For neighborhood resource officer, mental health is vital for longevity and success

June 15, 2022

by Deborah Martineau - Neighborhood Resource Officer, Miami Beach Police Department

“Balancing mental health is extremely important because you want to make sure that you’re good. How can you help someone if you're not good?”

I have been in law enforcement for 32 years. And I spent 10 years in the New York City Department of Corrections, Rikers Island.

My dad worked for New York City Department of Corrections, and one day he came home and said: “Fill out this application and become a corrections officer.”

I said, “No, I'm supposed to be an actress.” And he goes, “Well, no problem. You come, get this job, and you can act all you want there.”

Back then we listened to our parents. So, that's how I started. And in 1990, the crack cocaine boom hit and the jails were full of people. Crack cocaine took over families. It was very sad. You would see mothers, daughters, grandmothers come to jail because of the addiction to crack cocaine.

So, it was a very rough time back then. We would have riots in the jails; it was a tough time.

Working behind bars

When I started, it was very long hours. You thought you were going home, and then they would say,  “You're not going home.” So, there would be days that you would stay in the jail for one to two days without going home. 

And we were shorthanded, so there was a lot of stress. We would take turns sleeping there. It was just a really, really bad situation because of the crack cocaine epidemic. 

I had just got married and didn’t have any children yet. But I wanted to have a child. And staying in a prison for two and three days not being able to go home, it was very difficult.

But working for the jail system teaches you how to communicate. When you’re a corrections officer, the only thing you have on your belt is a pen. And they used to call that the mighty sword, because if you write somebody up, you take away their freedom even longer.

The other thing I learned is to always be prepared. To this day, I always have a bag with supplies with me. You were never sure when you were going to go home. So even now – 32 years later – I always have extra supplies with me. 

And I’m always aware of my surroundings. Being in a dorm with 120 men, you always wanted to make sure you knew where all the exit doors were.

Back then, it was 20 years and you retired. But we always used to calculate, if you did 20 years, you did a 15-year sentence yourself, because of how long you were in prison. You can’t leave the property. You’re stuck. So, it’s like you actually did a sentence yourself, you know?

New scene, new role

In 1998, I moved to sunny Florida . I worked for a police department in Hialeah for two years, and then I went to what I consider the final destination – Miami Beach. I’m in my 20th year at Miami Beach. It was one of the best decisions I've made in my career. I love what I do at Miami Beach. I love working for the community. I love just meeting so many people.

Being a woman and being an officer is really tricky to balance, especially if you're married to another officer. If the child gets sick, who stays home? Who's going to call in sick to be with the child?

The mother usually does that. We risk our career because we have so many hats to wear. We have to make sure the children are okay. We have to make sure the parents are okay.

It's a lot because you still want to balance being there for your family and be that great cop that the department can call on as well. But in the back of your mind, you're saying, "My daughter needs me. I have my parents that need me."

I still have to balance both and it can get a little stressful when you’re juggling all sides because everybody wants a piece of mom, right? 

Step back and breathe

Struggle Well came to our police department and they put on a training for the peer support members. And one day, they just asked, “How are you doing today? How do you think the week is going to go?”

I sat back like, “Huh, no one has ever asked me that.”

It was like a bucket of tears coming down. It was the way they worded that question that had me opening up. And I said, "Wow, if they can do that to me, who handles everybody's problems, imagine what they can do to other officers who need this help.”

It was incredible. I couldn't stop talking about it.

Then they said, “Once you finish doing all of these tasks, sit back and just do this exercise. Just breathe. Breathe in, hold it and then breathe out. One, two, three, four.”

I just sat there. I breathed in, I held it and I breathed out. It was like the stress went away. I said, “This is phenomenal.”

Just the breathing alone made me feel so much better, because some days, we carry everything.

Stressors of the job

As you can imagine, police work can be stressful at times, too. Unfortunately, we're the ones that have to contact you and tell you that your loved one was killed. We're human and a lot of people don't understand that we’re just like anybody else and it will affect us just like anyone else.

One day, my colleague and I responded to a drowning call. The father had gone to park the car and the mother brought the kids. While she was preparing the basket and stuff on the beach, the kids ran to the water. She didn't realize that the younger child, who was only 3 years old, had gone into the water. He drowned that quickly.

When we got there, fire rescue was working on the child. The father didn't even know what was going on. And by the time he got to the hospital, the child had died.

At that time, I think my daughter must’ve been about seven or so. I remember calling my mother and just asking, “Where is she? Do you see her?” Because, like I said, you're away from your children for a long time and you just want to know if they’re okay.

And even though she's with my mother, I know she's okay, but you just think about that incident and how quickly things can change.

I never forget that story. 

Finding Balance

I think balancing mental health is extremely important because you want to make sure you’re good. How can you help someone if you're not good? You want to make sure you recognize something. If you're going through something, make sure that you're able to recognize that and reach out to the resources that can help you. There are a lot of resources out here that can help, especially in peer support.

I want to make sure that I'm always good and also recognize that if I'm having a bad day, it's okay. It's okay to have a bad day. Take a breath and start over. That's the good thing about tomorrow. You can always start over. You just have to recognize what's going on today.

If I had to give one word of advice about mental health training in policing, it would be to breathe.