I recently finished watching the final season of Longmire. Like most television police programs, there’s a healthy and unrealistic dose of drama and leaves you wondering … How did he get away with that? Do you know how much paperwork that would require?
But it’s entertainment and I found it thoroughly entertaining.
The final episode ends with the main character Sheriff Walt Longmire retiring. He knows it’s time to move on and enjoy retirement. While he heads up a small department with a rather large county, he never seemed to be able to staff it adequately (for unknown reasons). He did a heck of a job as a lawman, but the one thing Walt never really did have a plan for his replacement. He never mentored anyone to take his place. So he tells his daughter, a lawyer with no law enforcement experience, to run for sheriff. Now, because this is a fictitious show, the lack of foresight, and the challenges it may impart, is all part of the entertainment.
But the hubris of not thinking about the agency once he is gone is all too real and common. It’s got me thinking, especially as it pertains to wellness.
All across this country, law enforcement agencies protect and serve with tailored programs designed to meet the needs of their communities. Programs range from welfare checks to major crimes taskforces to community outreach. Every effort requires care. What happens when the officers who make these programs possible retire or quit? Quite simply, problems happen. Tasks that may seem routine or unimportant in fact require diligence and experience. In many cases, there is required work being done that leadership is totally unaware of.
But someone else will take over!
Perhaps. But when people leave, they take with them their experience and relationships. So even if you have people lining up to take over, getting them trained takes time. In some cases, the replacement won’t be a good fit. Now what? Will someone else take over?
The fact is this: Many departments have more officers retiring and quitting than they can backfill. There are also the lateral transfers, often city cops are fleeing to county and local municipalities. I am a strong proponent of officer health and wellness, so I am especially concerned about officer wellness programs falling apart as good folks leave.
Not every officer is interested in wellness initiatives. What’s great, in my experience, is that they don’t need to be. There’s almost always an officer or a small group of officers who are passionate about wellness who lead these essential services. Because of these passionate few, the many have resources available if and when they need them.
Once you cease to plan for the future, you are heading for failure
Now, what happens when this cadre of wellness advocates burns out, retires or quits? What happens to your crisis intervention training (CIT)? Your peer support team? Your wellness initiatives and EAP?
But someone else will take over!
As a wellness leader you should know better than most that it takes a rare combination of skills, experience, passion and knowledge to do your work well. If you leave behind a shell of the former program, that’s your legacy too.
For better or worse, every program that’s making a difference nowadays must document its successes. It’s the only way to sustain support. This is doubly important for wellness programs, which have the stigma of being “nonessential,” “intangible,” “soft” and so forth. At minimum, you need to articulate the benefits. Better still is to study and document them.
Here’s why. I have a friend and colleague who ran one of the premier peer support programs in the country at his state police agency. He was truly a pioneer, working on these issues back in the 1990s, when almost no one else was. When he finally retired, he had a handpicked successor trained to replace him and carry on the effort. What happened, however, is his retirement provided leadership an excuse to reduce support for his programs. Participation faltered. Soon enough it all disappeared.
Or consider CIT. It doesn’t take much for these programs to fail. Chasing grant funds is nonstop. Trainers get busy and burn out. Given the elevated profile of CIT in the community, you’ll want to secure multiple funding sources and have multiple, rotating trainers facilitating training. Curriculum should be documented to ensure fidelity between trainers. I personally would recommend two trainers per CIT section, if possible.
You can’t control who becomes chief or mayor or president. You can, however, pick a protégé and you should be training that person every day. Not only will you be helping to solidify your legacy, you will also have a trusted right hand; someone to take the load off you. Choose some with drive, determination and initiative, rather than someone who simply goes with the flow. Better yet, create a community of enthusiasts who support and praise wellness efforts (and who will likely continue to do so after you’re gone). Because once you cease to plan for the future, you are heading for failure.