‘It’s been a tough year:’ Lake Mary police chief focuses on mental health as officers nationwide face added stress

Police suicides on the rise

LAKE MARY, Fla. – What most people saw last year in the protests and riots that swept across the country was a call for police reform — for officers, everywhere, to get it right.

What many never saw is how the after-effects — the scrutiny, the criticism, and the anti-police sentiment in some communities — have impacted officers. Lake Mary Police Chief Michael Biles said officers are feeling the stress.

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“Never in my dreams did I believe we’d have 500 people at our local City Hall talking about defunding the police and holding up signs,” Biles said. “But it also goes back to the community. We used that event as a great opportunity to talk to people.”

Biles, like all police chiefs in Central Florida, agreed the actions of the officers that sparked the protests nationwide were wrong and many departments needed to improve and adapt.

But Biles said many officers on the street who have been getting it right are feeling overwhelmed and sometimes it’s too much to take.

The website “Blue H.E.L.P.,” which stands for honor, educate, lead and prevent, tracks police suicides as much as possible. There is no national database. Already this year, the site has counted 57 suicides among officers, including two Capitol police officers after the riots.

Four officers in Florida have taken their own lives this year, including a Winter Park officer in April.

In 2020, 172 officers committed suicide in the U.S. COVID-19 added additional stress because officers couldn’t work from home. And Biles said the pressure on police is having another effect: intimidating officers.

“I also believe that when you hear and read and see all the negativity that’s been projected upon police this past year, it can’t help but have an effect on the individual officers,” Biles said. “I think they may be more hesitant to use force, to get involved in a situation where they may have to use force.”

Ocala Police Chief Mike Balken told News 6 the same thing earlier this year.

“What I never want to happen is the officer hesitates and it costs someone their lives because of fear of reprisal for doing a very difficult job at a very difficult time,” Balken said. “I think it would be wrong for me to say that it wasn’t, that it’s not something running through the back of the minds of these officers. Yeah, I do think it’s happening.”

At the Lake Mary Police Department, one way officers are coping with the stress and avoiding depression is with regular group yoga classes. Officers also do weekend walks. And Biles brings pets to the department for a visit.

“Being around pets typically relaxes someone and de-stresses,” Biles said. “So we did something with the local pet alliance and brought some animals in here in the afternoon.”

The wellness effort is organized by one officer who tries to actively engage his brothers and sisters in blue. The chief put Sergeant Doug Wheeler in charge of the department’s mental wellness.

“We talked about physical wellness in this industry, but mental wellness is equally as important,” Biles said.

Biles also sent Wheeler for training to become a peer counselor, to teach him how to listen to and counsel his fellow officers. Biles said having an in-house peer counselor seems to be more effective than directing officers to a phone hotline.

“[With the hotline] they have to make the effort and they may or may not be talking to someone who understands what it’s like to be a police officer,” Biles said.

The Seminole County Sheriff’s Office also has an in-house peer support team.

Biles said he’d like to see the peer counseling program go county-wide so officers at any department can counsel their colleagues anywhere.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.