Lessons Learned from Ferguson

By Jeannine Liebmann, Brian Bauer and Tim Hobart


The August 9, 2014, shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager by a Caucasian City of Ferguson police officer sparked an unprecedented response, both locally and nationally. This small suburban St. Louis community has been dealing with incredible turmoil on many different levels since the shooting. Those affected will continue to struggle with these issues for a long time.

In particular, police and fire departments, city employees and family members are confronted with the aftermath each and every day. As the EAP provider for the City of Ferguson, H&H Health Associates has been responding to this trauma since day one. There are lessons to be learned from all aspects of this situation, including the EAP response.

About Ferguson
To understand the issue, one first needs to know something about Ferguson. This community is one of more than 90 suburban towns and cities in the metropolitan area of St. Louis. For over a decade, Ferguson has been making impressive strides in urban renewal. The abundance of many new and renovated buildings and freshly designed streetscapes has greatly enhanced the attractiveness of the community. New restaurants, shops, and a farmer’s market draw visitors to the city. Ferguson has made great strides in becoming a desirable community in which to work, play, and live. 

Unfortunately, the shooting and its after effects impacted this progress. The afternoon of August 9, the City of Ferguson reached out to the EAP to inform us of the situation and request resources and assistance. While we were in the process of preparing to provide services, the reaction in the community grew to unimaginable proportions, disrupting response to our clients. That weekend the city’s entire communication infrastructure – phones, websites, and online access – was hacked and shut down.

Large crowds of demonstrators rallied around city hall and the police and fire stations, which made access dangerous, if not impossible. Thousands of protestors gathered along streets for days and nights, giving the appearance of a community under siege. It quickly became clear this was not a critical incident for which our typical response would be appropriate, effective, or even possible. 

Choosing the Type of Response
One of the immediate lessons we learned was that this unfolding situation was highly unpredictable, and we knew our assistance was needed. That much was clear. But the question remained, “What type of EAP response was appropriate?”

We wanted to offer Critical Incident Debriefings to police and other city employees but quickly found that even gathering the officers and employees for on-site debriefings presented a challenge. City personnel were in crisis mode and on extended shifts for an indefinite amount of time.

* Education – As a result we distributed information electronically to our clients, not only in Ferguson, but across the St. Louis metro area. The intent was to educate the public about response to traumatic community events, appropriate workplace conversations, and how to help children and teens cope with stress.

* Debriefings and counseling – EAP staff were on-site at Ferguson City Hall within several days of the shooting and frequently thereafter for several months. We needed to provide a visible reminder of EAP benefits and offer immediate support and counseling. Additionally, we received multiple debriefing requests from businesses and community organizations, such as crisis hotlines in or near Ferguson. We also saw a significant jump in requests for individual counseling for those experiencing heightened levels of fear, anger, and anxiety due to the ongoing instability in the community.

Additional Challenges

* Recognize that engaging first responders can prove difficult – In addition to our proactive efforts and use of various methods to respond to our clients, we continued to seek ways to offer ongoing services to those most in need, particularly first responders. Engaging police and other emergency personnel is a significant and ongoing challenge. Uniformed personnel tend to have a unique culture, and there is often a pronounced stigma associated with seeking counseling or other psychological support.

We know many of these first responders and their families could benefit from our services. However, this psychological barrier needs to be overcome if EAPs are to provide face-to-face support. To help overcome this obstacle, we collaborated with a therapist who was a former police officer. In spite of the counselor being considered “one of their own”, there still remains a reluctance to seek counseling.

We continue to explore new ways to engage more first responders because the stress has not lessened. In many ways, in fact, there appears to be a growing sense of discouragement and frustration within the community, not only with the events themselves, but also with the lack of coherent and comprehensive plans to prevent similar problems in the future.

* Consider whether debriefings should be mandatory – One point of discussion with city officials is whether to make attendance at Critical Incident Debriefings and/or counseling sessions mandatory. There are opposing perspectives on this issue. On the one hand, knowing that most first responders will not take advantage of voluntary services, it is tempting to mandate, at minimum, participation in a debriefing. Some would like to take this even further and also mandate individual counseling.

However, research has indicated that mandatory debriefings may be insufficient and possibly counterproductive or even harmful in some circumstances (Adam Stone, Sept. 2013). Anecdotal evidence reveals that forcing someone to seek counseling before he or she is ready can create resistance to not only present but future attempts at intervention. We clearly need to find the critical incident response that effectively reaches the target audience, while ensuring the response is both welcome and helpful.  

