Wellness programs enter the mainstream

Wellness programs are coming to be a standard feature in many law enforcement agencies. Police employers recognize that being a cop carries hazards beyond those directed at police by criminals and nature. Wellness programs should look after both the physical and emotional health of law enforcement officers.

physical fitness maintenance

Many officers are close to being in the best physical shape of their lives when they complete the police academy. Not all academies are physically rigorous, but most do have some fitness component and a standard to meet before graduation. Once new recruits progress into active duty, they may have the best intentions to stay in shape but find that police life works against them. Shiftwork, sometimes frequently rotating between days and nights, having fast food instead of more healthy mouse because they’re running from call to call, and interruptions to their sleep cycle all interfere with maintaining a healthy diet and exercising frequently.

The Bend (Oregon) Police Department has a multi-faceted wellness program that could be a national model.

The Bend (Oregon) Police Department has a multi-faceted wellness program that could be a national model. (Photo/Bend Police Department)

The police agency is often powerless to compel officers to control their weight better. The employer can offer incentives to maintain good fitness but has more difficulty pressing unhealthy officers to improve.

Few police agencies make physical fitness a condition of continued employment. An agency can require all officers to take an annual fitness test but can’t do much when officers perform poorly on it. Instead, the agency can offer incentives for meeting or surpassing whatever fitness benchmark they adopt. Typical incentives include:

  • Extra vacation days
  • A one-time payout or increase in hourly pay
  • Preferential eligibility for tactical team or other special assignment selection
  • Distinctive insignia
  • gift cards

Some agencies either subsidize gym memberships or fund them outright. When there is space in the police building, they can equip a fitness center for the use of officers and sometimes for their families as well. Benefits like these remove some barriers to regular exercise, but there is still a time crunch to consider. An officer who is barely getting enough sleep as it is may not be motivated to sacrifice some of those hours of shuteye in favor of a workout.

mental wellness

The strongest and fittest officers can’t function effectively if they’re not emotionally healthy. It’s taken a while for everyone to come around to understanding the importance of good mental hygiene, but this aspect of wellness is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Officers who are emotionally healthy think more clearly and make better decisions. They are also more resilient emotional to trauma. This resilience is an important aspect of mental health in the law enforcement workplace. Think of it as “body armor for the mind.” Resilience doesn’t make cops immune to the effects of stress and shock, but it minimizes the negative effects that traumatic events have on the officer’s psyche.

Psychological services have a bad reputation among the rank and file in some agencies. Instead of an asset to keep employees healthy and help them over rough patches, “the shrink” is considered as a path to removing the officer’s firearms and arrest powers, and ultimately paving the way to an early retirement without the benefit of a pension. Cops are careful about expressing any harmful thoughts within earshot of a supervisor, lest they suffer a mandatory transfer to the Rubber Gun Squad.

The most effective mental wellness programs see their first introduction in the training academy. Student officers and their families receive training in what to expect as the new officer progresses along the path to becoming a journeyman police officer and beyond. Spouses are made to understand that policing isn’t a job that is 100% left behind in the locker at the end of watch. They learn coping strategies and when to ask for help from the professional mental health staff.

While professional psychologists and master’s-level counselors and therapists are available, a common feature of well-run wellness programs is the extensive use of peer counselors. Employees who are experienced and respected receive training in active listening, common symptomology and stress reduction strategies they can employ immediately following a critical incident or when they see a fellow officer who seems to be having trouble. One agency gave distinctive polo shirts to their peer counselors with instructions to wear these at in-house events that don’t require a traditional uniform in order to easily identify the team members and emphasize their availability. There is often considerable hesitation in asking for help, especially when it involves making an appointment and scheduling time to meet with a therapist. With an effective peer counselor network, an officer can avail himself of help by simply meeting a colleague for coffee or starting a conversation as they’re walking to the parking lot at end of watch.

Throughout this article, I’ve made reference to sworn officers, but it’s critical to include non-sworn support staff in these wellness programs. Dispatchers and community service officers suffer their own brand of stresses. A records clerk might not be on the front line of law enforcement, but the stress of a traumatic event can still bleed over into their emotional circle and create problems for them. Everyone in a law enforcement agency needs to be recognized as a shareholder in the agency’s mission, achievements, and tragedies.

