How do law enforcement deal with a traumatic event?

Deep down, all the police know it. One day or another, in their career, they will face a traumatic situation. The search for a 12-year-old girl, for example. As soon as the disappearance of Lola was reported, on Friday October 14 at the end of the afternoon, dozens of agents combed this corner of the 19th arrondissement of Paris in search of the slightest clue allowing them to find her trace. A few hours later, three of them will follow a homeless man who discovered the tortured body of the schoolgirl, locked in a trunk stored in the courtyard of a building. Faced with the horror, the professional reflexes, acquired during their training at the police school, take over: while waiting for the forensic identification, it is necessary to preserve the crime scene, to take the identity of the witnesses. Then write a report for the investigators of the minors protection brigade.

But no preparation will prevent such an intervention from leaving lasting traces. “Over time, you get stronger, you learn to take a step back from things. But when you are at impressive crime scenes, it still marks, ”underlines Yvan Assioma, Ile-de-France regional secretary of the Alliance union. How could the police forget the images of the victim, the cries of pain from his relatives? How not to be moved?

Accompanying measures

During the night, the hierarchy of the agents who discovered Lola’s body called the on-call number of the operational psychological support service of the national police (SSPO). It offers police officers “post-event support measures”, that is to say “following a mission or a sensitive intervention”, explains its head, clinical psychologist Catherine Pinson. “First of all, what is important is to identify the personnel who were mobilized for this event and to understand their role,” she continues. The idea is to propose adapted and individualized responses according to the situation and the place they have had. »

The police officers most shocked by this mission were thus able to speak individually with a psychologist. Objective of the session? “Take stock and see how they reacted, what brought them back to more personal things, answer their questions about their job, their place. » Those who wish can be monitored for some time. The others left with instructions to call the psychologist back if the need arose.

In 2021, the SSPO carried out 2,418 interventions of this type, following an event. Around 10,000 police officers were monitored that year by one of the service’s 122 psychologists, spread across the country. And in one year, requests for individual follow-up have increased by 8%. “There is no longer a taboo” with going to consult a psychologist, observes Yvan Assioma.

“There are not only physical and visible injuries”

For a long time, police officers disturbed after a complicated intervention had to “manage on their own”, remembers the trade unionist. “We drank coffee with colleagues, we discussed among ourselves. If the squad leader saw that there was a problem, he referred the officer to the doctor. In 1996, a few months after the wave of attacks that hit France, the SSPO was created to help mobilized police officers overcome their trauma. A request that was made by the police unions. “At the time, the authorities became aware of the fact that there are not only physical and visible injuries. There are also invisible wounds, on a psychological level,” explains Catherine Pinson.

Road accidents, attacks, discovery of corpses, suicides, assaults… After an extremely traumatic event, some police officers and gendarmes may develop post-traumatic stress disorder. “It is a psychopathological entity that occurs when the person has been confronted, directly or indirectly, with an event that could have seriously damaged his physical or psychological integrity”, deciphers Mickaël Morlet-Rivelli, forensic expert in psychology at the court. d’appel de Reims and doctoral student in psychology at the University of Caen Normandy and at the International Center for Comparative Criminology in Montreal. These disorders result in the appearance of signs, such as “hypervigilance, flashbacks, odors or images that come back, sleep disorders, eating behavior,” he continues.

A “psychic wound” long to heal

Mickaël Morlet-Rivelli underlines that there are now “scientifically validated psychotherapeutic treatment methods for trauma”, such as “cognitive or behavioral therapies”.

For their part, the gendarmes have also put in place measures to support soldiers faced with a traumatic event. “First, the hierarchy, which has been made aware, goes on site. They exchange as long as possible and necessary with their staff to provide a form of psychological first aid. It is part of the values ​​of the gendarmerie on which we capitalize, ”explains Colonel Gwendal Durand, deputy director of personnel support at the general management of the national gendarmerie. The 85 psychologists, spread throughout the country, then take over and offer the gendarmes who wish it an individual interview.

These health professionals “decide on the duration of the support or the therapy that they are going to put in place with the gendarme”, continues the officer. And the latter to conclude: “A physical injury is repaired fairly quickly, whatever the consequences. What takes much longer to heal, which is much heavier, is the psychic wound. »

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