STRASBURG – Town Police Chief Wayne Sager says a recent training course gave him more tools to help improve his department as it works for the community.
Sager graduated from the FBI National Academy Program in Quantico with 255 other law enforcement officers from 49 states, the District of Columbia, 35 other countries, five military organizations and seven federal civilian organizations. The FBI holds the academy and houses students in the U.S. Marine Corps’ facility in Quantico.
Sager, 38, leads a police department of 18 full-time, and three part-time officers and one full-time civilian employee. He has almost 13 years experience in law enforcement, all spent working in the town department. Sager replaced former Chief Timothy Sutherly, also an academy graduate, in January 2018.
Sager and fellow participants spent 10 weeks at the academy attending classes in advanced communication, leadership and fitness training. Officers have an average of 21 years in law enforcement.
The chief spoke highly of the academy during an interview Thursday and what he brought back from the education he received.
“The professional and personal development was world class,” Sager said.
He explained that the process of entering the academy includes background checks and interviews. Participants can take classes in communications, forensics, media relations and others. Sager chose classes on public speaking, social media and media relationships as well as executive employment law. The academy required certain selected students to take a class on fitness in law enforcement.
The academy also required students to take “essentials for law enforcement leaders,” which Sager said broke down trends and leadership styles theories.
The final block in the curriculum addressed contemporary issues in law enforcement that brought in guest speakers including retired U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret Gregory Stube. Students also heard from survivors of the 9-11 terrorist attack, Sager recalled.
But the academy also addressed a growing problem facing law enforcement and other first-response agencies.
“There was a lot of messages being delivered,” Sager said. “But one, in particular, was about mental wellness and overall physical fitness of officers, first responders, which is great because, you know, unfortunately for all first responders, even law enforcement and fire and rescue, we’re seeing an increase in suicide.”
Suicide remains one of the biggest problems in the first-responder community that agencies must work to prevent, Sager said.
“First and foremost we have to change the culture, right?” Sager said. “You know the days of sucking it up and moving on are unacceptable.
“The officers need to understand that the organization from the top down supports them in whatever matter they need, whether that is something (like) mental issues they’re experiencing, and to be able to have those resources available is vital,” Sager added.
The chief acknowledged that many cultures deal with suicide in the same way, an attitude he said he doesn’t support.
“I support us being able to support the officers,” Sager said. “The things we’re being exposed to nowadays have drastically gotten worse.”
First responders now deal with active-shooter situations and treating overdoses, among other experiences. Responders witness people losing loved ones, see “horrific” crime scenes and vehicle crashes.
“These things are taking a toll on all first responders,” Sager said. “Letting them know the agency and myself that we and the town, we support them.”
Sager then pointed to a website – www.bluehelp.org – that tracks suicides among first-responder agencies in the United States. The website showed that 91 suicides have occurred in the first-responder community so far this year. In the past three years, the number of suicides has exceeded the number of first responders who have died in the line of duty as confirmed and reported by the agencies, Sager said. The data does not reflect unreported suicides.
Agencies need to not only support a responder after an incident but also work toward preventing suicides through wellness training and other initiatives, Sager said, adding that the Strasburg agency could implement a physical fitness program like the one set up by Woodstock police Chief Eric Reiley.
Officers also should learn to recognize when a colleague is struggling and to bring that to the attention of the appropriate people, Sager said.
“We all hopefully, eventually will reach that training and create that culture here of where we’re looking out for each other ... not only on a violent call or a traffic call, but when we’re downstairs in the patrol room and officers say, ‘hey, are you OK today’ or having just a conversation with them,” Sager said. “And I don’t want to say we don’t have anything in place now, right? We have an employee assistance program. But there’s more that we can do, and we’re going to do.”
The chief said he plans to use his experience at the academy to enhance his department by setting up an officer-wellness program, with peer-to-peer groups and additional training for all officers. He noted the networking that took place at the academy among students from other states and countries.
Sager pointed out that he had less experience than the average academy student but that gives him an opportunity to use what he learned to better serve the Strasburg community. He said he considers himself blessed and thanked the Strasburg Town Council and the police department for allowing him to attend the academy, and for Capt. Jason Ford for taking over the agency in his stead. Sager also thanked his wife for her support.