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Senators Todd Young, Joe Donnelly tout bill supporting mental health services for police officers

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly and Sen. Todd Young joined law enforcement officers from agencies across the state to discuss legislation supporting mental health services for police officers.

The senators introduced the bipartisan Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act earlier this month. It would help law enforcement agencies establish or enhance mental health services for officers.

The measure was inspired in part by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Office of Professional Development and Officer Wellness, which was created to help alleviate the stress and trauma officers face. The office also initiated a peer monitoring program.

The legislation proposed by Donnelly and Young would allow law enforcement agencies to use federal grant funding to initiate peer mentoring pilot programs. It would also direct the Department of Defense, VA and Department of Justice to consult on military mental health practices that could be adopted by law enforcement agencies. In addition, it would provide further support to officers by studying the effectiveness of crisis hotlines and annual mental health checks.

Monday’s news conference also included IMPD Chief Bryan Roach, Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen and his daughter, Lebanon police officer Taylor Nielsen, and Danny Overley with the Fraternal Order of Police.

"They can have comfort, they can have a feeling of security and have someone to work with. We do this for our service members right now, and there's no reason we shouldn't be doing the same thing for our police services as well," Donnelly said.

Young said he and his wife have taught their children to go to police when they need help. That means officers receive several calls a day--and some of them don't end well.

"Sometimes they lead to minor incidents where they are able to deliver a young child back to their parents after a brief period of times. Other times, there are heart-wrenching moments that many of us won't experience over the course of our entire lifetime," Young said.

He said law enforcement officers are confronted with troubling situations on a daily and weekly basis. Young wondered where officers can go when they need help, and said the legislation would help answer that question.

"The bill is to work through a collaborative effort between relevant federal agencies, mental health providers and members of the law enforcement community itself," Young said.

Roach, IMPD's police chief, said officers are taught to be in control of their emotions. However, that can be difficult when they face certain situations.

"If you think about the day in, day out routine and the things that they see and are confronted with on a day-by-day basis, it's difficult sometimes to control those emotions, but they do a very good job of it. The problem is that they take those things home with them. The things we're talking about are not just PTSD, but anxiety and depression," Roach said.

Roach said police officers don't know everything and is hopeful the bill will provide help for officers nationwide.

IMPD officer Travis Owens also spoke Monday. Owens lost his leg in an accident and is the first IMPD officer to have his leg amputated and then return to duty. He had to juggle the stress of work, the stress of life and the stress of his injury.

It could have overwhelmed him if not for his family. He knows other officers are struggling.

"I have friends who have been shot, and I have friends who have committed suicide," he said. "My little girls need a dad, and by God, I'm going to be their dad. I'm going to do everything I can to be their dad."

He said nothing would stop him from being a father and husband. It was his choice to have his leg amputated because doctors told him the injury wouldn't get any better. Without help, Owens said he was destined to "go down the wrong path."

Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen also spoke Monday. Nielsen said a double murder in his county rattled his department and his daughter, Taylor Nielsen, who was a crime scene investigators who also observed the autopsy. The case involved Katie Giehll and her 4-year-old son Raymond, who were shot to death in February 2016.

Nielsen said he didn't realize the toll that case would take on him personally and on his daughter.

"The scene that day was one of heartache, sorrow, disbelief, anger mixed with sheer determination to find who committed this horrible act," Nielsen said.

Nielsen knew the scene would affect those working on the investigation, but he didn't realize just how much. His daughter considered ending her life.

"I made many decisions that day without thinking about how I put each of those officers in harm's way. The emotional aftereffects of such a tragic incident--that is the harm's way I am speaking of."

He said he didn't think twice when his daughter volunteered to document the victims' autopsies. He thought everyone would be "OK" after a two-hour stress debriefing later.

"Being OK was not the case for my daughter or I," the sheriff said.

Taylor Nielsen said it's time to take the stigma away from seeking help for mental health issues. Depression, anxiety and PTSD are very real things officers face every day. She went through hours of therapy and believes those resources need to be available for police officers across the nation.

"The battle will be hard, but it can be won," she said. "I am a warrior. I have overcome. This is what I now tell myself every day."