The Need to Promote Career-Long Vitality and Wellness in the Police Profession
By Daniel Mattos
After making the decision to begin a career in law enforcement, most of us entered the profession with a reasonably well-developed idea of what we thought we were getting ourselves into. Some of us had idealistic goals centered around public service; some wanted to experience the thrill and challenge of catching crooks; others came seeking vocational stability and the camaraderie that the profession offers. Whatever attracted those of us who took the oath to serve our communities, it can be reasonably assumed that it did not include constant exposure to the toxic elements of policing. Undoubtedly, we did not consider death, violence, threats, moral depravity, and a host of other social ills as motivators for entering the law enforcement profession.
What happens to those idealistic law enforcement professionals after they have become battered with the reality that their service can take different courses—courses that depend on what they learn along the way, how they are mentored, and how they personally choose to live their lives? To enjoy a fulfilling law enforcement career in conjunction with a personal life filled with vitality and happiness should be the goal of all of us in the profession. Unfortunately, this too often becomes a daunting task for many officers consistently exposed to the caustic elements of a career in law enforcement.
As a profession, we have historically placed a high priority on tactical skills and equipment that increase our safety in the field. Defensive driving, firearms training, and hand-to-hand defensive tactics are heavily focused on at the academy level and throughout our careers. Moreover, we arm ourselves with handguns, rifles, and shotguns; wear ballistic vests; and carry other equipment with us daily to keep us safe. Sadly, though, when we look at the amount of time spent training officers to defend themselves against the psychological and emotional traumas they will face, our profession falls drastically short. We issue ballistic vests to protect our officers from bullets, but what armor do we give them to deflect the caustic events they face during their careers?
Realizing that the people we work with are our most valuable assets, we have a duty to provide our employees with the necessary training, guidance, and resources throughout their careers to enable them to live full, healthy lives. This guidance and direction should take place at the onset of our professional careers, continue through those years between the beginning and end of our careers that represent the zenith of our contribution to the profession, and ultimately sustain us as we travel down the road to retirement.
When I think of the early years in a police officer’s career, I cannot help but recall a saying I once heard. “When I was 14 years old, I could not believe how stupid my father was, and, when I turned 20, I could not believe how much he had learned.” This says volumes about how we learn as we age and has distinct parallels as to how we grow as police officers.
It seems to me that many officers in the early years of their career are fortunate enough to have good mentors who try to steer them on a true and correct course. However, invariably, most new officers arrive at a point when they actually think they have things figured out. Using myself as an example, it was around the 2-year mark that I began to develop definite opinions of how police work should be done. In fact, I was so impressed with my newfound logic and reasoning capabilities that I actually thought that I had better ideas about how to do police work and run police organizations than those who had been in the business for years. More than once at three o’clock in the morning, I found myself “car to car” with another young officer who had similar views—someone with 2 years on the job who also actually had things figured out. That was over three decades ago, and I dare say that my current observations suggest that little has changed in terms of how officers grow professionally.
Major Mattos serves with the Kootenai County, Idaho, Sheriff’s Office.
In truth, it takes years to fully grasp the realities of being a police officer and appreciate that the work is fluid, that change affects everything, and that several different ways exist for approaching issues. In reality, new police officers face the same challenges as those of us who have been doing the job for years, yet they do not have the benefit of the professional wisdom and understanding that only experience teaches. In dealing with the emotional and psychological hurdles faced by new officers, this lack of experience can have devastating and long-lasting effects that impact all facets of their lives. It is with this thought in mind that police managers and leaders must move forward toward focusing on the overall health and vitality of new officers by engaging in practices that foster an institutional climate of health, wellness, and understanding. Moreover, wellness programs for equipping new officers with “emotional armor” prior to releasing them from their respective training programs should be developed.
Looking at the cultural and professional evolution of new officers in a somewhat clinical fashion, I note that new police officers enter the profession after the traditional battery of applicant tests, academy training, and field instruction by experienced police officers. The premise of the testing is to assess officers’ fitness for the career that lay ahead of them; typically, this includes some sort of psychological testing designed to gauge how well they will be able to cope with the rigors of police work. Once selected, new officers complete training and then are essentially set free to perform their duties in a relatively loosely supervised atmosphere—one in which they are forced to cope with many situations as part of an ongoing learning experience.
