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4 steps for police leaders to prioritize officer wellness

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. 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.

  1. Recognizing 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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How to implement annual mental health checks for your officers

Booker Hodges
Author: Booker Hodges

Police leaders and line staff often discuss the importance of removing the stigma around mental illness in our profession. As officer suicides continue to increase and officers leave the profession because of PTSD or related symptoms, we must provide our personnel access to mental healthcare resources.

I would like to share the lessons I learned after implementing an annual mandatory mental health check for all my officers, including myself and all civilian staff.

Leading by example

After witnessing officers around the country and locally commit suicide at record rates, I recognized I had to do something to address any issues at my agency. I was willing to endure whatever push back I got from my officers, as leadership is not a popularity contest. I also made sure I was the first to go through the mandatory mental health checkup. I got a lot out of my session; specifically, some mindfulness techniques to help calm me in stressful situations. If we are going to eliminate the stigma of mental illness within our profession, it starts at the top.

Program outline

Cops often distrust new initiatives, so I took some steps to alleviate potential concerns.

First, I contracted with an external provider working independently from the city. He was also a former police officer, which helped his credibility with my officers.

Second, I had to make sure officers knew sessions were strictly confidential. The provider does not take notes during the session as it is not a psychological examination. The session is just like an annual physical checkup.

The sessions provide officers with stress reduction strategies and, if an officer needs additional assistance, the provider will either accommodate them or refer them to someone else.

If the officer needs additional services, these are also confidential and conducted independently of the department. In either case, the department pays for three of these visits after which services are paid for by the officer’s insurance.

Officer response to mandatory mental health checkups

The main concern officers had was that if they were involved in a shooting or some other type of critical incident, would the information they shared during their annual checkup be subject to a subpoena. The answer is “no.”

Aside from the fact that these sessions are protected under law, the provider wouldn’t have any information to give as they don’t take notes during the session.

The concern about being singled out for seeing a mental health professional was eliminated by having everyone participate.

Fortunately, most officers have been accepting of the program and found it to be beneficial. It also helps that officers are scheduled to attend these sessions while on duty, including the night crew.

Next steps

If you are looking to set up an annual mental health checkup in your department, I suggest selecting a provider who doesn’t work for the agency or the governing body of the agency. Staff may not feel comfortable speaking with someone who works for the chief and the chief may not feel comfortable speaking with someone who works for them.

Set expectations that these sessions are not psychological screenings. The sessions are simply geared toward providing the officer with stress management tools. Just like physical examinations, if something needs additional examination, it’s better to catch it before it’s not curable.

The stigma of mental illness within our profession is engrained and unless police leaders proactively de-stigmatize it, we will continue to see an increase in officer suicides. I hope this article gives police leaders the courage to start their own mental health checkup program for their officers.

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New counter-Daesh campaign started in Syrian desert from the two axes in the desert of Suweida and Deir ez-Zur.

New counter-Daesh campaign started in Syrian desert from the two axes in the desert of Suweida and Deir ez-Zur.