Officer Morale, Safety, and Wellness

Section from Rank and File (Robinson, 2018)
Reflections on some emerging issues in Law Enforcement
Mary-Jo Robinson and Christopher Smith

To sustain an agency that is prepared to respond to the changing threats to public safety, officer safety and wellness must be a priority for local communities. Advanced training and participation in strategies that promote physical and mental wellness can support officer safety and wellness, along with programs that detract from the stigma and dispel the barriers surrounding mental health care. Comprehensive officer safety and wellness programs can include treatment for an array of challenges that can stem from or lead to mental health issues, e.g., substance abuse, divorce, financial stress, or family disorders. To encourage officer wellness means to help officers to engage in a self-aware, self-directed process of achieving full physical, mental, and spiritual potential. Wellness—the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal—is a holistic, multidimensional state (National Wellness Institute 2018).

A focus on officer safety and wellness through targeted programming and agency culture will improve individual well-being as well as agency morale as a whole. Furthermore, officer safety and wellness has an impact on how officers police the communities that they serve and protect. At all levels of law enforcement, from rank and file to leadership, officers who are equipped to handle the physical and mental demands of policing will build more positive interactions with the community and be more productive in the execution of their duties.

James Copple, the facilitator for the day, opened a discussion around officer morale by asking the group, “If somebody today were entering law enforcement and came to you and asked what is positive about the profession, what could you say?” Participants overwhelmingly emphasized their unique roles as protectors and the high personal reward they find in serving the community. Furthermore, they conveyed that positive community interactions helped develop a sense of self-satisfaction. Sergeant Timothy Guaerke of the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Police Department said, “Despite media portrayal and national level perceptions, community members really appreciate and feel the need for law enforcement.” Numerous officers also cited that a perk of the profession is the support offered to officers after retirement, noting that this support seems stronger than in other fields. Officer Kenneth Allen of Atlanta, Georgia, looked to the future in highlighting the new era in which policing finds itself: “This [time] is about change. This is a profession that needs to be redeveloped, and new law enforcement professionals get to be a part of that shift.”

Copple then asked: “What issues are contributing to low morale throughout the profession?” While there were exceptions, participants shared a common view that a lack of resources has led to the expectation that rank-and-file officers can and should do more with less. However, the issue that dominated the discussion was the undercurrent of negativity law enforcement officers feel is coming from their communities. Agency leaders have become hyperaware of how the actions of individual officers can be viewed, especially in the age of social media and instant communication; but participants felt that in many cases these images are misrepresentations of the truth. This awareness has become a driving force behind behavioral and organizational changes across the country. According to Detective Shaun Willoughby, President of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police Union, “Police departments are managing themselves based on the perceptions that they feel are being projected onto them. Departments are so worried about image and perception that it has become a factor in decision-making.” Also, several participants communicated that a lack of data analysis is an underlying cause of the persistence of negative perceptions. Sergeant David Orr of the Norwalk (Connecticut) Police Department explained that there is a “lack of accurate information being disseminated to the public and a lack of data to provide evidence about what is going on in the streets, especially toward minority groups. There is a major need for statistical, empirical information to support the claims being made.” The insufficiencies of both internal and external communications, as expressed by participants, as well as poor transparency of data analysis, may have led to the misperception that there is a true lack of data available. While there was a consensus among the group regarding the need for improved data collection and analysis, the realities of the power of negative perceptions led some officers to conclude that community concerns regarding law enforcement are not baseless. Officer Timothy Crawford of the Chicago Police Department mentioned his personal experience with traffic stops before his time as an officer, stressing, “There needs to be a change to old policing ways. I was never a criminal, but I was treated like a criminal. That’s part of the reason I became a police officer, to be a part of that change.”

Broken into small groups, the participants went on to discuss officer safety and wellness in more depth, addressing the following five questions:

  1. What can the Federal Government do to improve the safety and wellness of local law enforcement?
  2. What are the major barriers challenging officer safety and wellness?
  3. What would you like your local department to do to enhance officer safety and wellness?
  4. What specific services does your department provide to support wellness?
  5. What are innovative strategies being used by your department to improve officer safety and wellness?

