Baltimore PD: Putting officer wellness first
Baltimore police officers face considerable challenges, but they do so knowing that their health and wellness matter
“Every officer and employee has my cell number,” says Vernon Herron, Baltimore Police Department’s first and current director of safety and wellness. Herron, who previously served 27 years as a state trooper and detective with Prince George’s County, has held this role since 2015. He has the sort of relaxed, focused demeanor you expect from someone routinely called to challenging situations: “I get calls 24/7 – lots of calls – from officers thinking about ending it all, people in dark places.”
As a career law enforcement officer, Herron knew he had a lot to learn about mental health and wellness. “I knew that if I was going to accept this position, I needed to learn. I called police departments all over the country and I took ‘groceries’ from each and put them into my cart. It’s an evolving process,” says Herron. “My goal is to keep our officers engaged in their own well-being. We’re constantly talking about health and wellness throughout the ranks. This isn’t a bulletin board or a brochure; it’s woven into all we do.”
Under Commissioner Michael S. Harrison’s leadership, BPD has developed and embraced one of the most progressive and comprehensive wellness regimens in the country. Director Heron oversees this all and credits much of the agency’s success with support from the top. “If you try to do this part-time or without a budget, people assume it’s temporary and they won’t take it seriously,” he says. “My advantage is that this is all I do. I’m completely supported from the top.”
That message begins in the academy. Prospective officers are introduced to occupational hazards, such as stress, trauma and substance abuse. “I ask people in the academy, ‘Are you an occasional drinker?’ Hands go up. ‘Because if you are now, you will be a daily drinker within five years of holding this job.’ And that’s the truth,” Herron says. “We talk mortality rates and suicide. Every recruitment class gets two hours of that, just like the rest of our force does.”
“Trauma is like a sponge,” he says. “If you come onto the force with trauma that hasn’t been processed or dealt with – and a lot of officers do – it’s going to come up with the difficult calls you experience and it’s going to get worse. This might manifest itself with an excessive force complaint or domestic violence charge. Our intent is to get you to acknowledge and address that trauma from the start before it gets to that point.”
The genius of BPD’s approach is that it aims to address problematic behaviors or symptoms early – and without punishment or stigma. “I am involved before internal investigations is,” Herron says. “That’s the goal. It used to be that management and internal investigations were perceived as beating down our officers. It took time, but we built trust with them. I have a database that shows me if you were late to court and the magistrate dismissed the case because you weren’t there. Or if you were cited for speeding. All Baltimore PD supervisors have been trained on how to spot potential trouble. Three complaints within a 12-month period and you’re going to talk to me.”
Essential to this process, says Herron, is putting the employee first. “How is your home life? Are your finances okay? This is strictly confidential, as we try to support them in their need. The officer doesn’t need to talk if they don’t want to, but they will listen. They can bring an FOP rep with them if they want. Over the past three years, we’ve achieved total confidence, and these early interventions have created ambassadors for what we’re doing.”
When there’s a critical incident, Herron is alerted and peer support is deployed. The officer(s) involved, says Herron, “get a 10-day vacation.” This is a time, he says, for officers to process the event and take time away from the job to relax and process what they’ve experienced. “After that period, they come and see me and we talk. I want to see how they’re doing and show our support. Are they eating more, for example, or less? Then, if they want to get back onto the force, we facilitate that transition.”
This officer-first approach is not simple or cheap, but it has proved effective. “Employee assistance programs traditionally exist to answer the phone, not to heal the officer,” says Herron. “So I negotiated with the EAP before signing the contract. I got them – their CEO – to agree to free mental health checkups, counseling for families and all members of the force. Now we’re a happy customer.”
Other resources at BPD’s disposal include a 40-member peer support team, a gym in every district, regular wellness fairs and a vehicle for bringing healthy food and other support to officers. They even have an adorable, hypoallergenic therapy dog named Penelope (close friends call her Penny).
Nationwide, policing has been scrutinized and criticized from multiple angles. There has been a breakdown in trust in some communities, which, says Herron, takes a toll on officer mental health. “Many of our officers perform their jobs impeccably and yet they get swept up in the critiques of police. They feel it’s all about them. So that’s what I always tell them, ‘It’s not about you. You’re doing it right.’”
There is no real police reform, says Herron, without addressing the mental health and wellness of law enforcement officers. “This is the biggest issue in policing,” he says. “We bring them healthy meals in the field. We encourage them to get vaccinated. We show that we care, from the top to the bottom. This program is not a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall waiting to be used. We support our people daily, round the clock.”
By learning from others, putting officers first, raising awareness of mental health and then providing resources when and where they are needed, BPD has evolved into a true leader in officer health and wellness. While Baltimore police face their challenges, they now know they have an agency that supports them and is invested in their success.