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Peer support group helping SAPD officers in need

Officers share stories of how group has helped them

SAN ANTONIO – Though time has passed, the memories of a violent night remain with two San Antonio police officers.

On Nov. 10, 2013, San Antonio police Officers Robert Aguilar and Yvette Meade were seriously injured while trying to subdue an out-of-control man inside a local hospital.

When the incident was over, Aguilar had a life threatening gunshot wound in his leg and Meade's face was injured.

The pair credit their recovery from their physical and emotional wounds to members of SAPD's Peer Support Group, a team of fellow officers who counsel their brothers and sisters in blue.

It took Aguilar nine long months – including a month in the hospital -- to recover from his physical wounds, but thanks to officers in the peer support group he said his emotional recovery was much faster.

"I was told, 'Look this is what's going to happen, this is what you're going to feel.' So, when I got to that stage, I was like OK, this is normal, it's OK to feel this way," Aguilar said. "Once you're involved in a critical incident, you obviously go through a lot of emotions, then once you get out and go home and you have your quiet time, there's not so many visitors and you're just kind of by yourself. I think the visits I got and the phone calls after the fact from members of the team was huge in kind of helping me sort through my emotions. I can honestly say without them I don't know if the transition or what I was going through would have been quite as easy."

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Officer Meade was already familiar with the peer support group.

Prior to the shooting she had joined the team, finding it a natural fit because she'd become a trusted source of advice for fellow officers during her years on the force.

"Some of the guys would come to me and say, 'Hey, don't tell anybody but can I ask you a couple questions,' so I figured I might as well help out my fellow co-workers," Meade said.

Now on the other end of the situation, she found her fellow officers on the team reaching out to her for support. "You go through these mixed emotions. You go through that anger, the sadness. And stuff like that and they talk about it all the time, but it actually happens," Meade said. "I think the program itself helped us a lot and I think both of us healed together. I think we both needed that individual healing as well, not just together but individually."

Now both officers are part of the peer support team.

The internal support network is comprised of 62 officers from all ranks. When a critical incident such as an officer-involved shooting happens those officers reach out to anyone impacted by the traumatic event, providing one-on-one, confidential counseling.

"I didn't realize how important it was until I became a member," Aguilar said. "Obviously I knew what it did for me but once you become a part of the group and you realize just how many people actually need help in different variations, I think that's when you realize the importance of it and how valuable you can actually be."

READ MORE: SAPD pays tribute to officers killed in the line of duty

Police psychologist Dr. Melissa Graham started the program with another officer six years ago after realizing officers needed more than just a psychologist to talk to.

"Sometimes they need further follow-up care that doesn't reach the level of therapy. They just need to know that other officers are there that can reach out and just be a support system for them," Graham said. "We finally decided that it was time to do something for officers when they've been through a critical incident, not just a shooting or other trauma at work, but potentially personal issues too, so they would feel like they had some support."

When an officer needs help they are often referred to Dr. Graham and she finds a member of the team who's been through a similar situation for them to talk to.

"If you pair a peer support person who's been through it with someone who's going through it, then there's not as much stigma because they've experienced the same thing," Graham said. "They've got resources and they don't need to go through this alone because they're not alone."

In a year when San Antonio police have seen two officers killed in the line of duty and other traumatic events -- like a young child killed in a drive-by shooting and the recent response to the immigrants found dead in a trailer -- there's been plenty of need for support.

Graham said when big events happen, they try to be proactive and attend roll calls to remind officers there's a team of people there for them if they need them.

"Officers encounter situations every day that most of us never see. So things like the immigrant deaths, that's hard on people, so we tried to make sure we reached out to everyone at that scene," Graham said. "What we'll try to do in situations like that is get a list of everyone who was at that scene and interacted with those individuals and assign a peer support person to them. They don't have to respond if they don't want to, and that's fine, we just want them to know that there's another officer there for them if they need it."

Aguilar said in his experience with the team, officers are typically pretty open to having a person to talk to. "I can't really think of an incident where I've reached out to somebody and kind of gotten the cold shoulder or they weren't willing to talk," Aguilar said. "You'd be surprised when you go to somebody and you kind of just let them know, 'Hey we're here,' and they really open up to you."

The peer support team is entirely voluntary, officers do it on their own time for no extra pay and oftentimes their family members provide support to the families of officers going through tough times.

According to Graham, the International Association of Chiefs of Police recently learned about SAPD's program and now plan to share it with other departments across the country.

For Officer Meade, it's a true testament to the good work she and the other team members are doing behind the scenes.

"We don't want anyone to fall through the cracks. These are our brothers and sisters, and no matter if you don't know them or not we have a bond," Meade said. "It's really important, it's like my brother and sister are going through a crisis and I want to help them in any way I can."

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