Police find ways to cope with stress of the job


The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office received two major calls in four hours Monday, one about a missing girl who was found facedown in a canal, and a second for a man whose car had flipped into a canal.

Sheriff Steve Anderson sent the same patrol officers to both accidents. He would have preferred to send a fresh team, but the officers were still on duty.

The 3-year old Menan girl, Wendilynn Harper, died later Monday. The SUV driver, Wayne Walker of Lewisville, is in critical condition at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.

Responding to such instances, especially two so close together, can be emotionally draining.

Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office deputies also responded to a difficult scene this month when they discovered the body of a murder victim inside a home. The body was so decomposed, investigators couldn’t even tell its gender. An autopsy concluded the victim was female but her identity still has not been confirmed.

Law enforcement officers face stressors on a regular basis that the general public may face only once in a lifetime.

In 2008, The Law Enforcement Officer Stress Survey underscored “the widespread contention that police work is extremely stressful,” and that the prevalance of stress-related problems, ranging from anxiety and anger to marital difficulties and even suicide, “is generally viewed as substantially greater than in the general population.”

Bonneville County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brian Lovell, the Sheriff’s Office’s public information officer, said the department tries to keep an eye on patrol officers’ mental health.

“There are things you can’t unsee, smells you can’t unsmell,” Lovell said.

Both the Jefferson and Bonneville sheriffs’ offices offer counseling to deputies who may need to talk. Anderson said none of the patrol officers involved in Monday’s accidents sought counseling.

Although, they may rarely use the services, acceptance of counseling has grown since Lovell started as an officer 23 years ago, and there’s more discussion about mental health and suicide.

“The culture has shifted since my time,” Lovell said. “Years ago people didn’t talk about it or were afraid to go get help.”

Jefferson County Detective Jason Pettingill said he uses family time and golfing to cope with the stress.

Pettingill had been with the department only three months when he received a call for a case he still remembers. It was his first time on patrol alone.

“My first call was a suicide, probably one of the nastiest we’ve had,” Pettingill said.

He did what police always do at the scene of a crime or incident: set up police tape around the area and take pictures of the scene. The case stuck with him when he went home for the night and when he woke up, and for several weeks afterward.

“I still remember it today, what he was like,” he said. “I just had to take a few days to calm down.”

Despite the stress, Pettingill said his job is worth it. He remembered a difficult case he investigated involving the sexual assault of a minor, and said working a difficult case was worth bringing the family justice.

“It’s rewarding for me to put these people in jail for the crimes they commit,” he said. “It’s rewarding to make sure their families are getting the justice they need.”

Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.