* Think about using a two-tiered approach to critical incident response – Studies show that a significant percentage of first responders exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even a decade or more after a traumatic event (Stone, 2013). There is an element of bravado and sense of one’s own invincibility, combined with a persistent belief that seeking counseling is a sign of weakness. This trait is inherent in police, firefighter, and other emergency-related professions. This can prevent first responders from understanding their need for help. Perhaps using a two-tiered approach to critical incident response would be more effective:

1) First, within a few days of the event, provide mandatory, brief educational session(s) that simply articulate the facts and describe “typical” responses to such events. These brief informational meetings could even be held at roll call at the start of each work shift to reach all personnel and offer minimal disruption to their schedules.
2) A week or two later the EAP could offer voluntary groups, similar to Critical Incident Debriefings, to allow participants to talk about the impact of the situation on them personally and obtain more information. Allowing some time to pass between these two sessions might encourage first responders to recognize stress-related symptoms and encourage them to participate in further EAP services, rather than feeling forced to participate and developing resistance to intervention.  

* Be aware that EAP can be an important source of support when other support systems fail – The situation in Ferguson is unique in that it disrupted the support systems normally in place when typical disasters occur. While a police officer might not call a therapist to schedule an appointment, he or she may chat informally with members of their community, including local business owners, service providers, or members of the clergy. But due to increased hostility toward police and other first responders in Ferguson, some officers and emergency workers have found themselves cut off from the support of their local community. In certain cases they’ve even had to move out of their neighborhoods.

When regular support systems are disrupted, it becomes critical for the EAP to maintain a visible presence, continuing to remind first responders and their families of the confidential services available to them.

* Understand that flexibility is crucial – We have had to adapt to unexpected factors that have complicated response to our clients in Ferguson. From the beginning it has been a dynamic situation filled with strong emotions, confusing and sometimes contradictory information, and competing roles and values. There has been intense public scrutiny of every detail and relentless news reports. Those caught in the middle feel a constant sense of uncertainty and heightened tension; they’re aware of threats and potential dangers, yet at the same time they need to continue with their daily lives.

There have also been experts from outside the community, which sometimes impacts our ability to help in unforeseen ways. For example, we held a CISD for city employees following the announcement of the grand jury verdict. Afterward it was discovered that a federal agency had recently held a mandatory group meeting for all city employees, prompting skepticism toward the CISD.

Through later conversations we learned that employees were also suspicious of our agenda; they were distrustful of any outside groups offering their version of support or guidance.  

Lessons Learned
We remain enthusiastic in our role as the EAP for the City of Ferguson throughout this event. We appreciate the opportunities presented by this unprecedented situation and are eager to draw on our experiences to provide more comprehensive and effective services to our clients. In particular, we have identified and summarized some important lessons learned over the past 11 months:

* Significant, public, high-impact incidents like the shooting in Ferguson are wildly unpredictable. We must be prepared to adapt and adjust to constantly changing situations and develop a number of ways to reach out to support our clients in these events.

* One-size-fits-all approaches to Critical Incident Response and EAP services are not sufficient. We need a number of tools available, and we need to use them creatively to reach different populations.

* Prepare for the unexpected. Stay informed of changes and new players involved in these events, and find ways to complement services being provided by other organizations.

* Maintain a visible presence, even long after the original incident. It can take months for some individuals or groups to recognize their need for help.

Summary
As the dust settles and those involved in the events in Ferguson gain some distance from the situation, we are encouraged as we see more individuals reaching out to the EAP for help. Our clients know we are there for them, ready to respond as they become aware of their need for greater support, even as their daily lives return to some semblance of normalcy.

As we go forward, we will continue to observe the needs in this changing environment. We will identify what does and does not work and develop innovative approaches in responding to a crisis. 

Jeannine Liebmann, MA, LPC; and Brian Bauer, LPC; are both EAP counselors with H&H Associates, Inc., based in St. Louis, MO. Tim Hobart, MBA, CEAP, is the CEO. 

Reference

Stone, Adam. “Beyond Debriefing: How to Address Responders’ Emotional Health,” Emergency Management magazine, 9/30/2013.  Retrieved from: www.emergencymgmt.com/training-Beyond-Debriefing-Responders-Emotional-Health.