Police Officer Turned MST Supervisor Reflects on Similarities

Posted by Mark Shokair

Jul 28, 2015 10:00:00 AM

Former police officer goes from making arrests to preventing them

At first glance, there is little similarity between the field of law enforcement and the world of mental health. Although law-enforcement personnel regularly encounter mentally ill individuals, their objectives differ from those of mental-health care providers. Despite these differences, there are similarities when one takes the time to look a little deeper.

Prior to moving to Los Angeles and becoming an MST supervisor, I was a police officer in a major city with the major objective of protecting life and property. From the systemic perspective, law enforcement is in place to ensure order in our society and laws are followed. They are, in essence, the initial step that society put into place to impose consequences, followed by the courts and the correctional system. 

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As a police officer, there are many times when crisis situations require a split-second decision, such as the best course of action when confronting an armed suspect or responding to a man holding his younger sister at knifepoint. When making these decisions, an “overarching goal,” as we refer to it in MST, is always in the back of your mind. That goal was first the safety of the lives of and property of all involved and after that, executing the law.

As MST therapists and supervisors, we make our decisions by following the analytic process, which always begins with the overarching goals in mind. We may have more time to make our decisions and the immediate consequences of them may not be as dire or drastic, but the cumulative results of our choices can have huge implications for the families with which we work. For an officer, making the wrong decision can result in injury or even death for self or others. Consequences of actions are more immediate and readily seen. How the MST therapist proceeds has far-reaching consequences for the family. Even more important than choosing the right interventions is using the therapeutic skills to help the family receive and implement the intervention.

Seesaw life of a police officer

There is nothing quite like working as a police officer in a big city. Typically, my shift started early, and I was ready to hit the streets by 6 a.m. As soon as you are on duty, you don’t know what to expect. The day could start off slowly, which usually means stopping by your favorite coffee shop and chatting with some of the early-morning crowd as the first rays of sunshine pierce the sky with light from behind the distant hills. The slow days often progress to a few traffic stops, responding to calls involving disputes between neighbors, taking a burglary report and talking with residents on your beat about local crime trends.

The busy days were pure adrenaline. One morning, we responded to a home invasion that turned into a kidnapping. This led to following up leads, scouring the area and searches of houses with guns drawn. On this particular day, things ended well, and the kidnapping victim was returned home. Despite the wide variety of experiences, after some time passed, you began to see the same things over and over. There would be calls to the same addresses involving the same people. You would arrest the same person many times. The same couples would be beating up each other. The same houses would have disturbances and noise complaints. In the back of my mind, I was always thinking about the systemic drivers for these problems. The problems also seemed to be tied to locations and socio-economic demographics of neighborhoods. There were some neighborhoods where the worst complaints were about people driving too fast or a resident having his newspaper stolen. In others, robberies and shootings were commonplace.

MST addresses systemic problems

Fast-forward a few years to life as an MST supervisor. Now, systemic factors are dealt with on a daily basis. The work is not as hands on and the challenges less immediate. Nevertheless, the work is still intense. While law enforcement is like placing a Band-Aid on social ills, working with MST gives us direct impact on the lives of families that will then positively affect the society as a whole. Ideally, we are able to empower families to function better and disentangle children from involvement in the legal system for improved quality of life.

The impact that is made in the long term is difficult to determine, but no less important. Clients that successfully finish our program will take with them lessons that they pass on to others, including children of their own. We are able to help society one family at a time. There is one similarity to police work. We begin to see the same problems and patterns again and again. Over time, we develop skills drawn from our experiences in working with those problematic patterns. We take our training and experience with us into our work with families and then into our work with those we supervise. Our challenge as supervisors is to pass along that knowledge to our supervisees, as well to provide them with reassurance. There are many times I discuss cases with therapists that are very similar to those I worked on before becoming a supervisor. Sometimes, the therapist feels hopeless, and one of the main drivers is the lack of reference experiences. As supervisors, we address that driver by providing a similar situation from our own cases and then giving guidance on how make that work for the therapist’s family.

Communication: common denominator between police work and MST 

Although there is very little overlap between the day-to-day duties of a police officer and those of an MST therapist or supervisor, there are some similarities. The most important in both lines of work is communication. Communication skills are essential to police officers because they are necessary in working with the public, de-escalating potentially volatile situations and in passing information to co-workers. Police officers have the option to use force when justified, but any time force is used, all parties are at risk of injury or worse. Having excellent communication skills as a police officer reduces the number of instances where force is required to manage a situation. During my time on the force, I observed a direct correlation between the level of communication skills and success an officer experienced. I also noted that those with better communication skills had a much more positive outlook on the job than those with lesser communication abilities.

In an MST therapist’s world, communication skills are equally as essential and are pretty much the only tools we have. Our interventions are only as good as our ability to explain them to our clients. Similar to police officers, we are often asking people to do things they would rather not. The challenge for therapists is that they do not have the obvious leverage of a police officer. This makes the development of communication skills that much more important for therapists.

It has been some time since I donned a uniform and prepared to spend a day (or night) patrolling the streets. Since moving to Los Angeles and becoming an MST supervisor, I have had the opportunity to work with law enforcement in a different way. I have worked with probation officers in a collaborative approach with the goal of rehabilitating youth. As an MST supervisor, I have also received training in MST's nine principles and analytical process, as well as gaining experience implementing those principles. I am thankful to be in my position, making a positive difference in people’s lives and passing my clinical skills along to my supervisees so they can do the same.

Mark Shokair is the LMFT Program Coordinator and MST Supervisor at the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center

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Topics: Multisystemic Therapy