MISSOULA – As director of the University of Montana’s Neural Injury Center, Cindi Laukes knows the signs are subtle but distinct between someone who is inebriated and someone with past head injuries.
She also knows that, for a law enforcement officer interacting with a military veteran on the street, recognizing those differences can lead to a meaningful outcome or to a confrontation that could ultimately end in tragedy.
To help officers better recognize, understand and help veterans in distress, Laukes recently partnered with representatives from Cascade County, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, to develop a new three-hour course that looks at the lasting effects of combat in military veterans.
“We take a deeper look at the challenges veterans face in the legal system when it comes not only to post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injury, but also substance abuse,” Laukes said. “And we talk about what these look like in the field and what resources are available to veterans.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 12% of Desert Storm veterans suffer from PTSD in a given year. That number rises to as high as 20% for those serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Almost one of every three veterans seeking help for substance abuse disorders also has PTSD. The Department of Defense also reported more than 458,000 TBIs among U.S. service members worldwide between 2000 and late 2022.
For help with the curriculum and to promote the course, Laukes worked with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ office, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and Detective Shawn Baker, a senior deputy and an 11-year Army veteran.
Baker, who co-teaches with Laukes, said the course helps bridge the gap between combat veterans and law enforcement officers – many of whom also are veterans.
“With Cindi’s help, we’re trying to turn back the tide to make officers aware of what can happen with vets experiencing programs before it becomes an incident,” Baker said. “It’s helping officers get a better understanding of what is going on, as well as the ability to see the bigger experience and help them to deescalate situations.”
The new class also reviews programs available to help veterans in crisis such as Veterans Treatment Court. These courts – there is one in both Cascade and Missoula Counties – provide mental health and substance abuse services for veterans on supervised release and probation.
Kory Larsen, chief criminal deputy county attorney for Cascade County, has spent the past four years working in the county’s Veterans Treatment Court and shares what he has learned with Laukes’ and Baker’s students.
“I’ve met officers who think Veterans Treatment Court is catch-and-release court, but it really is a valuable service for veterans and for law enforcement,” said Larsen, a UM law school graduate. “We take individuals who have served our country and give them the tools to get their life back together. Then we aren’t seeing them on the street at 2 a.m. every Saturday night.”
The positive responses he has gotten on the class, Larsen said, show a willingness among officers to understand the unique circumstances of veterans in crisis.
This better understanding, he and Laukes contend, may even prompt officers facing similar issues in their own lives to access services for mental health issues.
“Officers who take this class and use what they’ve learned just might save a vet on the way to suicide,” Larsen said, “and they might get help themselves. That’s the goal of this class.”
Laukes said the course, Tools for Law Enforcement Understanding PTSD, TBI and Suicide Risk in Veterans and Law Enforcement: Overlapping Risks and Psychological Challenges, comes with three Peace Officers Standards and Training-approved credits and is free of charge to law enforcement members.
“We are hoping to get funding so we can take it statewide and still keep it free for officers,” Laukes said.
Contact: Cindi Laukes, director and chief operational officer, UM Neural Injury Center, 406-243-4017, email@example.com.