Building a Successful Officer Wellness Program

By Rodney W. Rego, M.S.

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Various problems that have historically faced law enforcement agencies—protests, negative media reports, and pressure to improve police-community relations—still exist today in many departments. These issues have profound effects on officers’ mental and physical well-being, and agencies ought to address them.

Law enforcement leaders need to care holistically for their personnel. Indeed, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing asserted that police leaders must build resilient officers.1 Just as agencies regularly assess officer safety initiatives, they constantly should evaluate the effectiveness of their wellness programs. These efforts must adapt and evolve when necessary, and leaders need to reinforce them from the top down.

The Stockton, California, Police Department (SPD) has had success in this area. In May 2017, the Destination Zero program selected SPD as its 2017 Officer Wellness Award winner.2 The Destination Zero program is a partnership between the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), and BJA’s VALOR Initiative.3 SPD received the award because of its successful efforts to reduce stress, limit stress-induced trauma, and increase mental health and physical fitness among its officers.

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Troubled Department

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 forced Stockton into a severe financial crisis, which eventually led to its filing for bankruptcy—making it, at the time, the largest municipality ever to do so. Subsequently, the city cut almost 25 percent of its sworn staffing and 40 percent of all its employees. This resulted in the elimination of almost all proactive policing units and extreme shortages in dispatch, animal services, and support staff.4

For years, Stockton has been cited as one of California’s most violent cities. In 2012, it was ranked eighth-most violent in the nation.5 Stress from the challenges of policing in such an environment coupled with financial hardships caused by the elimination of benefits and forced salary reductions sometimes resulted in officers’ divorce, personal bankruptcy, and substance abuse.

In June 2014, SPD suffered its first line-of-duty death in over 20 years. One month later, the department responded to a bank robbery that became a hostage-taking and rolling-active-shooter incident. Three suspects conducted an armed robbery of a local bank and fled with three hostages.

During the resulting hour-long pursuit, the suspects shot one hostage, threw her out of the moving vehicle, and fired over 100 rounds at more than 30 pursuing officers, damaging 14 police vehicles. Ultimately, SPD gunfire killed two suspects and, tragically, one hostage. One suspect survived unscathed, having used the deceased hostage as a shield, and was taken into custody.6

This highly publicized incident had a tremendous impact on the department. Not only did the taking of an innocent life affect officers, but several of them also personally knew the deceased hostage.

Stockton Model

With over 430 sworn officers at its prerecession peak in 2008, SPD took standard steps to address individual officer wellness issues.7 In the late 1990s, the department had created a peer support program and the Stockton Police Chaplaincy. Operating independently, these programs responded to officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. On occasion, they offered individual support to employees seeking assistance.

SPD’s chief developed a new wellness network in early 2014, and the Stockton model now is a nationally recognized program other agencies can use as an example to revise existing officer wellness programs or create their own. Except for contracted police psychological services, SPD achieved its success with minimal to no budgetary expenditures.

The new SPD Wellness Network is loosely based on that of the San Diego Police Department. Four pillars of support make up the SPD model: peer support, the Stockton Police Chaplaincy, a contracted police psychologist, and a city-sponsored Employee Assistance Program. One police manager, who also serves as the workers’ compensation manager, coordinates these components.

Review and Reform

Simply creating a wellness program is not enough. Agencies also must be willing to reevaluate and adjust based on feedback and other outcomes. While SPD officers appreciated the support from the wellness network, the department identified areas of weakness. For example, officers did not see the peer support team as credible. Some members lacked critical communication skills, and others had questionable motives for participating.

In response to these concerns, leaders completely revamped the peer support team. They implemented a new selection process, including an initial review panel and formal interviews. All current team members had to reapply.

The department also established new requirements for participation. These included proven active listening skills, credibility with peers, a qualifying incident, purity of intent, and long-term commitment. It also implemented formal confidentiality agreements and updated policy.

Team members now wear clearly identifiable polo shirts with the wellness network’s emblem to help employees recognize them during training, briefings, and callouts. They also hold monthly meetings to discuss needs and concerns and to update team members.

“Simply creating a wellness program is not enough. Agencies also must be willing to reevaluate and adjust based on feedback and other outcomes.”

Training

To build a culture of wellness, SPD created a process to emphasize wellness throughout an officer’s career. Immediately following hiring and appointment ceremonies, peer support team members meet with new officers’ families and give them a gift bag that includes a helpful book. They also discuss the demands and stress of becoming a police officer and provide information on the department and support resources.

Officers receive 8 hours of wellness orientation before entering the field training officer program. When they complete their 18-month probation, officers receive a book on handling the emotional aspects of law enforcement. Wellness network presentations occur regularly during quarterly sergeant’s workshops and at roll calls throughout the year. This helps to reinforce the importance of wellness.

Services

Peer support team members and police chaplains respond to all officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, and incidents involving severely injured officers. When an officer calls out for injury or illness, the peer support team works closely with the bargaining unit to coordinate wraparound services and follow-up care. The wellness network manager organizes debriefings with the police psychologist and physicians as needed. Moreover, the network responds to referrals, conducts death notifications, and helps with funeral arrangements for current and retired employees.

When officers are placed off duty because of injuries, the wellness network provides get well cards for colleagues to sign and mail to the injured employee. Believing engaged and supported employees are more likely to return to work and do so faster, the workers’ compensation manager’s staff maintains regular phone contact with injured employees to check in and coordinate medical treatment and rehabilitation.

