Law enforcement officers across the country continue to do their jobs day in and day out. Despite the negativity on the street and in the media, these brave men and women put on the uniform and serve their communities. But for those of you at the top—the chiefs, superintendents and others—I have a couple of questions.
What are you doing to ensure the health and wellness of all of your people?
Is your department simply checking boxes or are you really delving into officer wellness?
The Role of Command
If you have been following this column, I have emphasized officer suicide prevention and wellness are not checkboxes. Yes, the weight of the pandemic is lifting. But the daily stress and potential traumas are still there. Officer suicide is as real as ever, with 60 to date for 2021 and 172 in 2020.
If you’re the boss, you must understand that not addressing stress, trauma and suicide in the ranks won’t make these issues go away. Ignorance is not bliss. Officers are already thinking about these topics, and asking an officer if they are considering or have considered suicide isn’t you planting an idea in their head. To the contrary: Asking about suicide, when someone feels they have no other option, nowhere and no one to talk to, can be an actual lifeline. Maybe they won’t seek help that day, but if you show concern then they know you care. You have given them an option they didn’t know they had.
Wellness initiatives are bound to fail if they aren’t supported from the top. You lead, and your people will follow your leadership and it will trickle down from the top. If you’re sending a mixed message, or no message at all, then you aren’t taking care of your people. Taking care of your people means more than simply having the right equipment and physical and tactical training. Most agencies do a good job with that. If it has black Velcro on it, there’s money for it. But if it’s health or wellness related, for some reason the well runs dry. That’s where a transformative leader comes in.
As a leader, you are creating a partnership with your people, for your people, for their health and wellness.
Let’s start out simply with your knowledge. What do you know about officer wellness? Have you read anything about it lately? If not, why not? Are you practicing what you preach? In other words, have you adopted the mindset of not throwing good officers away? When an officer gets physically injured everyone rallies behind them. But what about that officer with depression or PTSD? What about that officer who saw one too many homicides, motor vehicle accidents that involved a child dying? Do you treat them the same way? Do you work to get them back on the job, or do you simply write them off?
Invest in Your People
Writing officers off has never been a good idea. It’s a worse idea now with retention and recruitment challenges most agencies are facing. Beyond that, when you cast one of your officers aside, you’re sending a message. That message is: don’t seek help during challenging times, because doing so stigmatizes you. Furthermore, you need to dedicate time and resources to health and wellness initiatives. I hope you have allocated resources and have an actual line item in the budget for wellness initiatives. A healthy department pays for itself.
Once you have your own knowledge base, consider inviting some speakers into your department to discuss preventing PTSD, stress, burnout and vicarious trauma. Some departments, like the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, even have a pre-patrol period training for new hires on critical incident and PTSD awareness training. If you have an employee assistance program (EAP) and other resources like peer support, make sure everyone knows you are serious about them. Make sure everyone knows those who use services will not be punished or seen negatively in the slightest. Commanders, lieutenants, sergeants and other middle managers need to be conveying this message in roll call as well. It has to be top down or it won’t work.
Remember, the function of peer support is to listen to another employee’s feelings after a critical incident or crisis situation, respond to requests for peer support or assistance regardless of cause or topic, facilitate or assist in diffusing critical incidents, conduct critical incident stress management debriefings, provide information or referrals to other resources, such as EAP, Alcoholics Anonymous and clinicians, and to provide peer support orientations to new employees.
If your department does not have a peer support team, consider starting one up. If your department is too small or underfunded, think about pooling resources with other departments or the county sheriff. The peer support team is there for critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings; witnessing another employee’s death or serious injury, witnessing a violent death or serious injury, involved or witnessing an infant/child death, witnessing a suicide or any other incident deemed by the employee or agency to be potentially distressing.
The peer support team is also there for officers and their families struggling with other stressors. Agencies should also consider involving the family in wellness trainings, especially significant others to familiarize them with the law enforcement career and lifestyle, and provide them with the necessary tools and supports. Beyond wellness, families need knowledge about insurance, investments, retirements, wills, and the community in general. Sponsored family events can also bring together officers and their families.
As command, think about allowing flexible work schedules, incorporating exercise into officer schedules, adjusting and rotating assignments and helping officers attain work-life balance. Be mindful of changes in officers’ behaviors such as irritability, repeatedly calling in sick, being emotionally distant and socially isolated. For those officers who are always the “class clown,” the one everyone relies on, let’s make sure we check in with them as well. After all, if they are taking care of everyone, who is taking care of them?
Every agency should also have a list of outside resources available such as competent private clinicians and the contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK), C.O.P.S., Survivors of Blue Suicide, Here for You Blue and Cop Line (1-800-COPLINE).
As a leader, you are creating a partnership with your people, for your people, for their health and wellness. They want to know you have their back. Are you ready and willing to answer the call?