California public safety officers work in unpredictable, high-stress environments that can take an overwhelming mental, emotional, and physical toll that does not subside when their shift ends. Over time, the continued strain from this stress can contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. For the first time, in 2019, California established a law outlining the rules and procedures for a Law Enforcement Peer Support and Crisis Referral Services Program. Assembly Bill 1117 (Government Code § 8669 et seq.) was signed by Governor Newsom on October 8, 2019 and became effective January 1, 2020.
The Bill authorizes law enforcement agencies to establish their own referral program that will provide an agency wide network of trained peer representatives who are available to come to the aid of their fellow employees on a broad range of emotional or professional issues. Issues such as substance use, critical incident stress, family issues, grief support, legal issues, line-of-duty deaths, serious injury or illness, suicide, victims of crime, and workplace issues. The goal of the Bill is to provide peer support intervention that leverages shared experiences to foster trust, decrease stigma, and create a sustainable forum for seeking help and sharing information about support resources and positive coping strategies.
A unique aspect of this Bill is that communications between officers and a peer support team member, while the team member provides support services, would now be considered confidential. Previously, these types of communications would be subject to disclosure to the employer. The Bill outlines that officers will be afforded
confidentiality during these communications except under limited circumstances. It is important to note that a “confidential communication” does not, however, include a communication in which an officer discloses the commission of a crime or a communication in which the law enforcement personnel’s intent to defraud or deceive an investigation into a critical incident is revealed. Additionally, confidentiality may be breached when disclosure is reasonably believed to be necessary to prevent death or substantial bodily harm. There is also an exception to confidentiality when disclosure is consented to in writing, during referral of a law enforcement personnel to receive crisis referral services by a peer support team member, during a consultation between two peer support team members, or if otherwise required by law.
The Bill also provides that, except for an action for medical malpractice, a peer support team member providing peer support services and the law enforcement agency that employs them are not liable for damages, relating to an act, error, or omission in performing peer support services. However, liability will attach if the act, error, or omission constitutes gross negligence or intentional misconduct.
The purpose of allowing for confidential communications is for officers to feel comfortable discussing emotional or professional issues without facing discipline or adverse repercussions from their employer. According to a 2016 article in Policing and Society entitled “Law enforcement officers’ perceptions of and responses to traumatic events: a survey of officers completing Crisis Intervention Team training,” roughly three-fourths of the surveyed officers reported having experienced a traumatic event, but less than half of them reported it to their agency. Even more troubling, about half of the officers reported personally knowing another law enforcement officer who changed after experiencing a traumatic event, and about half reported knowing an officer who had committed suicide.
Peer Support Programs are effective in helping peace officers develop healthy coping techniques for themselves and their families. As such, the passing of AB 1117 is a step towards breaking stigma and affording peace officers the care they need and deserve.