Not every agency has police chaplains, and those agencies that do have them often underuse them. Chaplains are obviously associated with members of their denomination, but most chaplains and clergymen/women are also skilled counselors. Operationally, they can attend domestic violence and other “family trouble” calls and be a resource for the officers who are handling the safety and legal aspects of the incident. By simply being around a lot, riding with officers on patrol and attending briefings, they develop rapport and remove hesitation an officer might have with approaching a stranger to discuss a problem. Some officers won’t want to bring any aspect of religion into their working life, but others will seek comfort there when they would avoid a lay counselor or psychologist.

Mental health wellness training should be ongoing, but there will always be incidents in a law enforcement career where special, focused assistance is necessary. Critical incidents, such as shootings, mass casualty events, the serious injury of an officer, and anything that provokes a negative, strongly emotional reaction merit some special debriefing. It’s important to remember that an incident that forms a nightmare scenario for one officer might be emotionally negligible for another. Supervisors have to be constantly checking in with their subordinates to be aware of when a critical incident has taken place, even if it’s one the supervisor doesn’t believe amounts to anything unusual.

Debriefings on these incidents need to occur as quickly as possible after the incident has concluded, and in any event before the affected officers’ next duty shift. These debriefings should be led by a therapist trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISD) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). Cognitive Processing and Prolonged Exposure therapies can be helpful, as well. The use of any or all of these treatment methods has been shown to reduce the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when the therapy is implemented shortly after the traumatizing event.

The Bend PD Experience

The Bend (Oregon) Police Department has a multi-faceted wellness program that could be a national model. Bend PD employs about 100 sworn officers and 30 non-sworn staff to serve a community of 94,000. Starting in the early 2000s, Bend PD modified the patrol work schedule to provide for one paid hour of physical fitness training each week. This was expanded to allow entire patrol teams to exercise as a group on two days each week.

In 2012, Bend PD expanded the wellness initiative to address progressive mental health programming that included yoga and mindfulness exercises and training. Elements such as a peer support program, an on-site psychologist, and support for spouses grew the program and made it more vigorous. Several sworn members attended a local mindfulness seminar conducted over six weeks and found that the techniques helped them “shut off” after work and bring less of the on-duty baggage home with them. The free smartphone app Headspace helped conduct individual and group meditation sessions. Together with two supervisors from the nearby Hillsboro PD, Bend PD now conducts mindfulness training sessions for officers and their spouses, with the sessions open to officers and families throughout Oregon.

Adding yoga to the wellness program was a hard sell for some officers, but it has brought unexpected benefits. The initial session of yoga instruction was added to the end of a day-long tactical training session. Officers thought they were beginning another tactical segment but instead were instructed in breathing and stretching techniques. The yoga instructors placed special emphasis on exercises for the back, hips, and shoulders, and incorporated deep breathing exercises as a stress management tool. There are four Bend PD yoga sessions each week, and officers have the opportunity to participate in at least two of these. Since the beginning of the yoga instruction and practice, Bend PD has experienced a 40% decrease in on-the-job injuries, with documented increases in the flexibility of officers’ quadriceps, hips, and spines.

Operationally, since 2015 Bend PD saw a 14.5% increase in 9-1-1 calls for service, but experienced a 40% reduction in use of force incidents in the same period. The department also saw a 24% increase in officer-initiated activity over this time. While these improved statistics cannot be tied directly to the expansion of the wellness program, it’s difficult to imagine how the program would cause officers to work less or less effectively.

Next steps

Law enforcement has always been a physically and emotionally challenging career. By the time officers get to the 20-year mark of their careers, they have often accumulated numerous minor injuries that gradually impair their movement and keep them in constant pain. Historically, cops that work a full career could also count on having a substance abuse problem, one or more divorces, and debilitating mental illness that brought nightmares and depression. It has taken a long time, but the cops of the new millennium are meeting the causative elements of these problems head-on. It’s way past time for police officers to maintain their mental health at least as well as they do their bodies.

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