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Could Project HOPE provide a framework for mitigating officer burnout and promoting wellbeing?

The goal of this DOJ-sponsored project is to build a community of practice utilizing hope science to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve

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Hope science is an evidence-based practice built upon the findings that hope is a leading factor in wellbeing.

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Article highlights

  • Law enforcement officers are facing complex challenges due to the current staffing crisis and exposure to various traumatic events.
  • Police officers experience higher rates of depression, burnout, PTSD and anxiety, with the officer suicide rate three times higher than the national average.
  • The Department of Justice’s Project HOPE is a three-year demonstration initiative to infuse hope science into law enforcement to address burnout, trauma and adversity, and improve officer well-being and community connections.
  • Hope science is based on setting future-oriented goals, identifying pathways to achieve them, and maintaining willpower to overcome adversity, aiming to foster resilience and trust between law enforcement and communities for safer, stronger communities.

By Chan Hellman and Romero Davis

America is facing a law enforcement workforce crisis. [1] While the number of people applying to become police officers has started to rebound after a significant decline, law enforcement officers are leaving the force faster than agencies can hire new officers. Some people are leaving the profession after serving only a year or two. [2]

Amid this staffing crisis, the challenges facing our nation’s law enforcement sector have never been more complex. Police officers are asked to respond to myriad unknown threats and violence, including child abuse, domestic violence, suicide, opioid deaths and officer-involved shootings. Witnessing so much trauma can take a tremendous toll on even the healthiest individuals.

Society’s view of law enforcement has also shifted considerably in the past few years, which can exacerbate the stressors we place on the professionals charged with keeping our communities safe. According to the latest law enforcement statistics from the National Institutes of Health, police officers report higher rates of depression, burnout, PTSD and anxiety than the general population. [3] Disturbingly, the rate of officer suicide is three times higher than the national average. [4]

And yet the importance of a strong and resilient law enforcement sector is as vital as ever to ensuring the health and well-being of our families, our communities and our lives. Policing in America is rooted in community, and mutual trust between police agencies and the communities they serve are critical to maintaining public safety.

That is why the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) introduced “The Fostering Resilience and Hope: Bridging the Gap Between Law Enforcement and The Community” initiative, known as Project HOPE. Project HOPE is a three-year demonstration initiative that infuses the science of hope to build protective factors and assist law enforcement officers with addressing burnout, trauma and adversity in order to improve officer wellbeing and community connections.

What is hope science?

Hope science is an evidence-based practice built upon the findings that hope is a leading factor in wellbeing. [5] Hope science is not based on wishful thinking, but rather is the belief that the future will be better than today and that we have the power to make that future possible.

Hope theory is based on three simple ideas:

  1. The goals we set for the future;
  2. The pathways or roadmaps we use to pursue those goals;
  3. Our willpower or motivational framework to pursue those pathways, especially as it relates to adversity and trauma.

In the presence of distress or adversity, we are more likely to set avoidance goals rather than achievement goals, so for those experiencing adversity, hope science can help equip them psychologically to overcome adversity to pursue those pathways.

Hope as a coping resource

For the past 15 years, research at the University of Oklahoma’s Hope Research Center has focused on understanding the role of hope as a coping resource vital to the wellbeing of individuals and organizations. [6] Researchers have delved into the impact of hope in building psychological strength and serving as an important buffer to stress, adversity, and trauma.

Some of the concepts explored include:

  • Does hope buffer adversity and stress?
  • Do hopeful children and adults have better psychological, social and behavioral outcomes?
  • Can hope be increased and sustained by targeted interventions?

In the context of law enforcement, building hope is about honoring, trusting, respecting, valuing and amplifying opportunities within communities. We believe that hope may provide a simple shared language that can be useful in improving police-community relations.

We believe this can contribute to an increased likelihood that crime victims will report their victimization to the police and that communities will assist in investigations to make communities safer and hold those responsible accountable. The overall goal is to implement a trauma-informed and collaborative approach that infuses equity, diversity and inclusion to build community trust and engagement, thus reducing the likelihood of re-victimization, and helping to create safer communities in which all residents can thrive.

Building a community of practice

Technical assistance for the project is provided by Social Current, [7] a national nonprofit organization that brings together a dynamic network of human/social service organizations and partners to drive learning, continuous improvement and evolution to advance the social sector. The first phase includes training sessions, capacity development and public awareness outreach. The second phase will incorporate community partners to expand learning. The overall goal is to build a community of practice utilizing hope science to foster resilience and wellbeing for law enforcement officers.

The Hope Centered and Trauma Informed® curriculum serves as the core instruction for Project HOPE. As Hope Navigators, those who receive the training are then empowered to develop and implement strategies to infuse hope within their departments to nurture wellbeing. Additional training and a national convening will take place over the course of the next few years.

At the conclusion of the three-year initiative, each community will produce an interim and final report detailing lessons learned, challenges, and impact.

With hope science as a backdrop, we are facilitating collaboration and innovation and building a learning community and body of knowledge around law enforcement workforce resilience and community engagement. The goal of Project HOPE is the repairing and rebuilding of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve in order to foster safer, stronger communities.

References

1. PERF. (2023.) New PERF survey shows police agencies are losing officers faster than they can hire new ones.

2. Wexler C. (2019.) The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies are Doing About It.

3. Asmundson GJ, Stapleton JA. (2008.) Associations between dimensions of anxiety sensitivity and PTSD symptom clusters in active-duty police officers. Cogn Behav Ther, 37(2):66-75.

4. Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders.

5. Hellman C, Pharris A, Munoz R. Responding to Adverse Childhood Experiences: The Science of Hope for a Framework of Action.

6. Hope Research Center.

7. Social Current.

Disclaimer: This product was supported by cooperative agreement number 15POVC-21-GK-00657-NONF, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


About the authors

Chan Hellman, Ph.D., is a professor at the Anne & Henry Zarrow School of Social Work and founding director of the Hope Research Center at the University of Oklahoma. He holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Oklahoma State University, an MA in Experimental Psychology from the University of Central Oklahoma and a B.S. in Psychology from Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

Romero Davis is the senior program manager for Social Current. A mentor for professional development and community justice champion, Davis has worked nationally with agencies in areas such as poly-victimization; trauma in families; equity, diversity, and inclusion; juvenile justice; and domestic violence.

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