It is during these early steps along their career path that new officers acclimate to the culture of their respective agencies, adapt to their coworkers, and develop the professional personality they likely will keep for their entire careers. Also during this initial part of new officers’ careers, the seeds of professional integrity, ethical hygiene, and personal wellness are developed. At this vital stage, new officers are looking for guidance and role models, essentially seeking to be like those they admire. During this impressionable period, police managers must concern themselves with imprinting upon these officers the need to develop skills to enhance their emotional and psychological wellness equally as much as the other professional skills they have been taught.
Wellness and vitality in the early phases of their careers are not typically focused on heavily by these officers, particularly those not only young in professional years but in actual ones as well. For most new officers, the excitement and challenge of their new profession is intoxicating. Few of us in the profession for any amount of time would not admit that we found it nearly impossible to stay away from the job in the early years of our careers. With this in mind, police managers must make the effort to get the attention of the new officers during the beginning of their careers and impress upon them that staying emotionally fit is just as important as catching crooks and doing all the “fun” stuff that new cops are drawn to. Again, while most agencies do a good job of taking care of their personnel when a problem surfaces, many do not have a developed program that addresses the emotional welfare of their officers at the start of their careers.
Without a doubt, all law enforcement organizations need to address the issue of emotional wellness and vitality at the earliest phases of their officers’ careers. Making it evident that emotional health is directly tied to their professional prowess should be one of the fundamentals incorporated into the orientation phases of new police officers. Approaching the issue of emotional well-being by linking it to their professional success creates an interest that otherwise may go undeveloped. Simply put, new officers want to succeed in their careers, so tying their success to emotional wellness can go a long way toward helping them understand the importance of this issue.
Specific emphasis on programs addressing vitality and wellness for new officers should be incorporated at the academy level, during field training, and through an ongoing interagency discipline aimed at gaining and maintaining emotional wellness and career-long vitality for personnel. It is through the timely incorporation of programs that address emotional well-being that agencies will have the opportunity to provide their employees with the seeds of emotional fitness that will help them survive the challenges of the career ahead.
The Primary Years
Looking at my career, I see that I spent the first 5 years learning the basics of my job. During this time, I chose those I wanted to emulate and learned values that ultimately have stayed with me. Essentially, I forged my law enforcement character and formed my decision on how I would travel through my career. I believe that most of us in the profession follow this pattern or a very similar one. It also occurred to me that my most productive years professionally took place after the 5-year mark and continued at varying degrees throughout my career, now spanning over three decades. Having talked to uncounted police officers over the years, I again find that this is a pattern that seems to present itself among career officers.
Unfortunately, the productivity and success also comes with a price best exemplified by an experience I had several years ago. While in an office with several seasoned detectives, we discussed who had been divorced and who had not. After a role call of eight detectives—all successful and dedicated to the profession—all but two had been divorced at least once. Nationally, the divorce rate among police officers is shown to be as high as 70 percent in a society that has a divorce rate of around 50 percent. Volumes have been written on why the divorce rate is high among police officers; however, I use this example simply as a way of conveying that we constantly walk in murky waters, which often devastates our personal lives.
The residue from these toxic waters creates the perfect conditions for marital discourse, depression, substance abuse, and other maladaptive behaviors that ultimately can wreak havoc on the physical and emotional vitality and wellness of police officers. It is during the primary years of our career—years in which we have become committed to the profession and have a vested stake in our careers—that we are most consistently exposed to the caustic elements of society. And, because of this consistent exposure to those harmful elements of our jobs, our vitality and wellness become imperiled.
