GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Each day, Julie Holmes-Markowski helps Grand Rapids police officers cope with the tense environment they work in.
“It’s a hard time to be a police officer. It’s a hard time to be a police officer in Grand Rapids,” Holmes-Markowski, a licensed clinical social worker and the Grand Rapids Police Department’s behavioral health specialist, said.
In the last few years, there has been national outrage over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020 and the shooting of Patrick Lyoya by a GRPD officer in April. In Grand Rapids in 2020, that outrage was co-opted by people bent on destruction, who turned a protest into a riot. All of that is on top of the difficult things first responders see as a routine part of the job.
“Some of the more traumatic things they’ll see, like a baby death or a homicide or a shooting — and for those of us who don’t work in this type of world, you can’t even imagine how you’d deal with that — but for the men and women who work here that could be something they see every single day,” Holmes-Markowski said.
She said many police agencies will contract therapists after their force experiences a particularly disturbing event, but her job is regular. She focuses on monitoring and improving the wellness of GRPD’s officers and civilian staffers.
She was brought on to GRPD three years ago, just before the 2020 riot. Since then, she’s been busy, teaching new recruits techniques to calm their bodies and minds and helping seasoned officers process recent events.
“Research tells us around 20% of law enforcement has (post-traumatic stress), so whether that’s PTSD or just having some kind of stress from the job,” she said. “I would estimate it’s even higher here given what we have gone through with the riots of 2020, some of our officer-involved shootings, just some of those serious and critical incidents that some of our officers have gone through.”
She said she has had more one-on-one meetings with officers after Lyoya was shot. Former GRPD officer Chris Schurr has been charged with second-degree murder in his death and is due for a preliminary hearing in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the rest of the force, which knew Schurr as a friend and colleague, is struggling for normalcy.
“That’s a big thing. That affected everybody differently. That’s still a residual thing,” Holmes-Markowski said. “Just feeling like they’re not being supported in the community can be really hard, and the cumulative trauma of all of that.”
Embedded in the training unit, Holmes-Markowski does regular ride-alongs and facilitates critical incident debriefings after major events. Officers are not required to meet with her, but she said more and more are coming to her regularly to help process their personal issues and the things they experience on the job.
“I do quite a bit of counseling in here and that has really taken off. The first couple of years were slower and this year it’s been crazy and that just might be due to what’s going on in the community,” she said.
If they don’t want to speak with her, she may also help them connect with other local therapists.
Burnout is also a concern within GRPD. With 274 officers patrolling a community of nearly 200,000, they regularly work 12-hour shifts and may often be called in on their days off. She also noted GRPD is a fairly young department, with perhaps a third off the officers hired in the last five years. And those newer officers may bear more of the overtime load because of seniority rules.
“So you’re overworking a lot of younger cops who are on our own road patrol,” Holmes-Markowski said. “They’re out there giving it their all and they just feel like it’s a thankless job a lot of times.”
She and GRPD are working to redefine policing within Grand Rapids and to rebuild community trust, with the police chief recently rolling out several policy changes aiming to emphasize de-escalation and respond to what the community wants.