Can new technology and a new approach stem the police wellness crisis?
Biometric tracking may help, but the culture of silence remains an obstacle
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
By Lieutenant Kenny Pham
Law enforcement professionals are frequently exposed to critical and challenging incidents, including shootings, violent crimes, deaths, violence committed against them, lack of support from the community and negative media. Such incidents can create trauma, and cumulative exposure to these traumas can affect a person’s overall mental and physical health. For law enforcement, this often leads to resignation or early retirement and contributes to problems such as post-traumatic stress, depression and suicidal ideation.
Despite the implementation of various wellness programs by law enforcement agencies nationwide, many officers and professional staff still struggle with mental and physical health issues related to the profession. Without further research into this epidemic, mental health crises will continue to grow in the law enforcement community. Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness of the obligation for agencies to intervene, and we can now do much more than before.
An officer’s murder leaves a mark
On May 11, 2021, two solo officer units were dispatched to a residence for a family disturbance in Stockton, California. Officer Jimmy Inn was the first to arrive at the house. Information provided by the caller seemed to indicate this call would be similar to the numerous prior disturbance calls he had handled previously. Knowing his fill unit and beat partner, Officer Pancho Freer, was only a short distance away, Inn made his way to the front door to speak to the residents. When Inn knocked on the door, a male voice answered, “Hey, officer!” Within seconds a gun was pointed through the metal screen door, gunshots rang out, and Inn fell to the ground.
As Freer arrived at the scene, he observed Inn lying on the ground with the suspect standing over him. The suspect noticed Freer and opened fire until his gun was emptied. Freer took cover between cars and returned fire. During the fierce gun battle, Freer fired several shots, striking the suspect and eventually knocking him to the ground. Freer rushed to provide medical aid for his partner, but it was too late; Inn had suffered a fatal wound through the unprotected layer of his bulletproof vest and died at the scene.
Traumatic events like this often devastate police departments and their communities. While some officers and professional staff who experience the trauma return to duty, many develop mental and physical health issues that ultimately result in medical retirement, resignation and sometimes even leaving the profession altogether. For Freer, this incident significantly impacted his mental health and ability to serve his community. He expressed that even after obtaining professional help and support from his department’s wellness program, he has not fully recovered from the incident and does not believe he can resume his law enforcement career. 
With the increasing challenges in law enforcement, it is more crucial now than ever that officers and professional staff are provided the tools and resources needed to cope with the demands, trauma and stress of the job.
When you can’t manage it yourself
According to John M. Violanti, Ph.D., an expert on police stress at the University of Buffalo, the silent culture in law enforcement is one of the most significant factors that leads to suicide.  Part of this culture is the expectation that officers deal with trauma themselves instead of seeking professional help. Officers are taught not to talk about their feelings or seek the proper assistance because they don’t want to be viewed as weak by their peers. Seeking treatment for mental health issues is basically seen as contrary to the police culture and can sometimes make officers feel as if they are violating police socialization training.
Officers may also fear they could have their guns and badges taken away if they show signs of mental instability. Additional factors that can lead to PTSD or other mental health issues include “the stigma surrounding mental health within the department, a lack of mental health literacy on the part of the officer, and a lack of leadership surrounding mental health in the department.” 
The experiences shared in a personal interview with a former police officer who medically retired as a result of post-traumatic stress demonstrate how critical it is for agencies to have an adequate support system. Officer George worked on the police force for nine years, the last three in the robbery/homicide unit. After continuous exposure to many traumatic scenes during investigations, George noticed effects on his mental health. He initially believed he could manage the stress and decided not to seek help, but later he began drinking heavily after work to overcome his anxiety. His breaking point was after he investigated the death of a 4-year-old boy who reminded him of his son.
As his mental health declined, George began to have suicidal thoughts. In his interview, George said, “The devil told me to kill myself. I often wanted to crash my car as I was on my way to work, or I wanted to jump off the building when I took cigarette breaks.” When George realized his situation’s seriousness, he refused to seek help initially because he did not want his peers to judge him. George eventually sought professional help from a city-contracted psychiatrist when he no longer felt in control of himself. He eventually left his lifelong dream of being a police officer due to his inability to perform the job.
Even though it has been years since his retirement, George continues to struggle with some mental health issues and still experiences traumatic episodes from time to time. He has also been placed on different types of depression medication. Looking forward, George believes the law enforcement profession is making significant steps toward addressing officer wellness, which would have helped him better understand his issues, and he wishes he was less resistant to getting help earlier. 
Get help before it’s too late
When we think about the dangers of policing, there is a common belief that armed suspects present the greatest risk to officer safety and that most on-duty deaths occur during interactions with them. However, as tragic as all on-duty deaths are, statistics show the number of officers who take their own lives far exceeds the number killed by armed criminals.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, in 2022, 64 officers were killed in the line of duty by suspects with firearms, while the number of officers who committed suicide was almost triple that, at 161 officers.  In fact, since 2017, the number of officers committing suicide has steadily increased yearly, from 125 in 2017 to 156 in 2018, 197 in 2019 and 146 in 2020. As of June 20, 2023, the advocacy group Blue H.E.L.P. reported that 41 officers had taken their lives since the first of the year. 
Some agencies, like the Stockton Police Department, have policies that require clearance from a mental health professional after a critical incident, which typically consists of the officer being placed on a short administrative leave and attending a session with a psychologist before he/she can return to duty. There are also additional components within the wellness network, such as peer support and extra counseling sessions; however, those are mostly voluntary. 