How many of us who have been in the law enforcement profession can honestly say we have not been touched by grief, sadness, shock, and the countless other emotions that we have experienced as a result of being exposed to the multitude of situations we are called upon to deal with? By thinking of what we are continually exposed to, it is not difficult to realize that most people in our society rarely, if ever, see or experience even one horrific event in a lifetime—let alone be exposed to these events sometimes daily. With this in mind, it is certainly not difficult to understand why police officers often struggle to live with some degree of normalcy. The reality of what we do is this: we live daily in a vastly different world than the rest of our society and are exposed to a constant barrage of forces that challenge our ability to live happy, healthy lives. And, this concept applies most heavily to those in the in-between years, those who represent the most productive and visible years of our careers.
Taking all of this into account, police administrators need to accept the fact that the days of telling seasoned officers with work-related emotional difficulty to “buck up and get to work” are long gone. In an era in which our ranks are being filled with employees who have been raised in a generational atmosphere where mental and physical health are routinely focused upon as a priority, police administrators must take a leading role in assuring that those needs are not only addressed but also for the right reasons because the welfare of our employees is singularly the most vital issue that we are responsible for.
To ensure the wellness and emotional vitality of our officers, police organizations need to adopt an institutional character that promotes wellbeing. To begin with, this culture is fostered by the basic tenets of managing human beings: treat them with dignity and respect. Then, the character of the organization is further built upon by its leaders demonstrating a genuine, consistent, and permeating attitude of care and concern for those who work there; this character is built mostly by deeds and actions and not by words—police officers, as a whole, often are suspicious and not easily disposed to what may be regarded as a passing fad. Finally, once these organizational characteristics are melded together whereby they are understood to be the actual culture of the institution, employees will feel comfortable and safe when realizing they need to address personal issues that could affect their emotional or physical well-being.
Most important, institutional programs and safeguards must encourage employees to seek help for issues they may face. These programs or safeguards can simply ensure officers that they can talk to a supervisor about an issue troubling them and perhaps, to seek professional assistance through programs sponsored by their agency.
The seeds of employee wellness are directly linked to an organizational atmosphere that clearly values employees and promotes their vitality and wellness. This mind-set creates an imperative for police managers to set a tone for their organizations that will promote overall health and wellness.
The Finish Line
Without a doubt, unique stressors in the law enforcement profession make it necessary to monitor how officers live their professional and personal lives and to ensure their emotional and physical health are not being adversely impacted. But, what happens when our career is nearing its end and eventually comes to a conclusion?
Much—if not most—of the transition to retirement is dictated by the mind-set of the retiring officers. Are they still happy in their careers? Are they miserable and just want out at all costs? Do they have outside interests developed? Are their families and marriages intact? Are their careers their lives? Officers approaching retirement must examine such questions.
One idea should permeate any discussion about police retirement: the thoughtful consideration of how retirement affects officers when one day they are an active part of a viable law enforcement community and the next are “out the door.” This may seem like a relatively simple thought to grapple with, but whether retiring officers are happy or sad about their retirement and whether they have a life planned for when they are no longer a cop, the fact remains that what they have done day after day for decades has just come to a halt. This means the commander who had responsibility for dozens or hundreds of employees is no longer the commander; the officer who was looked to for guidance at the scene of a tragedy is no longer looked at in this light; the daily meetings for coffee and conversation with coworkers no longer take place.
In the final analysis, career officers who make the transition into retirement must face the fact that much of life as they have come to know it will change. And, like it or not, they have to change with it. In the spirit of promoting wellness and vitality within our soon-to-retire personnel, we must take organized steps in preparing these employees for the reality of retirement. In accomplishing this, agencies should develop and monitor a system that tracks those who are within 2 to 3 years of retirement and implement programs that address what these officers should expect.1 These types of programs are not new by any means; however, the concept of instituting them as a viable part of an agency’s overall personnel policy is not routinely practiced. The programs should be tailored to law enforcement and should include an oral presentation by retired officers who can address issues that they faced upon retiring. Experience has shown that cops will listen to other cops—even more so when they know each other.
In addition, the programs should include financial planning and information on physical fitness and health. Agencies should seek the guidance and direction of professionals within their community when putting together these programs. An overall view toward retirement that includes the retiring officer’s mind-set, emotional and physical health, and financial future should be at the core of any inhouse program that seeks to make the transition to retirement successful.
