Like the firefighters in the city, Independence police officers have established a peer support network that can work with neighboring agencies.
This week, the department was thrilled to welcome a new highly trained member to the 10-member peer support crew – a therapy dog.
Josie is a 2-year-old golden retriever/border collie mix, donated by K9's for Freedom and Independence, a non-profit organization based in northern Texas that trains and donates dogs to military veterans and first responders. Simply put, her task is to help improve officers’ psychological well-being.
Josie trainer, K9's for Freedom founder Janeen Baggette, is an Air Force and law enforcement veteran with a long history of training dogs. She traveled to Independence this week to help Josie get acclimated to her new home.
“It's just one of those passions where I get to pay it forward,” Baggette said. “This is a way to give back and help those who need help
“It just helps because the endorphins are set off from petting a dog, just that simple act of being there.”
Josie's handler, Sgt. Matt Shull, is a member of the peer support team and supervises IPD's school resource officers, so Josie likely will see some time at schools as well. Baggette said Josie can also be used to help calm victims when police talk with them.
“You've got a better percentage of getting information if you have a dog in the room,” she said. “This dog's going to be used in all types of settings.”
Independence Police found Baggette and Josie when they started searching for a therapy dog for retired officer Tom Wagstaff, who was near-fatally wounded after responding to a call in March 2017. Wagstaff, who was on hand Wednesday to help welcome Josie, will receive his therapy dog, a chocolate Labrador, in June. Wagstaff's wife Stacey said the dog will be for emotional and some physical support.
Independence Police had been wanting to set up a peer support network to help officers cope with job stresses, Chief Brad Halsey said, but after seeing the impact Wagstaff's near-death, “We wanted to fast forward that.”
Baggette and Virgil Garner, a retired IPD detective who has continued as a chaplain and part of peer support, said only about 5 percent of law enforcement agencies have a peer support network in place, but they are growing in popularity.
“Unfortunately it comes out of a need for counseling,” he said. “It's someone to reach out to, someone to share with. It's confidential, real, tangible support.”
Baggette said officers can be referred on to professional counseling, but sometimes talking with a work peer, whether it be in the department or a stranger from another agency, can be more helpful than talking with someone not familiar with the job stresses.
“You're supposed to spill your guts to this person, and it just doesn't work,” she said.
Sometimes, a peer can simply provide a chance to vent in between calls during a shift.
“They have to relax; they have to breath, and we tell them that,” Garner said. “We want to get officers back into a position where they can be an officer again, and also a dad or mom.”
And officers believe Josie will help them and others can help with relaxing.
In addition to Josie being donated, future costs of food, supplies and veterinarian services will be funded by non-profit funds through the Truman Heartland Community Foundation.