‘Good to see’: Utah bill to help police and firefighters garners unanimous support | News, Sports, Jobs

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Utah Rep. Ryan Wilcox is a Republican from Ogden.

SALT LAKE CITY — Seeing House Bill 23 make its way through the Utah Legislature — it has received unanimous support in the House and Senate so far — has been gratifying for Rep. Ryan Wilcox.

“It’s good to see. Honestly, it’s been encouraging,” said the Ogden Republican, the sponsor of the measure.

More relevant, however, will be the aid it will provide to police officers, firefighters and other first responders. The measure provides $5 million in seed funding to help Utah agencies implement mental health programs for first responders and requires that they be sustained.

“It’s the goal to put it in the code, so everyone understands that it’s necessary,” Wilcox said. Some agencies already have programs in place, such as the Ogden Police Department, but smaller ones that don’t will need to create initiatives and find the resources after seed funding ends to sustain them.

The stakes, according to Wilcox, are high. The police, firefighters and other people who support them are called upon to deal with the most traumatic, sad and violent incidents, and regular exposure to such things can take a mental toll, even causing a disorder of post-traumatic stress. Resources to help deal with the fallout, however, are hit or miss, with some agencies offering assistance and others, usually smaller ones, offering little or nothing.

“I was blown away by how much we missed that,” Wilcox said.

For the first time, HB 23 mandates the creation of mental health programs and resources to help first responders address and manage the trauma they witness. Spouses and children of those affected can also get help.

As it stands, some are “just swallowing it and moving on,” Wilcox said. But the measure also requires first responders and other eligible people to tap into newly created resources after being involved in a difficult situation.

The Utah House approved HB 23 at third reading by a 74-0 vote in early February and the Senate approved a slightly reworked version of the bill at third reading last Wednesday by a 27-0 vote. The versions of the bill will need to be reconciled before a final proposal is sent to Gov. Spencer Cox’s office, but Wilcox is optimistic.

Randy Watt, the former chief of police in Ogden, first briefed Wilcox on the situation in late 2020 as the lawmaker began his term as chairman of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. “I wasn’t prepared for the conversation about mental health, what they found when they did their study, what it looked like, the fallout for the families of the officers,” Wilcox said.

Watt, as police chief, had called for a study to assess the mental health of his officers, and in testimony last October before lawmakers, he said the effort had found 78 cases of mental health ” red flag” among Ogden police and firefighters. This was the data he had given Wilcox a year earlier.

“Suicides, broken marriages, failing families,” Watt told lawmakers last October. City officials, he continued, “hadn’t done much to deal with these things.”

Wilcox’s efforts to push the legislation began after that conversation with Watt in late 2020. He spoke with representatives from other agencies and heard similar stories. The town of Ogden, at Watt’s request, had created a program to help deal with the situation which Watt had helped document, and which served as a model for Wilcox.

“I’m so proud of them. They’ve been so progressive in recognizing need, identifying it, and then providing solutions that work,” Wilcox said.

Now, as HB 23 progresses through the Legislature, Wilcox said he has received messages of support from law enforcement officials.

“I think our culture is changing nationally in our understanding of the importance of mental health in general. There are programs like this popping up in states across the country,” Wilcox said.


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