The University of Montana is offering local law enforcement agencies a new training opportunity that aims to help officers on the beat recognize mental illness among military veterans on the street and guide them toward the help they need.
Cindi Laukes, director of UM’s Neural Injury Center, developed a three-hour course in partnership with representatives from Cascade County entitled “Tools for Law Enforcement Understanding PTSD, TBI and Suicide Risk in Veterans and Law Enforcement: Overlapping Risks and Psychological Challenges.” The training is free and offers POST credit.
The course examines the lasting effects of combat in military veterans and helps officers distinguish the subtle differences between inebriation, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and past head injuries when engaging with veterans on the street.
“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.”
Cascade County, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, features a large population of combat 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 reaches as high as 20% for those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Data also indicates that nearly one in every three veterans seeking help for substance abuse disorders also suffers from PTSD.
According to the Department of Defense, brain injuries are also widespread among soldiers, with the agency recording more than 458,000 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among U.S. service members worldwide between 2000 and 2022.
U.S. Senator Steve Daines’ office, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and Detective Shawn Baker, an 11-year Army veteran, were paramount in developing and promoting the course.
Baker said the course helps law enforcement officers — many of whom served in the military themselves — connect with 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 explained. “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 de-escalate situations.”
The class also helps officers review various treatment services for veterans, such as those provided by the Veterans Treatment Court, to connect them with the help they need.
Cascade County’s Chief Criminal Deputy County Attorney Kory Larsen has worked with the Veterans Treatment Court for four years and said it has done valuable work for the veteran community.
“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,” Larsen said. “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.”
Larsen said he’s gotten a positive response from officers who have taken the UM course. “Officers who take this class and use what they’ve learned just might save a vet on the way to suicide and they might get help themselves. That’s the goal of this class,” he said.
Laukes said that she hopes the course remains free and that it can be held at other campuses across the state. “We are hoping to get funding so we can take it statewide and still keep it free for officers,” she said.