 

Discussion around these questions revealed several interconnected and interdependent topics on officer wellness and yielded many recommendations for addressing officer safety and wellness on a national scale. Transcripts of the forum revealed five reoccurring subjects that the forum participants identified as significant challenges to and potential solutions for improving officer safety and wellness: (1) insufficient and inappropriate training, (2) lack of funding, (3) unaddressed mental and emotional health issues, (4) poor community relations and negative perceptions, and (5) disconnect between leadership and ground-level law enforcement.

The following sections break down the details of these identified areas and the recommendations participants provided to address them.

 

Training

Participants agreed that proper training is the backbone of practical and comprehensive community policing. However, conversation indicated that training sessions are often rushed and made to seem less of a priority than they should be because of time and funding constraints. Insufficient and inconsistent training not only risks the safety and wellness of officers but can also expose the public to harm. Lieutenant Paul Williams of the Bloomington (Illinois) Police Department expressed frustration with frequently changing training policies: “Departments are constantly shifting from one training program to the next, sending mixed signals to officers about what is expected of them on the job and which training aspects are most important.” The officers also felt that the shift to more computerized training, at the expense of scenario-based training, has resulted in procedural deficiencies that may prove damaging to officers’ safety and wellness.

Officers suggested that the lack of national training guidelines and standards has emerged as an additional challenge to officer safety and wellness at the local level as it can become unclear which training programs and components are most important. In addition, without national standards to establish a more open dialogue within training programs, officers often do not feel provided with a venue that is free of correction or reprisal within which to ask questions, discuss procedures, and develop techniques. Particularly true for in-service training, officers related instances of being discouraged from asking questions for fear of being called out or reprimanded for not knowing the correct answer or action. Participants said this might lead to limitations on officer safety and wellness in the field.

Some of the ideas participants advanced for improving training included the following:

  • Departments should provide regularly recurring training on leadership, use of force, de­escalation, crisis intervention, and mental health safety for all officers and command staff.
  • It would be helpful if there were a national-level training guide for all law enforcement agencies that includes regularly updated training recommendations.

 

Funding

After observing and noting its effects in their departments, forum participants shared that a lack of funding can lead to a breakdown in officer safety and wellness. Funding deficits can be used to justify the gutting of training budgets, which leads to poorly designed and ineffective training courses that create gaps in knowledge and stifles the professional growth of field level officers. Inadequate funding also limits officers’ access to potentially critical mental, emotional, and physical health services, which have become either grossly underfunded or absent for many departments across the United States. Officers also reported that a lack of funding for research around wellness issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is detrimental to improving the health and wellness of officers nationally.

 

Lack of funding for facilities, community programs, and equipment—particularly body cameras—was cited as a barrier to officer safety and wellness. Body cameras can play an essential role in understanding the varying perceptions that may surround interactions with community members. Participants talked about how inadequate equipment can lead to procedural incorrectness and, in the case of not having body cameras, a hesitation to act. A randomized controlled trial (RCT) carried out in conjunction with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) indicated that the use of body-worn cameras (BWC) shortened response times to resolve complaints and “reduced complaints and use of force reports” by “de-escalat[ing] aggression or hav[ing] a ‘civilizing’ effect on the nature of police-citizen encounters” (Braga et al. 2017). Regarding interaction with community members, officers said community engagement opportunities are critical to building community relationships. However, they also have seen that a lack of funding limits the amount of community engagement programs and events that their local departments can host.

Funding directly affects staffing levels by impacting both recruitment and retention. Increasingly, officers are asked to work extended hours, which amplifies fatigue and stress and often leads to burnout. These working conditions contribute to low morale, and safety risks can become consequences of budgetary decisions. In addition, while many participants agreed that being under the direct jurisdiction of state and local governments may be more benefit to officer safety and wellness than relying on Federal Government funding, it was proposed that increased spending at all levels of government will prove essential to the positive progress of officer safety and wellness.

