiction readers can pick up a book and put it down again at will. A good novel should have the reader baring her teeth at anyone or anything that interrupts her before she finishes the story. 

MARK:  Just prior to the release of Burying Ben, you and two other colleagues released a non-fiction book Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. Is this strictly targeted toward clinicians, or would others—like fiction authors—find this book of value in understanding cops?

ELLEN: Several mystery writers have told me that they own dog-eared copies of I Love a Cop that they use for inspiration. I think Counseling Cops could be equally helpful. The book is targeted toward anyone who counsels law enforcement officers; in addition to mental health providers that would include chaplains, medical doctors, and peer supporters. 

MARK:  What was the purpose behind writing Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know? Can you provide us an example as to why this book is necessary?

ELLEN: The purpose of writing Counseling Cops was to create culturally competent clinicians. My two co-authors are both retired officers as well as psychologists. Their experiences on-and-off the job make this a much richer book than had I written it myself. As you know, cops find it very difficult to ask for help. They're supposed to solve problems, not have them. To a cop, having problems equals being weak. So when pressure mounts and an officer finally reaches out for help, he or she deserves to see a provider who understands cops and the culture in which they work. Here are two examples from the book of how things can go wrong: 

"Tracy was looking for a therapist. The first therapist he consulted teared up and didn’t think she could bear listening to the kinds of challenges he encountered at work. The second therapist reassured Tracy that he understood the impact of carrying great responsibility because many of his clients were CEOs of large organizations. Tracy responded in anger. 'When a CEO makes a mistake, the company loses money. When I make a mistake someone dies.'" The therapist Tracy finally chose was a combat veteran who knew firsthand what it meant to put your life on the line and the costs of doing it year after year." P. 6.

"Bill had been in two shootings that resulted in his killing two suspects. He was having nightmares and seriously considering quitting police work in order to avoid the possibility of a third deadly encounter. His department EAP referred him to a local clinician who had a lot of experience, none of which involved law enforcement. This was Bill’s first-ever counseling session. The therapist listened to Bill’s story carefully. When Bill was finished talking the therapist asked him “So, are you ready to stop killing people?” Bill left the session very upset. It wasn’t until he talked to some of his friends who had been in therapy that he learned how inappropriate and un-therapeutic this question was and accepted another referral to someone familiar with the police culture." P.8

MARK: What are some of the more prevalent issues you deal with when a law enforcement officers walks through your door? 

ELLEN: As you said earlier, trust and confidentiality are probably the biggest hurdles to forming a therapeutic alliance. In terms of clinical issues, or common problems, cops probably don't vary greatly from their civilian counterparts. I don't know of a scientific answer to your question, but I'd say family problems probably top the list. The issues we cover in Counseling Cops are alcoholism, substance abuse and addiction, depression and suicide, trauma, organizational stress and betrayal, family issues, growing old on the job, sleep deprivation and shift work, and something we call the Emergency Responder's Exhaustion Syndrome which is a combination of depression, exhaustion, isolation, and anger. 

MARK: A lot has changed in the law enforcement community in the last 30 years—including the way stress-related issues are understood and handled by officers and police departments. What are some of the positive changes you have witnessed that might help these officers survive?

ELLEN: Critical incident debriefings are common these days. They vary, of course, in effectiveness, but they are way more helpful than choir practice. Large urban departments and many smaller ones now routinely provide access to low cost confidential counseling as well as police chaplains. In my opinion, one of the best changes is having well-trained and well-managed peer support teams. Cops like talking to other cops, if they can be trusted.

MARK: What are some of the areas that law enforcement might do a better job in helping these officers cope?

ELLEN: I would like to see every agency, big and small, have a confidential peer support program including family members, family orientations at first hire and again every five years, a chaplaincy program, supervisors who are knowledgeable about spotting mental health issues and compassionate when talking to their officers, and easy access for officers and their families to culturally competent, confidential, low cost counseling. I'd like to see police academies devote more time to teaching officers how to manage stress and develop resilience, and I'd like to see field training programs incorporate behavioral science principles and promote wellness, both physical and psychological. 

MARK: What suggestions would you give authors trying to create plausible and realistic cop characters? What sources of information would you suggest?

ELLEN: You mean after reading my books? Go on a ride-along. After all these years I still learn something new every time I do. Attend a citizens' academy. You'll learn a lot and have an opportunity to interact with officers. Volunteer at your local police department. Whatever you do, don't watch cop shows on television. 

MARK: Any other suggestions as to how these authors might obtain a better understanding of this closed culture?

ELLEN: Learn about guns. Practice on the range. Try your hand at a firearms training simulator (FATS). If you're qualified and have the time to invest, consider becoming a reserve officer or putting yourself through a police academy. 

MARK: Are you still a practicing police psychologist or are you pursuing other goals at this point in your life?

ELLEN: I no longer have a private practice. I do continue to teach peer support, self-care for cops, give workshops for public safety families, and for clinicians who want to work with first responders. My biggest commitment is to the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat (WCPR) for first responders with post traumatic stress injuries (PTSI). I volunteer to do four six-day retreats a year. If any of your readers and their spouses or significant others are suffering with symptoms of PTSI, I encourage them to find out more about this amazingly effective, all volunteer, peer driven, clinically guided program at

MARK:  What is ahead in your writing career? More fiction? More non-fiction?

ELLEN: More fiction. I've just completed the first draft of the second Dot Meyerhoff mystery and I can't wait to start revising. 

MARK: What would be one thing you’d like to share with new police officers just starting out in their career?

ELLEN: Remember, this is a job, not an identity (nobody wants to hear that, especially not rookies). Work hard to find some balance in life. Police work entails a lot of negativity. Negativity is contagious. Try not to catch it. Remember that all you can control in life is your professionalism and your integrity. Don't waste time trying to change anyone else. Keep your expectations realistic. You may love the job, but it won't love you back. Most importantly, know the difference between your work family and your real family. Your work family can (and will) be fickle. If you treat your real family with respect, they'll be there when the job isn't. 

Thanks for giving me this opportunity.

MARK: Ellen, thank you for joining us here on Hook’em & Book’em.

Author and writer, Ellen Kirschman, MSW, PhD, has been a police and public safety psychologist for over 30 years. Ellen’s work with first responders has taken her to four countries and 22 states. After giving up her private practice, Ellen spends her time writing, teaching, and volunteering as a clinician at the West Cost Post Trauma Retreat for first responders. Her first book, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, has sold more than 100,000 copies. Her next book, I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know was penned after the tragic events of 9/11. Her next non-fiction book, published this year, was Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know, the third in the ‘Need to Know’ series. Just released, Burying Ben, is her first foray into the fiction world of writing.

Ellen lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, a photographer and a retired remodeling contractor. In their spare time, Ellen and her husband enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking. Find out more about Ellen at her web site at