Another California agency, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, requires officers and professional staff who respond to and handle critical incidents to check in with the wellness network immediately after the incident for a debrief. Debriefing with employees allows the department to provide early intervention and treatment as necessary. This type of early-prevention policy has yielded positive feedback from employees. 
With more and more law enforcement agencies recognizing the importance of staff wellness, implementing emerging practices and technologies will mean officers can stay mentally and physically healthier. It also means getting officers the additional help they need to make a difference before it’s too late.
Changing the tide
Katelyn Jetelina, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center, advises that law enforcement officers have an elevated risk of exposure to different forms of stress, which includes physical, psychological and anticipatory stress. Jetelina and her colleagues argue that “officers are exposed to traumatic calls for service daily, including child abuse, domestic violence, car crashes and homicides. Repeated exposure to these stressors and events may be associated with the development of mental health illness, such as anxiety, depression, somatization, post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout.” 
According to prevention guidance published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, wellness programs and preventative and early awareness training of acute and chronic trauma can help officers be more prepared to handle stressful situations. Officers and professional staff need to learn about wellness during the early stages of their careers to improve current approaches. This includes learning how to recognize and identify symptoms, how to take care of themselves and when to seek proper help if they are still experiencing hardship. When staff members know how to utilize this process, they are more likely to seek help. As with all the mandatory skills in which police cadets need to be proficient, it is recommended that behavioral health training “begin at the academy level and [be] followed by inclusion in ongoing departmental training.” 
Ultimately, government and law enforcement leaders must take proactive action regarding wellness for officers and professional staff. The next major step should be to explore, invest in and implement tracking of key biomarkers.
Healthcare technology in law enforcement
A 2018 article published by the Bureau of Justice Assistance found the brain takes in “a massive amount of information during traumatic incidents, potentially creating memories of the incident that may trigger similar stress response unconsciously. The resulting acute stress response leaves an officer physically, emotionally and psychologically depleted and drains his or her cognitive reserves.”  Healthcare technologies can assist in recognizing symptoms, including elevated blood pressure, increased heart rates and stress, which could lead to mental health issues.
Technological advancements such as smartwatches have already allowed for enhanced medical screenings through monitoring of heart rate, sleep patterns and movement. The recorded data can be stored and analyzed to assist experts in finding the best treatments. As healthcare technology continues to improve, law enforcement and other high-stress professions can take advantage of it to aid longer and healthier lives and careers.
One method of identifying PTSD is monitoring an officer’s stress levels over time by incorporating wearable devices, such as biometric sensors or patches.
Wei Gao, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, has developed a noninvasive sweat sensor that can detect levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” in real-time. The device is inexpensive and can also detect other conditions correlated with changes in cortisol levels, such as anxiety and depression.
Law enforcement agencies and medical professionals can use these specialized stress sensors or devices to capture the stress levels of officers in the field. The data can be entered into special software and translated into information that can be reviewed and analyzed by management.  Additional research by the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Binghamton University showed screening biomarkers in the body can “provide quantifiable measures of biological process, which gives medical professionals the ability to investigate issues happening within the body.” 
Having officers wear and operate stress-sensing devices as they currently do with body-worn cameras would allow supervisors to monitor officers’ stress levels throughout their work shifts. Once any officer exhibits a high cortisol level over a long period, supervisors can determine the need to provide additional assistance for that officer. Staff members will be able to access their own biomarker data, and supervisors can use the data to make appropriate pre-assessments related to wellness care and referrals to healthcare professionals. This would allow for symptoms to be monitored consistently over a long period for more efficacy in early diagnosis to ensure officers and professional staff receive the appropriate treatment.
Pursuing technology like biometric sensors or patches will also require guidelines for how the technology will be used. Typically, when a new practice is implemented by a police department, officers and professional staff will only embrace it once they understand how the technology will be used and the benefits it will provide. Establishing a sound policy with stakeholder buy-ins, a thorough presentation on benefits and a solid training process can aid in gaining compliance.
Also, many staff members and supervisors will have concerns about having their health monitored and recorded. The concern is often connected to other entities gaining access to their personal health information via court orders and utilizing it against them during litigations. This concern can discourage staff members from utilizing any device that collects personal data. Lawmakers must pass legislation that puts added safeguards on the data collected, including follow-up actions like referrals and treatment, and limit the use of the data to a wellness network for early intervention and treatment purposes to further encourage the utilization of biometric devices.
The challenges in law enforcement are constantly changing, and the overall wellness of those facing those obstacles requires the proper tools and resources. Establishing more efficient wellness programs is the key to a promising future for officer wellness. This will allow staff members to have healthier and more prosperous lives and careers and can positively impact staffing challenges by decreasing turnover rates, the number of employees forced into early retirement due to medical issues and the need to hire new employees frequently.
Law enforcement leaders must take advantage of technological advancements in combination with ongoing research, followed up with proper treatment to help reduce the stigma of the silent culture and ultimately combat the suicide crisis in law enforcement.
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2. University at Buffalo. Impact of stress on police officers’ physical and mental health. ScienceDaily. September 2008.
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5. Officer Down Memorial Page. Honoring officers killed in 2023.
6. Blue HELP. Officer suicide statistics.
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10. Van Hasselt VB, Klimley Margres KE, Geller S, Rodriguez S. Behavior health training for police officers: A prevention program. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. September 2020.
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12. California Institute of Technology. Sweat sensor detects stress levels; may find use in space exploration. Science Daily. February 2020.
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About the author
Kenny Pham is a lieutenant for the Stockton Police Department in California. He is currently attending California POST’s Command College Class 70.