4 steps for police leaders to prioritize officer wellness
While resources to address officer wellness can be limited, there are some free and low-cost steps agencies can take to address this critical issue
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Mental health checks | Reducing stress | Internal situational awareness, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
By Chief Ryan Strong, P1 Contributor
Over my 20-year career in law enforcement, I have noticed my fellow officers become more aware of the physical and mental toll of working in law enforcement. It is no surprise that more officers died of suicide last year than were victims of homicide on duty. We all know officers who have succumbed to the unique burdens of the job in other ways as well, such as alcoholism, multiple divorces and other personal problems.
What can police leaders do to help our personnel? One thing that has always frustrated me about this profession is our tendency to complain about a problem, but just sit on our hands instead of doing something about it. Resources to address officer wellness can be limited, particularly in smaller departments. My department is operating at less than 50% staffing compared to what we had 20 years ago. Does that mean we should sit idly by and just complain? Absolutely not. In fact, organizations with limited staffing must be more cognizant of officer wellness. Low staffing levels can create additional stress in a profession already inherently stressful.
Here are four steps any agency can take to prioritize officer wellness:
1. HOLD Informal debriefings
After high-stress incidents, the shift leader needs to take the initiative to have a conversation with everyone on the shift about what happened, how everyone is feeling and what we could do better next time. In many departments, this leader would be the shift sergeant. Some smaller departments might not always have a sergeant available. This is where a veteran officer needs to step in and take on a leadership role. These informal debriefings let everyone relieve some stress and improve safety for next time.
2. RecognizE human factors
When I was a young officer, I went on a death notification with an officer from a neighboring department. The death notification was to tell a mother and her children that the father had been killed in a car crash. My father was killed in a car crash when I was a young man, and the death notification really shook me up. Later that day, I attempted to explain to my shift supervisor how I was feeling. He looked at me like I had three heads.
Department leaders, both formal and informal, have to realize that everyone in their organization is a human being. Different things affect different people in different ways. A small organization may not have a formal support network, but every organization can and should have leaders who look out for their people.
3. HOLD Critical incident debriefings
Departments can and should partner with a local mental health professional to host critical incident debriefings. After a serious incident, officers should be required to meet with this mental health professional. It is unrealistic to think that officers can instantly move on with their lives after seeing a child homicide victim or a grisly traffic crash where several people were killed. My department has used these critical incident debriefings for years, and they are well received and accepted by officers.
Critical incident debriefings allow officers to speak about the incident if they wish (no one is ever forced to say anything), and it allows the department’s psychologist to make sure the officers are processing the incident in a healthy way. Most departments, mine included, don’t have the resources for a full-time police psychologist. However, many police psychologists are willing to work on an on-call basis for smaller departments. To find an on-call police psychologist, ask neighboring departments or seek a referral from your municipality’s employee assistance program or insurance carrier.
4. OFFER Physical fitness programs
Physical exercise is a proven stress reliever, and it offers many other benefits. If you have an on-site workout facility, let officers exercise on their lunch periods. If that isn’t an option, see if a local gym will offer a reduced rate to employees of your municipality. A local gym might be willing to donate used equipment for your department to create an on-site workout facility. A recreation center recently donated some used cardio equipment to our department when they upgraded their equipment.
These are some small and fairly easy steps that any department, including smaller agencies, can take to improve the physical and mental wellness of their officers. I don’t think I have to remind anyone of the sacrifices we all make to protect the public, so these small steps to protect our fellow officers should be implemented without hesitation.
About the author
Ryan Strong is chief of police at the Wayne Police Department in Wayne, Michigan, where he has worked for 20 years. Prior to being chief, Ryan led the department's Investigations Bureau. Ryan has also worked road patrol, traffic and community relations. Ryan is a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command. He has a Master of Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice, both from Michigan State University, and is a professor of criminal justice at Baker College and Ferris State University.