In their own words: Officers share their experiences coping with stress
It’s one thing for a first responder to divulge the toughest moments of their lives with a loved one – it’s quite another to share that story with the world
By Chief Constable Neil Dubord
We all marvel at the many changes in policing over the past decades, but there is one area where we still have a lot of work to do – being open about what it takes to get through this job and remain both mentally and physically healthy.
It’s one thing for a first responder to sit down and share some of the toughest moments of their lives with a loved one, or trusted coworker. It’s quite another to share that story with the whole world. But that is exactly what officers from the Delta Police Department, in Delta, British Columbia, Canada, do as guests on the department’s podcast that I host, called Bend Don’t Break. We’ve also opened the podcast to first responders from other agencies.
When I signed on as a constable, I never imagined the job of a police chief would include something as apparently unrelated to policing as being a podcast host. I’m very much in awe of the courage my guests have shown, as well as their resilience, as they share their stories.
One of my sergeants, Ray Athwal, a guest on the show, whose wife went through an unexpected and lifesaving transplant, phrased it very well. He noted that traditionally, we in policing have not been very open about what’s going on in the deep recesses of our minds. We tend not to talk about what’s bothering us, or what’s hurting us. We keep it to ourselves. All our guests share their hard-won insights. They also don’t shy away from sharing how bad things got, and for some it was very bad. But most important, they all share what they learned during the process to become well and be healthy.
Here are six takeaways my department identified about officer resiliency through interviewing our personnel and first responders from other agencies in British Columbia and Alberta.
1. It’s up to the individual to make a change
I’ve done about 10 of these interviews now, and one common thread is that it is up to the individual to accept responsibility for their own mental and physical health. It’s up to them to make a change.
The idea of the podcast was first proposed to me by Cst. Aaron Hill from our training section. He was also the first guest. He felt the power of story would help in the healing process. From my perspective I wanted to learn how, in situations where you can’t protect your people, if leaders could intervene and perhaps prevent people from hitting rock bottom.
2. Be accountable to yourself
Aaron was facing an investigation about using excessive force at the same time as being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. His lifelong dream of being on the ERT team was in tatters, and he didn’t feel the organization had his back. However, with the help of his wife, he realized he had adopted a victim mentality.
“You can become so blinded. You’re just angry. Angry at the way you’re being treated, being perceived, being portrayed. You have to get through that stage before you really start listening. I wasn’t going to change the way other people were judging me, based on one person’s account of the story. I had to start being accountable, to myself really,” Aaron said.
And so, Aaron gave us the first lesson from the podcast.
Another early guest was Cst. Jordan McWilliams with the Emergency Response Team. He was called to a hostage incident, where he had to make the difficult decision to shoot the hostage taker. As with all these events, there was an independent investigation, and Jordan ended up being charged with second-degree murder for his role in the events. The charge was ultimately stayed, but it was a life-changing experience for him.
"I joined policing because I wanted to do good things. Obviously as a good person you struggle with the thought of hurting somebody else – especially killing somebody else," Jordan said.
3. Take the time to listen, before passing judgement
Jordan freely admits during the time after the shooting he didn’t do a good job of being resilient.
“I wasn't a very good husband. I wasn't a very good dad. I drank too much. I wasn't managing it well.” He said he wished, looking back, that he'd done better at opening up about his feelings about the shooting and the charge. He spoke to his doctor but wasn't forthcoming even when warned his blood pressure was high.
Now when a co-worker is exhibiting signs of stress, such as coming in consistently late to work, Jordan tries to take the time to get to know that person and see if they’ll open up, whereas in the past he may have been judgmental. “I never walked a mile in their shoes, and never considered there could be something going on in their lives. Now I pause and think about what was going on in my life during those two years, and what I wasn’t telling people.”
My interview with Bob Rich, the former chief of Abbotsford Police, was eye-opening as he had to deal with repeated tragedies affecting his department – two officer suicides in rapid succession, followed by the on-duty shooting death of a well-loved constable.
4. It’s more than okay to be vulnerable; it’s necessary
Bob spoke about how after a big push to encourage his members and employees to seek mental health services, he struggled with determining the right amount of vulnerability to show.
“They need to know how much this hurts me, but that I’m not crumbling at the helm,” Bob said in describing his struggle. “It’s okay to take a knee. Bend, not break.”
And in leading his organization, he reminded me that you never move people by what you say. It’s how you make them feel.
He also talked about some of the unique challenges in policing, and why it’s important to make sure our workplaces are also safe places: “We send police officers out in the field, and sometimes people don’t treat them very nicely. We can’t do anything about what a drunk person says to a black or gay member. But when they walk back through the door, the organization had better have their back.”
5. When help is offered, accept it
After the sudden death of Abbotsford Cst. John Davidson – shot while responding to a report of a stolen vehicle – police forces across the Metro Vancouver area stepped in to help with the investigation and to fill any gaps as the whole Abbottsford force reeled with the shock of the loss.
Within hours, nearby police forces had started showing up to allow the shift to “take a knee.” That support was critical, explained Bob. And he reminded his department in the days and weeks following, that mental health is not a binary concept. It’s not a choice between being sick or well. Nearly everyone is somewhere on that continuum.
6. Write it down; preserve the memories for your children
Cst. Craig Look from Vancouver Police recently shared his story with me from 15 years back in his career when he was a very junior member. What began as a routine call ended with him being stabbed several times, with his partner having to intervene. Craig reflects on his struggles and challenges and explains how he was able to recover both mentally and physically.
He still gets emotional when talking about the event, particularly as he thinks of how he might not have been able to be there for his child, had the situation turned out differently.
That process prompted him to write what turned into a journal for his child. He describes that process as a great strategy to manage his feelings and ongoing worry that at any time he might not be able to return to his children.
He also reflects that no matter how unique you think your situation is, there are a lot of people out there who have gone through something similar. In our profession there are, unfortunately, plenty of us who have been stabbed and attacked.
I want to thank all my guests who stepped up, took a risk and shared their stories with me, and with anyone who will take the time to listen. Their stories about coping with stress and trauma, leadership in challenging times, and officer resiliency will resonate with a broad audience.
Links to all these amazing stories and others in the Bend Don’t Break podcast can be found at the Apple Store, or the Google Play Music store. You can also find the most recent stories at http://deltapolice.ca/podcast, with links to the other stories there. And remember, if you have a story to share and are, or will be in the Metro Vancouver, British Columbia area, please reach out to us at the above link.
About the author
Chief Constable Neil Dubord joined the Delta Police Department in June 2015 after three years as chief of the Metro Vancouver Transit Police and 25 years with the Edmonton Police Service, where he was the deputy chief in charge of the Community Policing Bureau.
Chief Dubord is a Canadian expert in critical incident command and is past president of the National Incident Command Working Group Association. He has been awarded the Police Officer Order of Merit from the Governor General of Canada, the Police Exemplary Medal and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal.
He has a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Business from Northcentral University, holds a master’s degree in Leadership & Training from Royal Roads University, graduated from the FBI National Academy and the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development program, and is a Canadian Human Resource Professional (CHRP).