Recommendation. The DOJ, tribal, state, and local governments should introduce budget lines to support training programs that address the need for more scenario-based training, emphasize the importance of procedure to officer safety and wellness, and include classroom-based courses that establish a greater sense of community and cultural awareness.

Participant suggestions regarding funding for law enforcement included the following:

  • All levels of government should introduce budget lines to support training programs that address the need for more scenario-based training, emphasize the importance of procedure to officer safety and wellness, and include classroom-based courses that establish a greater sense of community and cultural awareness.
  • All levels of government should ensure sufficient resources for department-level support programs, e.g., officer wellness programs such as peer-to-peer or cop-to-cop support programs, health and nutrition programs, and employee assistance programs (EAP).
  • The DOJ should continue to fund—and potentially increase funding for—community-policing efforts, local law enforcement equipment, and hiring.

 

Addressing mental and emotional health

There was consensus that unaddressed mental and emotional health issues remain a recurrent challenge to officer safety and wellness. Sergeant Ken Schollenberger of the York (Pennsylvania) Police Department spoke to this issue: “As a group, law enforcement officers have severe mental and emotional challenges that go unaddressed. Officers tend to only talk to one another, which normalizes experiences and emotional trauma. This is dangerous because it results in a bubble in which officers are afraid to speak up when they need assistance. Providing officers access to resources is critical.” While some resources are available to support emotional and mental health, participants stressed that the stigma around mental health is so strong that most officers fail to use those resources. Attendees also said that, in some cases, an officer who speaks up about mental health challenges might face retribution, which dissuades others from being transparent and from pursuing resources to help remedy their own issues. Participants persistently highlighted the stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress as being particularly pervasive and dangerous and noted that this stigma largely contributes to the inadequacy of resources available to combat the often resulting disorder, PTSD. According to Officer Kelly Kasser of the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department, “People suffering with PTSD become secretive because they are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up and ask for help. We must normalize PTSD and other mental health issues.”

Participant ideas for improving the mental and emotional health of officers included the following:

  • Whether in law enforcement, health agencies, insurance companies or government, the definition of wellness should include both a sense of physical and mental well-being.
  • Mental and emotional wellness education, with a focus on holistic coping mechanisms and peer­to-peer communication, should be built into training and curricula across all law enforcement agencies in the United States.
  • Departments should incentivize officer wellness as well as providing guidance and appropriate resources by employing life and wellness coaches, creating wellness units within departments, and encouraging engagement with local mental health organizations to increase support for officers and their families.
  • The DOJ should support an awareness-raising campaign to inform and educate law enforcement agencies as well as the general public about post-traumatic stress and its effect on officers.
  • Law enforcement agencies at all levels of government should support policies that destigmatize psychological therapy and provide officers with an avenue to combat law enforcement’s long­standing bias against those who may seek mental assistance. Similar to existing chaplaincy programs, the establishment of in-house mental health divisions could address officers’ mental and emotional needs on a daily basis while normalizing therapy as an accepted practice to ensure that officers do not face stigma and are not punished for seeking mental health support or treatment.

 

This project was supported, in whole or in part, by cooperative agreement number 2016-CK-WX-K028 awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The opinions contained herein are those of the author(s) or contributor(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific individuals, agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Instead, the references are illustrations to supplement the discussion of the issues.

The internet references cited in this publication were valid as of the date of issuance and given that URLs and websites are in constant flux, neither the author(s) nor the COPS Office can vouch for their current validity.

The U.S. Department of Justice reserves a royalty-free, nonexclusive, and irrevocable license to reproduce, publish, or otherwise use and to authorize others to use this resource for Federal Government purposes. This resource is open for free distribution as well as used for noncommercial and educational purposes only.

