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Building a culture of caring: A PD’s response to helping an officer affected by Lahaina wildfire devastation

Police officers are wired to help, not be helped; here are six ways to ensure your officers are supported in their time of need with tangible action items

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By sharing efforts and successes, it solidifies the connection with the community.

Photo/Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources via AP

If your department is looking to help with Maui fire relief and recovery, here is a verified list of organizations you can donate to and share within your community.

When we consider the adversity law enforcement agencies are facing regarding unprecedented attrition, public scrutiny, and emerging social and legal challenges, any prudent leader will recognize the need to focus on what we can control. We need to do so in a positive, constructive and collaborative manner – following suit with how we manage public safety, criminal justice and community engagement.

I frequently study, write and speak upon foundational issues that will galvanize recruiting and retention. The answer? Culture. At the epicenter of organizational and team culture are our values.

Amid the aforementioned challenges, supporting our people must be our top priority if we are to thrive as public safety agencies. We need to take care of the people who do the caretaking for our community. This fosters strong individuals, resilient teams and efficacious organizations.

I come from a long-standing peer support and wellness background, specifically within the law enforcement profession. These efforts are critical, but they’re more than just themes and programs. Leaders need to nurture how we support our officers amid personal, familial or community hardship.

An officer who I have supervised for years is from the Maui town of Lahaina, Hawaii.

The same town that has recently been ravaged by wildfires, resulting in neighborhoods being reduced to ash and rubble. When the fires devastated that region, his family’s home was destroyed.

The following is a case study of how we can put our intent and goal of officer-focused support into action to highlight that pillar of healthy agency culture.

Six ways to support officers in need

  1. Peer support: This needs to be a defining facet within a successful organization. It is something every member of the team can and should embrace. It is checking in, knowing your people and hedging on over-checking rather than assuming someone is OK. This is something my department has practiced for years.

    By the time I called my officer, several others had already been in contact with him and his wife to check on his family and see how they could help. Like most first responders, he was stoic, embraced ownership and focused on “handling it.”

  2. Be persistent: As first responders and public servants, we tend to want to do things by ourselves. It is not necessarily stubbornness, but often a belief that everyone else has their own issues and we do not want to be a burden. We are wired to help, not be helped. In speaking with his wife later, I believe I was the straw that broke that stance after many others had been checking in and offering help. I relayed how people feel helpless not being able to help. I offered a posed scenario: if the situation was reversed, then how would he want to respond? He was humble and open to receiving the suggestions and, frankly, the love we wanted to share.
  3. Initiate and identify key players: My part was minimal. There is nothing special about what I did, but someone has to get things in motion. Once I received buy-in from my officer, I recognized needing to find lynchpins that could help carry and continue our momentum. My officer was already going home to Maui. He already got support and the blessing from our administration to help as a first responder with documentation (this was critical; we will return to this).

    When I learned about this support, I just had to confirm permission to engage the department staff via email, which I was immediately granted. With our officer being boots on the ground, I connected with his wife as a liaison to what resources were needed as there’s currently spotty communication in Maui (phone/Wi-Fi intermittent or down). This process continued with quick adjustments, pivots in the plans and logistics, but nothing we police officers aren’t proficient in!

    My department already had members who manage a non-profit for funds to support officers and their families in times of extreme hardship and loss. By engaging a representative, I confirmed details on how employees and others could contribute funds in a simple, effective hub. This eliminated the need to utilize a public crowd-sourcing module, which ends up being resource-skimming with associated fees.

  4. Give direction: People are willing and want to help. Give them a job! I wrote an email that explained the situation, gave an overview and what the plan was. I outlined the types of items needed and how to donate funds. I gave them a place to drop items, how to access and gave a deadline, which allowed us to project when and where we would ship the collections.

    Donations poured in and filled the designated office. I was alerted to the volume with a quick photo sent to my phone by one of our officers. I was one part humbled and inspired to see the outpour of support, yet one part dreading if I could get everything packed and loaded between my agenda the next day. When I returned to the office, nearly everything was gone.

    A few of our staff had self-initiated to dive into this critical task, knowing the timeline previously relayed. They strategically “beat the heat” of the upcoming summer day and got a cargo van loaded to the brim, leaving a very manageable excess for another truckload. Remember: people want to help. When they know the communicated plan, they will fill in the blanks and find the work to get the mission accomplished. Absent that, I am confident that if I arrived to find the area full, I could have easily asked and allowed people to help (reference above).

