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Billings Police give mental health training; 2017 Big Bear standoff illustrates stress

Big Bear Sports Center.jpg
Posted at 7:21 PM, Nov 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-05 15:30:02-04

A somber anniversary. Five years ago today, a man crashed his car into Big Bear Sports Center in Billings, barricaded himself inside the store for nearly ten hours and then died in a shootout with police.

Incidents such as this were on the minds of some, during a mental health training for first responders.

Police officers, firefighters, paramedics all go through traumatic experiences on a daily basis while on the job and may need some special guidance and help.

For the last couple of days at the Billings Police barn, about 35 received training about first responder mental heath.

On Nov. 4, 2017, gunshots rang out at the old Big Bear Sports Center on King Avenue West, when the suspect barricaded himself inside the store leading to a nine hour standoff.

"Having somebody shoot at you, that's a stress or an emotion you can't even can't even imagine, you can't put words to it," said Sgt. Jeff Stovall of the Billings Police Department. "But it's not only that, but it was a prolonged stress. "

Eight billings police officers were involved in that shooting in 2017. Dozens of other first responders also jumped into action before and after the shooting.

"Trying to alleviate what's going on inside and just understanding what's going on, that's a lot of stress on somebody at one time on an officer," Stovall said. "And then at the end, a life was lost in that situation."

Stovall is a patrol supervisor and in charge of the police department's mental health program.

"You heard several volleys so we need handle officer involved shooting protocol with that," Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said to Q2 on the day of the incident in 2017.

As is routine with any shooting, the officers involved in that shooting were placed on a minimum two-week administrative leave.

"There's been times where officers leave the scene of something traumatic and they shed tears," Stovall said. "We may have the badge and the vest on, but underneath all that, we're human beings."

And Stovall knows the impact of a traumatic event like that can linger for years.

He is part of the Montana Law Enforcement Peer-Support Network, the first of its kind in the country.

The group, which is part of the T-6 Advanced Training and Career Development Group, has been active, but is set to begin operations in January of 2023.

This week, Stovall taught first responders and their spouses a course from T-6 called "Getting Through The Grind."

The T-6 curriculum covers Organizational Stress, Occupational Stress, Societal (External) Stress, and Individual (Internal) Stress.

The training is aimed at getting first responders with their calmness while at the traumatic scene, to dealing with the feelings and emotions that follow.

"It's learning about healthy ways for those feelings to come out," Stovall said.

"Laughing, that's the greatest cure on earth," he told the class.

And he says it's important to turn to friends co workers and family for help.

"Learning how to effectively communicate with your family, your loved ones, because when it breaks down, those are the ones that you see every day," Stovall said.

Stovall said the Montana Law Enforcement Peer-Support Network program is all funded by the Gianforte Family Foundation.

"They've been incredibly generous and they're behind us in this effort to take care of our our first responders in our community here," Stovall said about the foundation. "So without them, this this wouldn't happen so we can't thank them enough."