Twenty years ago, the state police asked the Rev. Eric Skidmore, then a parish minister, to lead the new S.C. Law Enforcement Assistance Program. Since then, he’s helped provide support for officers after numerous police shootings and some of the region’s most gruesome events.
By Joseph Crevier
April 20, 2017
The Rev. Dr. J. Eric Skidmore has to live with the facts and images too gruesome to even show you on the news – things like the horror stories behind the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 2015 Charleston church shootings.
But he does it as head of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program so that the visions of those horrors don’t haunt and take over the lives of law enforcement officers and their families.
“When they call, they kind of know what they’re gonna get,” he says. “They’re gonna get a program that is tried and true and is sort of a standard of care in the high-speed environment of public safety.”
Skidmore, who has headed the program since its founding in 1997, says one basic principle has remained constant: Communication is key.
Day or night, weekday or weekend, Skidmore and his staff of three are there to listen to and help more than 2,500 officers at four state law enforcement agencies and the adjutant general’s office and their families. Skidmore wants to minimize those extreme cases as much as possible.
Then-Gov. Nikki Haley awarded Skidmore the Order of the Palmetto in 2015, and co-workers said they couldn’t have been happier for him.
“I’m standing there, like 20 feet away, just grinning as big as I can,” said the Rev. Ronald Kenyon, one of SCLEAP’s chaplains.
Columbia Voice sat down with Skidmore to discuss his background, his job and how he deals with the stress of it. (Listen to the podcast.)
What’s it like actually counseling somebody that’s been through something tragic? …
It’s not unusual in this realm to be talking with officers about critical incidents, about the impact of being in a shooting, of taking someone’s life, of thinking they were gonna die, of watching someone die right in front of them, of dealing with the suicide of a partner, dealing with the impact of their deployment to the war zone and coming back to the road as a trooper or a local police officer. So that’s very different than parish ministry. So really what comes up in this office, in the life of SCLEAP and the staff members in our care and support of officers, are things real specific to that world. It can be work related; it can be personal; it can be issues with depression, anxiety; issues with marriage and family, relationships, parenting, all those kinds of things.
I saw that you were involved in incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting, as well as the Charleston shooting. Can you just give me a basic overview? ….
We were involved in the Virginia Tech shooting, we were involved in Charleston immediately after it happened. And it’s important to say, we ever don’t deploy ourselves, Joe. We only go to assist folks if they request us. So we’re not gonna show up out there. We’re not gonna show up in Blacksburg, Virginia, on that cold spring night … unless we have a direct request, which we did. The chief of Blacksburg police department made a request to the North Carolina highway patrol member assistance team and also to SCLEAP that we send peer team members immediately to the campus of Virginia Tech to … support the police agencies that responded to that critical incident. When the shooting in Charleston happened, …I got a call from an administrator in Charleston County that said we’ve heard about your peer support for police officers, can you come down here and talk with us about what you might offer to, in that case not only police officers, but to the fire service, ambulance service, you think about who was showing up on that scene. Dispatchers were absolutely involved in that in a big way, the coroner’s office, and also you had multiple crime scene people involved in that incident. …
You’re trying to help people through stressful events like this, but how do you deal with it personally after hearing all the gruesome details sometimes, I would assume? …
One of the things I would say is, it’s important that you learn as much as you can about it. In my case, it’s not so much direct exposure to the direct critical incidents, but it’s what Bessel van der Kolk said is secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue, and I think there are a lot of fields that are subject to that. But understand what that is and how it impacts the body. Understand the things that work for you in terms of stress management, in terms of keeping a balance between work and home, talking about it absolutely having somebody to talk with about it that you’re pretty sure understands what you do. I try and talk with my partners, I try and talk with the peer support team, I try and talk with my wife. And I would say in many ways my decision to enter into a master’s program in mental health counseling was out of a desire to continue to learn about how do we manage stress and how do we help people do it, how do we do it ourselves. That struck me over and over again in this training, the importance and training to be a mental health counselor is going through counseling yourself, to understand where your areas for growth are.
There a lot of other parts to that stress management: exercise, health, seeing your doctor, making sure you’re having your checkups regularly. As a clergy person, as a religious professional, you know there’s some things I do that other people may not do. … There’s a form of worship called a Taize worship service. … This comes from a French Protestant and Catholic community coming together, and it’s a beautiful form of worship, it’s very meditative just reading the scripture and singing. That touches me in a deep way. My wife and I did something with our youngest daughter last summer. We decided, after watching the movie “The Way” … it’s a story about the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain and its ancient Christian pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and we went and walked about 75 miles of that this summer, and I found that to be remarkably rejuvenating, and if you’re working on your own resilience, for me that was wonderful. It’s not the same for everybody, and I think you have to intentionally and continuously work on the thing that helps you manage your stress.
A friend of mine said … when it comes to managing our own stress, we do that in the same way a 5-year-old cleans up their room. You tell a 5-year-old to clean up their room, and they take all that junk on the floor and they throw it under the bed, throw it in the closet and shut the door and say yup, it’s all done. We sometimes manage stress like that, we sort of pretend to manage it or we give the facade of managing it.