Focus on Officer Wellness
Building Community Trust Requires Supporting Healthy Officers
By John Marx
Law enforcement organizations strive to provide excellent services. Fulfilling this duty requires healthy police professionals. Officers must take responsibility for their well-being by strengthening and conditioning themselves to better handle the negative effects of a law enforcement career. Department leaders need to cultivate the health of their personnel by having the proper support in place. When officers embody wellness, they serve the public most effectively.
Police departments want to have open, collaborative relationships with the communities they serve. However, the stress and trauma of a law enforcement career can have damaging effects on officers that impact their ability to serve most effectively. Should agencies better prepare their young officers to confront the dangers of their jobs? Could insufficient training and support lead personnel to suffer in silence or turn astray during their careers because of the tragedies they may endure?
Negative stress often serves as an interesting enemy. Officers cannot see or touch it, and they usually have difficulty describing it. But, its damaging effects can attack law enforcement personnel every day. Officers may experience “blue trauma syndrome,” which encompasses a spectrum of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health problems.1 This usually results from large or cumulative doses of occupational stress.
Even a short period of introspection will verify that this holds true for most law enforcement personnel. Few officers are born with the resilience to withstand the challenges of a police career.
Officers must acknowledge and master the useful effects of stress while defending and armoring themselves from its damages. Otherwise, a career’s worth of battle fatigue will overtake them. They must build “tactical resilience,” a human quality of intentional strength and fitness exhibited through the mind, body, brain, and spirit of police professionals.2 This allows them to withstand the rigors and hidden dangers presented by continuous exposure to high-threat, high-pressure situations.
While the effects of prolonged service in law enforcement can functionally disable some personnel and severely impact others, officers can find ways to strengthen and condition themselves to better handle all of the potentially damaging effects of the job. Doing so will equip them to provide the professional police services needed by the 21st-century public.
Mr. Marx, a retired senior officer, is executive director of an organization focused on police wellness and survival and founder of its sister website.
A successful strategy for building resilience involves 1) strengthening and conditioning officers; 2) fortifying the department’s support system; and 3) creating a positive culture of wellness. All three tactics must work in unison to promote police and agency resilience and help bolster public trust.
Strengthening and Conditioning Officers
Policing revolves around people—the officers who enforce the law and those they serve. Agencies must prioritize the needs of the community and the well-being of their personnel to ensure the public has faith in law enforcement’s ability to serve. Resilient officers provide higher-quality and ethically sound policing services, and a healthy, engaged community will work and communicate with the departments that serve it.
Law enforcement leaders strive to recruit and hire the best candidates. Agencies test them physically and mentally and evaluate their intelligence, integrity, and communication skills. However, beyond initially training and equipping personnel, departments must continue to develop them.
Officers also hold responsibility for their well-being. By changing their mind-set and practicing simple daily wellness tactics, they can embody health and establish effective personal and professional habits that should last a lifetime. Meanwhile, they can help enforce the necessary commitment to their occupation and those they serve. By regularly conducting these practices, personnel can strengthen the needed bonds with community members to provide excellent services.
Law enforcement officers must partner with their agencies to consistently and properly train and condition themselves to endure all varieties of suffering and injury while building physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength. By doing so, they will perform their duties at the best of their ability and survive the stressful nature of a long career in law enforcement.
Departments hold high expectations for officers’ fitness at the beginning of their careers, but they also must encourage their personnel to maintain it. Challenges include enforcing standards and conducting regular testing.
A July 2012 study involving 464 officers identified 40 percent of them as obese, compared with 32 percent of the general population. Additionally, more than 25 percent presented with metabolic syndrome, while only 18.7 percent of civilians had this condition. Although this study may not represent the entire population of U.S. law enforcement, it hints at an alarming trend.3
Physically prepared personnel will have the needed health, stamina, physical strength, running speed, and arrest-control skills to succeed. They should follow and promote proper habits related to nutrition, hydration, and sleep management to support a long, healthy life. Simply doing a 10-minute comprehensive fitness routine every workday may serve as an excellent tactic to maintain or improve an officer’s level of physical fitness.
Officers who fortify themselves mentally will better maintain the cognitive functions needed to preserve their edge in reaction time, investigative intuition, memory, and communication skills. They will have heightened visual acuity and more effectively perform complex problem-solving functions. By exercising their cognitive abilities, officers may thwart brain-function decline in the later years of their lives. Solving logic, word, or math problems or finding a useful online brain-training program can help build cognitive skills each day.
