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Some local K-9 unit police officers and and a sheriff’s deputy teamed up for a big weight loss challenge. Thursday, they found out their hard work has earned them a $10,000 prize in the Body for Life fitness challenge.
The metro area K-9 handlers thought they were meeting up at the La Vista Police Department for a conference call. Instead, representatives from the fitness program they’ve been following surprised them with the check.
“Congratulations,” one representative announced, “You are the large group 2009 Grandmaster Body for Life champions.”
“It’s awesome. It’s awesome,” said Bellevue police officer Chad Heller.
The big money is a reward for losing big weight. Combined, the eight participants lost nearly 230 pounds and nearly 49 percent body fat.
“We like to think that equates to getting one bad guy off the streets,” joked LaVista police officer John York, who spearheaded the effort last January. Officers had various reasons for signing on.
“K-9 training and the handling of the dogs can be a vigorous job, so we wanted to improve ourselves in that regard,” said York.
Fellow La Vista police officer John Danderand said, “I was tired of trying to compete with the young guys and running behind them all the time.”
Bellevue police officer Dustin Franks said his motivation came from one moment on the job. “For the first time ever, I was outrun by a suspect and I think that’s when, you know, I had to draw the line.”
For Bellevue police officer Chad Heller, it was something his then pregnant wife said to him. “She said that she hoped her stomach didn’t get as big as mine. So that was a little bit of motivation.”
The baby, Ella, is now 7 months old. Heller says he’s more capable of keeping up with her after losing 32 pounds in the challenge. He’s kept most of it off.
Heller’s wife, Sue, said the transformation has been huge. “He looks awesome, he looks awesome.”
“It was good to see him conscious of what he was eating. He gave up pop, that was a big deal, and, to have him working out, it’s great.”
The officers worked out at least five days a week during the challenge. While some admit they’ve slowed down, they’ve all remained fit.
“I’m not tired all the time,” Heller said. “I don’t feel like just lying around on my days off.”
More productive off the job and better at their jobs, the men say their benefits go well beyond a cash reward.
The K-9 handlers had some good local role models, prodding them along in their success. Members of the Papillion Police Department won the same Body for Life group challenge in 2006.
For more information on the Body for Life program including recipes used by the K-9 team, Click here
Nationwide, twice as many officers kill themselves than die in the line of duty
As with any job, the days of a police officer are often filled with mundane duties and routine tasks. But unlike most jobs, that can change in an instant for the men and women in uniform who protect the area’s streets and highways.
”You can go days without having anything, and then the stress is there,” said Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller, a 36-year police veteran. Looking back just a few weeks to Nov. 22, when police had to respond to a call of ”shots fired, officer down” in Altoona.
”That sends chills up your spine,” Heller said. ”It changes the whole mood.”
Fortunately, he said, the initial call was wrong, and no officers were injured in the police shootout with an armed man during a traffic stop, but it’s typical of the stress officers face on a daily basis.
Heller said it’s the type of job that is difficult to transition from the street to home life.
Although data varies, it is believed by researchers that this stress, coupled with a hesitance among those in law enforcement to seek help dealing with it, fuels a higher rate of suicide for police than the general population.
In mid-October, a Lancaster city police officer committed suicide. On Oct. 21, a Doylestown officer shot himself at home. Last Monday, an officer in Key West, Fla., shot himself, and a day later, much closer to home, a 42-year-old Pennsylvania state trooper shot himself in his cruiser while waiting at a traffic light near East Freedom.
”People think it’s a rarity,” said Mike Arter, assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Altoona. Arter, an 18-year veteran of law enforcement who researches police stress, said that while 140 to 160 officers nationwide will die in the line of duty this year, double the number will kill themselves.
Not all of the stress comes from the inherent dangers of the job. Arter said officers often find dealing with their department’s administration and the public just as stressful. He said many officers believe they don’t get the proper recognition from administrators or the proper respect from the public.
John M. Violanti, a research associate professor at the University of Buffalo, spent 21 years as a New York State Trooper and the last 22 years researching stress in law enforcement. He says suicide among officers is ”a major problem” because it not only harms the individual and the family, but it also harms the law enforcement agency.
Still, he said, the subject is kept below the surface.
”I think there’s a denial going on in departments that it’s happening,” Violanti said.
Violanti said it’s ”a tough job” and officers ”are very hesitant” to go for help.” If they do, they go outside their departments and communities for fear of the stigma.
Robert Douglas Jr., executive director of the National POLICE Suicide Foundation, spent 25 years as a Baltimore City cop, where he also served as chaplain for the local Fraternal Order of Police.
Douglas said imagine coming upon an accident scene with two children trapped in a car and then watching them burn to death because you couldn’t get them out.
He described responding to a high-rise apartment to find a despondent mother who had put her baby in the oven. He then choked up as he tried to describe what it would be like to tell another mother dangling her child from a balcony that her child wouldn’t be better off if she just left go.
”These are the issues most people never see,” Douglas, now a pastor, explained. ”A police officer is expected to, literally, do the impossible.”
He said that when the day is done – or even once an officer retires – those experiences just don’t go away.
”You carry that baggage with you for life,” he said.
It’s a job that leads many to alcohol, prescription drug abuse, marital problems and suicide because, as he sees it, police officers derive a large part of their identity from what they do. And although the culture is changing, Douglas said, officers perceive admitting they’re having problems as a weakness that could jeopardize their jobs.
”There’s a terrible, terrible danger to that,” he said.
While he said departments are starting to include police suicide awareness training, he estimates that less than two percent of the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies address the issue.
Violanti said that although there should be no shame in seeking help, officers often see the risk as not worth it.
”Of course, it’s embarrassing to take an officer’s gun away and put him on a desk,” he said. Still, police suicides are the most preventable deaths. The key, he said, is confidentiality.
Confidential resources to deal with police stress are something some area departments, including the Pennsylvania State Police, do offer.
Trooper Jeff Petucci, community service officer with the Hollidaysburg barracks, said the state police’s Member Assistance Program offers troopers 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week access to 80 troopers who are specially trained as ”peer contacts.”
While not counselors, the peer contacts do give troopers an outlet and can refer them to outside professionals as needed. ”They’re a listener – an impartial listener,” Petucci said.
Troopers who volunteer as peer contacts receive special training and there are no reports or paperwork that tracks who they help, Petucci said.
”It’s confidential,” he said, although troopers know beforehand that peer contacts are required to report anyone they think is a danger to themselves or others or confesses to a serious crime.
Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling said the city’s officers participate, along with Logan township’s officers, in an employee assistance program through the Mountain Lodge No. 8, FOP that gives officers a resource to deal with problems.
Heller and Freehling said police stress management and police suicide training is included in the 2009 Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission’s mandated education for all officers.
But offering the help doesn’t automatically mean officers will take it.
”You find it hard to discuss things with other people who are not your peers,” Heller said.