  5. Adapt: This is an emergency response situation. Things change. Contingencies emerge; this is part of the job we do daily. The shipping method (cargo company) fell through. As with most large-scale emergency responses, specific and reliable information is hard to legitimize in a short time. Hearsay is involved, games of telephone warp the intel. Luckily, members of this team were on top of firming out the emerging issues, utilizing contacts and finding resources.

    The rest of the plan went off without a hitch, except ultimately what I thought was free Priority air shipping ended up being a hefty bill, to pair well with the elevation of the flight. I figured we would utilize the funds raised, but in yet another inspiring moment – highlighting goodwill and community – a local business owner with knowledge of the operation covered the bill. hat’s another tick mark in the “allow and receive help” column.

  6. Communicate/report back: Those of us who have learned the hard way by not calling our loved ones back on shift or not answering our attentive dispatchers promptly know the power of timely communication. People want updates because they are concerned. Be sure to provide those updates at reasonable timing, when you can.

    In this case, I collected some photos and gave a brief back to the whole team, which included our officer’s status (and his long shifts working alongside Maui PD in the relief zone), images of the volume collected and donated, and “thank you’s” to many behind-the-scenes “lynchpins.”

    Reporting back with clear and intentional messaging can be a catalyst for bonding. It helps underline the collaborative efforts and connects us in this special culture. It relays that things were a success, and, frankly, that we are a success. It is about galvanizing a team and its bonds. Acknowledging people on your team (when deserved and detailed properly) is not self-praise; it is celebrating the quality of your people. It is relaying gratitude, not taking them or your team for granted. It helps actualize your unified purpose.

Additional lessons

Support from administration was critical. This sets a tone from the top that your organization truly supports its people. Not only was the hardship acknowledged, but officializing the response back home allowed our officer to get into relief efforts.

This was clearly impactful to the officer, inspirational to the department, and elevating to the profession and community. It highlighted two key things we must always focus upon:

  • The heart of a first responder transcends state lines (or country borders) and certainly patches.
  • At the end of the day, we are people who devote themselves to taking care of people.

Be ready to manage and limit expectations and know your boundaries. As word spread, other city departments asked if we should create a city-wide effort. I immediately recognized a couple of issues that could affect the result.

First, opening it up would increase the volume, but it would also require a longer time frame. The increased volume would be hard to estimate and logistics could be dramatically more difficult to secure.

While I was tempted to go for more, I had to focus on the goal: to get a bulk of necessities in the fastest practical timeline. I offered a “not right now, but clause, where I suggested a larger city-wide effort that I would be happy to liaise on a larger team with more bandwidth and director coordination. I recognized it did not have to be either/or, and we could carry on our mission as planned without dismissing help and good intent.

Don’t forget about spreading the good news. Our city communications team asked if they could share our efforts. Most police shy away from this, as we do not do good deeds for attention or praise, but because we want to. However, if I have learned anything in my time with community engagement and recruiting roles, first responders and police officers specifically can afford to let people in.

By sharing efforts and successes, it solidifies the connection with the community. We don’t need the praise, but it is our community and it does not hurt to let them know more about us. It does not hurt to be more entwined and part of one whole. Outside of police relations and social dynamics, I find it healthy to recognize that sharing good news and positivity is simply infectious; it breeds more good feelings and energy. What is the harm in that?

If that was too idealistic for you, I will submit to you this: after it was shared as an overview on social media, other area police officers I knew reached out. They wanted to learn what we were doing; in doing so, I learned about other efforts departments were building with connections and resources we were unaware of. Sharing information for good begets more goodness.

Conclusion

We know we are facing an uphill battle to rebuild and sustain our ranks in policing. If there is a way we can do it, it is through culture.

Our people are our most valuable assets. By demonstrating it through support and action, we not only highlight it, but create that culture of caring.

It is what will optimize our officers, our departments, and create connection with the community in order to serve and protect them best. After all, this is our main role and purpose.

Commander Eric Tung has been a police officer for 16 years in Washington State. He currently oversees patrol operations and his department’s wellness and peer support programs. He has led and innovated recruiting, hiring, training, community engagement, civil disturbance and field training programs. Eric was a 2022 “40 Under 40" honoree, recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He develops wellness and leadership content on @bluegritwellness on Instagram, bluegritwellness.com and the Blue Grit Radio podcast.

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