As a final thought, I note that those officers who are retiring have in one form or another mentored many new recruits and experienced officers along the way. With this in mind, who mentors those who have retired and left their extended law enforcement family? An observation that I believe holds true throughout our law enforcement community is the fact that once many officers retire, they “fall off the radar screen” and are forgotten about. Instead, why not institute “reverse mentoring”? Keeping the names of retired officers on an active list that agencies can monitor to ensure those officers receive invitations to social events and periodic contact from others in the organization could work wonders for those who may struggle with retirement.
Police officers do not come completely formed and ready to deal with the host of issues inherent in the law enforcement profession. Rather, they come from the civilian world and are soon exposed to events that necessarily harden them into what they must become to function in their role as a police officer. This conditioning results from exposure to horrific events and constant contact with people who routinely choose not to conform to accepted rules and standards. Not surprisingly, police officers become naturally suspicious, cynical, and often uncompromising in some of their views. Therefore, police managers must realize that to effectively relate to their officers, a level of trust that promotes communication and safety within the organization has to exist.
How then should police agencies develop trust and comfort that will allow for the development of programs that promote officer wellness? No doubt, the idea of promoting trust within law enforcement organizations has been a subject of conversations since the days of the Roman Legions. However, with the idea in mind that the goal behind programs that will enhance officer wellness is to create a transition between unhealthy habits that officers have developed or fallen into at various stages of their careers into those that promote emotional and physical wellness, some clear-cut paths can lead to trust and cohesion within police organizations.
Experience, as well as common sense, suggests that transparency within police organizations leads to the development of trust. Because of their very nature, police officers become suspicious about what they do not know about. For instance, I can recall several discussions that took place between myself and other officers during my early years about my department’s budget. The budget process and the actual information regarding the budget never was made available to the rank and file, hence immediate suspicion arose. When the budget came out with no raises or needed equipment, suspicion grew stronger. The bottom line on the issue of transparency is to share what you can and be up front about it. Although police managers are not obliged to share everything with the rank and file, they can benefit from keeping their officers informed.
Leaders also can build many trust-related bridges through the willingness to share some of their personal experiences. What this means is not being afraid to discuss mistakes you have made to show those you work with that you are human and certainly not perfect. What managers or supervisors choose to share is up to them—obviously, it is not necessary to discuss intrinsically personal issues. However, by allowing others to know what you have learned through your mistakes promotes an underlying tone of humility—which, in turn, promotes trust and understanding.
Openness, good communication skills, sincerity, and frankness all work together to form a general sense of trust and comfort in police organizations. It is within the context of these traits that the road is paved for police officers to willingly come to the table and learn about themselves and the fact that they must develop skills throughout their careers that will allow them to remain healthy and ultimately transition to retirement.
By the very nature of what we do as police officers, we are unavoidably exposed to a host of toxic elements that can be likened to grains of emotional sand that ever so gradually are placed on our psychological backs. As time goes on, the sand increases in volume. Without the proper tools to remove it, the weight can become unbearable. In fact, in some cases, the sand becomes so heavy that it can collapse officers. The result of the sand’s weight takes a heavy toll on us; substance abuse, anxiety, depression, failed marriages, and other emotional and physical ailments that rise well above societal averages plague our profession.
Law enforcement managers in modern law enforcement are faced with the challenge of acknowledging that because officers are exposed to the caustic elements in our society, they run the risk of becoming victims themselves—victims whose lives can lack wholeness and vitality because of what they deal with. Acknowledging this to be the case, police agencies need to take a proactive role in promoting physical and emotional wellness within their organizations. The benefits are many and can be looked at clinically in terms of increased productivity, enhanced interaction with the public, reduced use of sick time, and many other bottom-line factors. However, in the end, the best reason for sponsoring an organizational atmosphere that promotes physical and emotional hygiene, as well as a clearly recognizable attitude of institutional care and concern, is that it is the right thing to do and what we owe to those who help us form the “thin blue line.”