For the second year in a row, a Garden City first responder was recognized at the top of his field at the American Legion’s annual convention.

Sgt. Bill Powers of the Garden City Police Department was named Kansas American Legion Law Enforcement Officer of the Year on Saturday during the Legion’s 100th Annual State Convention in Hutchinson. He is now eligible to receive the National American Legion Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award in August.

Though GCPD Capt. Randy Ralston says anybody in the department could be deemed worthy of the award, Powers’ role heading up a department peer support program set him apart for nomination to the American Legion by the GCPD staff.

Powers volunteered in 2016 to be a key facilitator in the peer support program, offering police officers a shoulder to lean on and a listening ear after they experience traumatizing events in the field.

Powers said he was “honored” when he received notification of his selection for the award in the mail. Receiving the award in the company of U.S. veterans was a “humbling” experience, he said.

“It’s a great honor and a great experience for the department,” Ralston said, adding that the peer support program headed up by Powers is an area-wide benefit for all first responders.

“He’s been called upon for his service with other agencies, dealing with traumatic issues and trauma and some funerals that we’ve dealt with and that he’s been a part of.”

Jim Arwine, adjutant of the local American Legion Post No. 9, said the Legion recognizes a fireman and law enforcement officer each year at its state convention. Last year, Adam Patterson of the Garden City Fire Department was recognized as the Kansas American Legion Firefighter of the Year.

“Sgt. Powers was just one of many that could have been nominated,” Arwine said. “The police force has some very good people.”

Through the peer support program, Powers says he extends himself as a “sounding board” to other first responders troubled by their experiences in the field.

“Our officers and across the country, they see some horrific things, and they have to bottle it up,” Powers said. “We expect our officers to run towards danger and not show fear, not show any emotion whatsoever, but we have to keep in mind that police officers are human beings, and we all have wants, needs and desires. We all feel fear. We all feel pain. We have normal stressors just like everybody else.”

From administering CPR to infants to responding to the violent everyday conflicts between area residents, Powers said people do “horrible” things to each other, and first responders are called upon to “be the rock in a horrible situation and then never talk about it again, and that’s unhealthy.”

Powers’ work in the peer support program aims to combat suicides involving first responders, especially among police officers. He says he’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for calls or office visits.

“If they need me, I’m here,” he said.

A nonprofit called The Badge of Life has been tallying police suicides since 2008. On average, 130 police officers commit suicide every year, based on a review of approximately 16,000 suicide-related press reports and internet articles each year. The agency also tracks social media.

Available data suggests that the average police officer commits suicide at 42 years old, has been in the field for 16 years and is male 96 percent of the time. The vast majority of officer suicides are gun-related.

Based on 2017 numbers, more officers died of suicide than were killed in the line of duty, approximately 12 officers commit suicide each month, and 16 in 100,000 officers killed themselves, compared to the generalized rate of 13.5 people in 100,000.

“When you do the math, that’s alarming,” Powers said, adding that there are a little more than 900,000 police officers in the country. “That’s a high number of police officers that end up hurting themselves.”

Powers said the ultimate goal of the peer support program is to curtail or preempt those statistics on the local level “by making yourself available to just be a human being and show love for your fellow human being.”

 

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.