Free psychological services are available for all sworn officers, nonsworn employees assigned to patrol functions, and immediate family members through the contracted police psychologist.

Programs and Events

In 2014, the Stockton Police Officers’ Association (SPOA) initiated and sponsored a fitness recognition program. At one point, the wellness network published quarterly newsletters with sample exercises and dietary plans. However, without dedicated staff, it was difficult to sustain.

The department hosted 2 days of workshops in 2015 for all sworn employees, followed by dinners for all employees and their families, with guest speakers specializing in law enforcement and family counseling. It also offered a free financial planning seminar for all employees.

SPOA opened a gym in 2016 to encourage physical fitness and augment nutrition. Later that year, in response to concerns from family members, SPD’s chief and the wellness network held two informal briefings on family stress management. These events allowed officers and their families to discuss issues related to negative media coverage, ambushes on police, and recent protests, along with steps to mitigate the stress resulting from these issues. They also provided information on resources families may not have been aware of.

To further engage and support balance for employees and families, the wellness network sponsored SPD’s first annual Family Appreciation Day picnic. Community donations fully funded the event.

“Since the implementation of the wellness network, SPD’s officers and families are more engaged in the department and more likely to seek resources and support themselves.”

Looking to the future, the wellness network plans to collaborate with the SPD Training Unit to create short wellness training video clips to show during roll calls. These videos will discuss eating habits, financial planning, substance abuse awareness, sleeping tips, and exercise plans.

Results

Since the implementation of the wellness network, SPD’s officers and families are more engaged in the department and more likely to seek resources and support themselves. Peers and supervisors also are more likely to engage with struggling colleagues and to recommend support services. Additionally, the department has seen an increase in retention. In fact, several officers who left the department for higher paying positions returned, saying they missed SPD’s support, commitment, and family.

Community Relations

By investing in officer wellness, law enforcement agencies can improve trust and community relations.8 Evidence shows the individual actions of police officers have the greatest impact on a community’s perception of police legitimacy.9 SPD’s officer wellness goals connect with its emphasis on procedural justice and police legitimacy, or what it calls Principled Policing organizational theory.10

When officers are equipped to deal with adverse reactions to stress, they are better prepared to employ procedural justice in their community. Procedural justice refers to individuals’ sense that police handle the procedure of a situation—for example, a traffic stop—fairly. Positive outcomes result when citizens feel they have a voice during the incident and when they believe that the officer is neutral, respectful, and trustworthy.11 In turn, this leads to more positive community contacts, fewer negative interactions, and less stress, ultimately resulting in increased job satisfaction and a higher quality work environment.

Conclusion

The Stockton Police Department’s Wellness Network continues to create a culture of mental, physical, and spiritual well-being through the support of the chief, bargaining units, regular training, and engagement of employees and their families. Amid the ever-challenging law enforcement environment, officers must be balanced and focused for community trust to grow.

“When officers are equipped to deal with adverse reactions to stress, they are better prepared to employ procedural justice in their community.”

Captain Rego can be reached at rodneyrego@comcast.net.


Endnotes

1 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), accessed May 1, 2019, https://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p311-pub.pdf.
2 “2017 Officer Wellness Winner,” Destination Zero, accessed June 18, 2019, http://destinationzero.org/officer-wellness/2017-award-winner-stockton-ca-police-department.
3 For additional information, see Destination Zero, http://destinationzero.org; National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, https://nleomf.org; Bureau of Justice Assistance, https://www.bja.gov/default.aspx; and VALOR for Blue, https://www.valorforblue.org.
4 “Stockton Becomes Most Populous Bankrupt U.S. City,” BBC News, April 1, 2013, accessed May 1, 2019, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-21997802.
5 John Rudolf, “Stockton’s Poor Mired in Violence after Police Cuts, Recession,” Huffington Post, April 3, 2012, accessed May 1, 2019, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/18/stockton-poor-poverty-crime-california_n_1346096.html; and Daniel Fisher, “Detroit Tops The 2012 List Of America’s Most Dangerous Cities,” Forbes, October 18, 2012, accessed May 2, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2012/10/18/detroit-tops-the-2012-list-of-americas-most-dangerous-cities/#29daf5ef2931.
6 Rick Braziel, Devon Bell, and George Watson, A Heist Gone Bad: A Police Foundation Critical Incident Review of the Stockton Police Response to the Bank of the West Robbery and Hostage-Taking (Washington, DC: Police Foundation, August 2015), accessed May 2, 2019, https://www.policefoundation.org/publication/a-heist-gone-bad.
7 Jason Anderson, “Staffing Levels Highest Since 2008,” Redcordnet.com, July 1, 2015, accessed May 1, 2019, http://www.recordnet.com/article/20150701/NEWS/150709955.
8 Richard J. Goerling, “Police Officer Resilience and Community Building,” Proceedings of ASBBS 19, no. 1 (February 2012): 394-97, accessed May 1, 2019, http://asbbs.org/files/ASBBS2012V1/PDF/G/GoerlingR.pdf.
9 National Research Council, Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence, ed. Wesley Skogan and Kathleen Frydl (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), 298, accessed May 2, 2019, https://www.nap.edu/catalog/10419/fairness-and-effectiveness-in-policing-the-evidence.
10 Eric Jones, “Principled Policing,” California Police Chief, Spring 2016, 40-41, accessed May 21, 2019, https://uploads.trustandjustice.org/misc/ChiefJOnesPrincipledArticle.pdf.
11 Skogan and Frydl, 304.