Focus on Training
The Practice of Spirituality and Emotional Wellness in Law Enforcement
By Dan S. Willis
The true meaning of the essence of practicing spirituality and emotional wellness in law enforcement came to me while attending the FBI National Academy.1 One course—Spirituality, Wellness, and Vitality Issues in Law Enforcement Practices—demonstrated to me that every person is comprised of a mind, body, and spirit. And, it is the wellness and vitality of spirit that most dramatically can affect our minds, bodies, and quality of service that we as law enforcement professionals provide.2
Understanding the Need
For me, spirituality in law enforcement can be defined as a compelling inner sense of purpose and meaning toward selfless service to others, along with a deep connection to individuals and the community served. It involves the ethical practice of a nurturing and compassionate spirit, selfless service, integrity, and human dignity. The spirituality of the law enforcement profession is evident in every aspect of protecting our communities and helping others in a dignified manner. Without the consistent practice of this spiritual component, law enforcement can become ineffective, thereby alienating those who need us the most.
Those who perceive law enforcement as a calling feel this spiritual purpose and connectedness, which often can lead to officers inadvertently sacrificing their emotional well-being through their dedicated service. The essence of police work is to do good and to serve while combating the evil that confronts officers daily. The toxic effects of being immersed within the dark nature of society has a tendency to drain the spirit and life from officers, leaving them emotionally ill and susceptible to burn out, depression, bitterness, ineffective service, suicidal thoughts, and a sense of hopelessness. We need to change the culture of law enforcement that has historically ignored the long-term emotional scars the job can leave on our souls. We need to train officers how to effectively process the pain, evil, and suffering they repeatedly face while nurturing their spirit of service, compassion, and purpose.
Police supervisors and command staffs must cultivate discussions, training, and resources to tap into the wellspring of spirit within officers to keep them centered and connected to the true purpose and essential spirit of police work. The emotional wellbeing of officers is paramount to their providing the highest quality of service consistently. The health and vitality of a community depends upon the emotional wellness and spiritual connectedness to service that each officer possesses. As officers are trained to learn how to nurture and maintain their inner spirit of compassion, noble service, and connectedness, they are much more likely to be able to develop that sense of inner calling and meaningful purpose in the quality of their work.
The law enforcement profession often overlooks the humanness of it members. It is the officers’ spirits that make them human. The cumulative effect of confronting evil for years often has a detrimental effect upon all aspects of an officer’s spirit and can lead to tragic consequences for both officers and the communities they protect and serve. A community cannot be healthy if individual officers are suffering from a damaged spirit.
Every phone conversation and contact an officer has with the public provides an opportunity to practice the spirituality of law enforcement through compassion, respect, and connectedness with the humanness of the other person. Each contact can serve to promote the good image of the department while potentially serving to enrich the emotional well-being and fulfillment of the officer, if that officer has been trained in interpersonal communication, the art of meaningful service, and the practice of spiritual connectedness.
Filling the Void
Traditional law enforcement academy and in-service training focus almost exclusively on the mind and body with little, if any, training and development of the most vital component of people, their spirit. The soul and character of officers—how they learn to process suffering, emotional pain, and evil—all determine their effectiveness in the profession, as well as the quality of their lives and careers.
Command staff and supervisors can proactively work to ensure the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of their officers in several ways. Initially, the police culture needs to be changed through periodic discussions within staff and among officers about the practice of spirituality and emotional wellness in law enforcement. Officers need to understand and sense the noble purpose and meaning of police work: a vocation of selfless service, compassion, and doing good for others. They need to comprehend the spiritual connectedness to their own inner sense of duty and purpose with that of the needs of their fellow officers and the community they serve.
Emotional wellness issues should become an integral part of the police academy curriculum, as well as field training and in-service programs. Discussions should take place about how to train officers to not personalize the pain, suffering, and emotional trauma that they encounter repeatedly on a daily basis.
Officers must receive training in how to emotionally renew themselves and find fulfillment in their work to remain healthy in mind, body, and spirit. Through periodic department training—as well as the use of peer support personnel, chaplains, or confidential counselors— officers need to learn how to constructively deal with the corrosive effects of the job so these do not accumulate to the point of significantly altering their outlook and quality of service. Agencies also can provide online resources, such as an anonymous emotional wellness blog or a department chat room where officers can discuss concerns and explore training objectives.
In addition, departments should offer training to teach officers ways of searching their own spirit to self-evaluate and discover effective methods to insulate themselves from the toxic effects of the profession. Such training could focus on the officers either discussing with their peers or evaluating themselves on such issues as the following:
- How do you deal with loss, pain, or suffering?
- In what ways do you release stress?
- What are your important relationships, and what makes them important?
- Where have you found comfort?
- How do you deal with anger, frustration, ingratitude, and personal affronts?
- What gives you hope?
- What do you enjoy?
- What provides you with a sense of purpose and meaning in your life?
- What does the community need from you?
- What does the organization and your fellow officers need from you?
Finally, agencies should provide ongoing interpersonal communication skills training to develop officers’ abilities to listen effectively and to communicate, connect, express themselves, and relate well with the public, as well as their peers and supervisors. Officers should meet with a peer support counselor, chaplain, or other confidential department support person once a year at the time of their annual evaluation to promote discussions about emotional wellness and those issues most critical to nurturing their spirit of service.
“The spirituality of the law enforcement profession is evident in every aspect of protecting our communities and helping others in a dignified manner.”
The practice of spirituality and emotional wellness training in law enforcement is vital to ensure that the highest quality of service is being consistently provided to the community. An officer with a damaged spirit cannot serve the public and is in danger of self-destructing. It is in everyone’s best interest—the department, the officer, and the community—for officers to receive training and resources to learn how to most effectively practice spirituality in their service to keep them emotionally well.
The compassionate, noble spirit of service within officers compelling them to selflessly serve and protect the community needs to be consistently recognized, nurtured, and developed to maintain their vitality and passion of service throughout their careers and beyond. Because the safety of our nation depends on these valiant, dedicated professionals, we must ensure that they remain healthy and vibrant human beings.
Lieutenant Willis serves with the La Mesa, California, Police Department.
Readers interested in discussing this topic further can reach Lieutenant Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 The FBI hosts four 10-week National Academy sessions each year during which law enforcement executives from around the world come together to attend classes in various criminal justice subjects.
2 For additional information, see Samuel L. Feemster, “Spirituality: The DNA of Law Enforcement Practice,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2007, 8-17; “Spirituality: An Invisible Weapon for Wounded Warriors,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 2009, 1-12; and “Wellness and Spirituality: Beyond Survival Practices for Wounded Warriors,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2009, 1-8.
“We need to change the culture of law enforcement that has historically ignored the long-term emotional scars the job can leave on our souls.”