Recommended citation: Robinson, Mary-Jo, and Christopher Smith. 2018. Rank and File: Reflections on Emerging Issues in Law Enforcement. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Acknowledgments

It is with great appreciation that we recognize the work of the Office of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) staff members Deborah Spence, Helene Bushwick, and Brenda Auterman, who oversaw the development of the Rank & File Forum.

We also extend our thanks to James Copple, Principal and Founder of Strategic Applications International (SAI), for his expert facilitation design and leadership throughout the event. Additional members of the SAI team included Colleen Copple and Jessica Drake, as well as facilitators Jason Drake, Stephen Manik, Dr. Bernard Murphy, and Darnell Blackburn.

Furthermore, we would like to spotlight the participants and the depth of experience they brought to the table. Each of them was selected to represent their department at the table and be a voice on behalf of their fellow rank-and-file officers. For that, we commend and salute them.

Throughout this document are numerous quotations. Where and when the sources gave permission, we cited the name of the officer and the agency that sent him or her to the forum.

Appendix. Participant Roster
Officer Kenneth Allen Atlanta, Georgia, Union President
Detective Jeremy Arnold Scott County (Indiana) Sheriff’s Office
Sergeant Gaston Balli McAllen (Texas) Police Department
Trooper Candice Bershears Kansas Highway Patrol
Sergeant Wallace Billie Navajo Nation Police Department, Arizona
Officer George Carranza Reno (Nevada) Police Department
Corporal Michael Coleman Wilmington (Delaware) Police Department
Officer Ken Crane Phoenix (Arizona) Law Enforcement Association
Officer Timothy Crawford Chicago (Illinois) Police Department
Sergeant Jason Cullum Evansville (Indiana) Police Department
Lieutenant Tyrone Currie Memphis (Tennessee) Police Department
Officer Lindsey Fuquay Owyhee County (Idaho) Sheriff’s Office
Officer Bryen Glass Baltimore County (Maryland) Police Department
Sergeant Andrew Grove Kent (Washington) Police Department
Sergeant Timothy Guaerke Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Police Department
Corporal Nathaniel Harris Gulf Shores (Alabama) Police Department
Officer Richard Kayes Colorado Springs (Colorado) Police Department
Officer Kelly Kasser Columbus (Ohio) Police Department
Deputy Jason Krizan Morton County (North Dakota) Sheriff’s Department
Officer David Loar Kansas City (Missouri) Police Department
Corporal Errol Lobin Prince George’s County (Maryland) Police Department
Sergeant Matthew Mahl Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department & President, FOP Lodge 1
Sergeant Blake Massaro Humboldt County (California) Sheriff’s Department
Officer Francisco Montes Sycuan Tribal Police Department, California
Officer Michael Netherton Meridian (Idaho) Police Department
Sergeant David Orr Norwalk (Connecticut) Police Department
Officer Sean Payne Tucson (Arizona) Police Department
Sergeant Harold Richardson Bozeman (Montana) Police Department
Timothy Richardson Senior Legislative Liaison, Fraternal Order of Police
Sergeant Ken Schollenberger York (Pennsylvania) Police Department
Officer Matthew Segal Richmond (Virginia) Police Department
Officer Phillip Smith Evansville (Indiana) Police Department
Officer Bervin Smith Dallas (Texas) Police Department
Officer Mark Sorenson Rockford (Illinois) Police Department
Officer Chris Tracy Tacoma (Washington) Police Department
Sergeant Rick Van Houten Fort Worth (Texas) Police Department
Sergeant Edward Vazquez Miami-Dade County (Florida) Police Department
Lieutenant Paul Williams Bloomington, Illinois, Union President
Detective Shaun Willoughby Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police Union President

 

Robinson, M.-J. a. (2018). Rank and File: Reflections on Emerging Issues in Law Enforcement.. Washington, DC:: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
 
 
 

http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/                                          http://www.sai-dc.com/

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1 Response to Officer Morale, Safety, and Wellness

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