Trooper First Class Rodney Valdes Credit: Contributed photo

When former Hartford Police Chief James Rovella was appointed commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection in 2019, he made it a goal to see to the wellness of the agency’s employees, including state troopers.

The results have been a growing peer support program for troopers, more avenues for employees to seek help with mental health and family stressors, exercise equipment to allow people to work out in a safe environment during the pandemic and soon, two emotional support dogs that will visit state police troops and interact with communities statewide.

“It’s about, how do you maintain your highest-cost assets?” said Rovella in speaking about the employees across six divisions within DESPP including just over 900 state police troopers.

For Trooper First Class Rodney Valdes and Sgt. Christine Jeltema, the answer to that question lies in providing a “holistic” approach to wellness. A key element is a robust State Troopers Offering Peer Support program, known as STOPS, that is confidential and ready to discuss problems with employees at an off-site location.

It’s about seeing to the well-being of all DESPP employees, whether it’s emotional, financial or physical fitness, said Jeltema who is the agency’s wellness coordinator. “We make sure that employees are well-rounded,” Jeltema said Thursday. “If someone is having some type of stressor, we want to get them help.”

That help includes an active employee awareness and intervention program that lets employees seek six sessions of free counseling with a mental health clinician for each issue that arises in a year. Supervisors can also refer employees who appear to be struggling with issues that may impact their performance on the job.

Rovella provided asset forfeiture money seized during drug raids and other crimes to pay for gym equipment upgrades at every state police barracks, allowing employees to continue to exercise during the pandemic in a safe location.

Two emotional support dogs were also purchased with asset forfeiture money, Rovella said. The dogs will respond to “anything and everything,” Valdes said. “We’ll go to critical incidents, roll call, and do outreach programs that will allow the community to pet the dogs and allow the dogs to interact with people.”

SGT Christine Jeltema Credit: Contributed photo

Jeltema and Valdes maintain an office at an independent site, which allows employees to privately seek help for issues that are not necessarily job-related, from dealing with parents who are advancing in age to problems within families.

“It’s for anything that could cause some type of stress for the employees outside of work,” Jeltema said. “We try and look at the whole picture and be proactive” she said. “If they are having a problem with alcohol or anger management, we want to get them help.”

Valdes oversees the STOPS program, which started in 2008, and the inter-faith chaplaincy program, which focuses on spirituality with 17 chaplains and another six in the vetting process. He’s also expanded the STOPS program to 74 troopers trained in peer-to-peer counseling with another dozen in the training process.

The STOPS volunteers aren’t social workers, Valdes told members of the Public Safety Committee during an informational session on mental health and law enforcement last week. They are fellow troopers with whom one can feel comfortable discussing their issues at work.

The number of troopers seeking peer support in the past two years has skyrocketed, Valdes said, in part because of the lessening of the stigma attached to officers seeking help. “It’s because of the agency’s aggressive and holistic approach,” Valdes said. “It was one of Commissioner Rovella’s priorities.”

Jeltema is in the process of revamping the “Surgeons” program, an antiquated name for a program that started in 1903 as a way of allowing surgeons and other physicians to volunteer their time to aid the state police. She envisions a program that would allow volunteer physicians of all types, including internal medicine, to help employees and their families with medical and mental health issues including providing second opinions. 

“It’s like taking an old program and putting new wheels on it,” Rovella said.

Early in his tenure as commissioner, Rovella sought and received a federal Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grant for $64,000 to expand training in peer support, wellness and mental health for law enforcement throughout the state. The program was delayed due to the pandemic, but it is expected to be rolled out this summer with every police department in the state able to send a liaison to be trained in peer support, Rovella said.

When he initially raised improving employee wellness, members of his staff “looked at me like I had two heads,” Rovella said.

Now it’s become second nature, especially for younger troopers who are more open to seeking help than their older peers who were often hesitant to admit they were struggling with job-related trauma, Jeltema said.

“This is an investment into troopers, their families and DESPP employees,” Rovella said.