Agencies need emotionally and psychologically healthy personnel; they must regularly nurture and evaluate their officers. With police-suicide statistics showing a rate eight-times higher than retired officers or those who left the profession, the importance of this priority comes into focus.4
By preparing themselves emotionally, law enforcement personnel better regulate and control their fear, anger, and level of frustration. Further, they can summon the needed courage, tenacity, and persistence to perform their duties at the highest level. If officers take just 15 minutes per day for quiet time and allow their minds and emotions to calm and reset, they may help develop their mental clarity and emotional strength. They can build this buffer time between work and home before reengaging with family, friends, and the “real world.”
When spiritually fortified, officers can more capably maintain the highest level of honor, integrity, and compassion. Committing to this goal will promote greater self-awareness; maturity; and faith in themselves, humankind, and perhaps a higher power. An examination of officers’ own inner strength leads to greater connection with everything and everyone around them and builds a solid understanding of the human condition.
The human spirit—as with all other qualities of persons—needs nourishment and replenishment in everyone, but especially in those who have chosen law enforcement as a career. Giving themselves 10 to 15 minutes each day to examine their beliefs, values, and opinions about major life concepts can afford officers greater clarity and self-awareness, which, in turn, may help them serve effectively as society’s peacekeepers. Officers should consider recording their thoughts in a journal so they can follow their progress over time.
Fortifying a Support System
Healthy agencies cultivate healthy officers who, in turn, build healthy communities. Departments can develop such personnel through programs that support the full spectrum of health. Such efforts can include many services.
- Mentoring programs for personnel at all organizational levels
- Proactive peer support coupled with an anonymous crisis hotline for emergency help
- Chaplain services
- Family support communications network
- Law enforcement-oriented psychological resources
- Annual resilience-reinforcement education
- Critical-incident support
- Program for families of officers who died in the line-of-duty or by suicide
- Medical, health, and wellness services and training
- Education and assessment focused on proper nutrition and exercise
- Fitness program, which may include paid or volunteer trainers
- Agency wellness-resource library of books, videos, and computer-based materials
- Intervention plan for personnel in crisis
- Employee recovery-management procedures
- Separation process to support ongoing wellness activities in retirement
Agency leaders also need to address the law enforcement-suicide rate. They should research the problem and consider initiating a program for prevention training and tracking.
- U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance VALOR Officer Safety Initiative, https://www.valorforblue.org
- International Association of Chiefs of Police, Center for Officer Safety and Wellness, http://www.theiacp.org/CenterforOfficerSafetyandWellness
- Law Enforcement Survival Institute, http://www.lawenforcementsurvivalinstitute.org
- Working Minds, http://workingminds.org/
- CopsAlive.com, http://www.copsalive.com/suicideprevention/
- Safe Call Now (crisis hotline: 206–459–3020), https://www.safecallnow.org
Creating a Positive Culture
Departments need to build a culture of wellness and support. They must validate such statements as “I have your back” and “We are all one big family” through actions. A positive mind-set can become contagious if enough agency leaders inspire successful, healthy officers. Personnel must have access to programs that will cultivate wellness, and everyone must lead by supporting each other. Officers should have the courage to support their peers and challenge them if they do not take care of their fitness and overall health.
As the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing works to mobilize its recommendations, agency leaders need to tighten up their policies, procedures, and behaviors to stay in step with public expectations.5 Law enforcement faces intense scrutiny and media coverage. Agencies need to ensure they monitor themselves adequately, lest they face restrictive external controls. All of this pressure only adds to the internal physiological stressors experienced by the typical police professional.
Additionally, developing a stronger and more vital officer, department, and culture must include proactive community-building initiatives that further help foster positive law enforcement service and promote citizen cooperation and support. Communication plays a key role.
All critical forms of human interaction—whether in policing, agency management, or community building—require quality communication skills. In all three parts of the strategy, self-awareness and open, honest conversation must occur among personnel and members of the public.
Everyone has a leadership role in building a healthy, sustainable collaboration with citizens. Concepts, like community policing and neighborhood-based services, need to remain lively, along with the processes of innovation, collaboration, and service.
Law enforcement personnel must take responsibility for their health and well-being by making the commitment to strengthen and condition themselves to better handle negative effects of the job. They need to spend time every day to develop themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Leaders need to ensure that their departments have support programs in place to sustain both current and future officers. They need to promote a positive culture of wellness within the law enforcement profession so that their personnel will provide top-notch policing services.
Agencies must focus on excellent service to the public. By recruiting and maintaining healthy officers, they take a huge step toward this goal.
For additional information Mr. Marx can be contacted at info@CopsAlive.com.