How a Del. police department is revolutionizing health and wellness with smartwatches
By investing in the health of their officers, the New Castle County PD gains a more resilient and effective organization capable of serving their community
By Gene Reid, Ph.D.
It is no surprise that the daily challenges and pressures faced by police officers can take a toll on their overall health, both physically and mentally. That is why, in the fast-paced and demanding world of law enforcement, the physical and mental wellbeing of officers is of paramount importance.
Despite the known issues surrounding the health of our law enforcement community, leaders within policing struggle to implement successful health and wellness initiatives due to a lack of officer engagement and uncertainty surrounding data collection.
However, in an era of technological advancements, a simple – yet powerful – tool has emerged to aid in the pursuit of officer wellness: health and fitness smartwatches.
These wearable devices, such as those from Garmin, FitBit and Apple, are not only trendy gadgets but also potential game-changers when it comes to enhancing officer health, engagement and overall wellbeing.
A real-world success story: New Castle County Police Department
Located in Delaware, the New Castle County Police Department (NCCPD) stands as a shining example of how health and fitness smartwatches can be integrated into law enforcement health and wellness initiatives.
With an authorized strength of 415 officers, NCCPD began implementing its Holistic Officer Wellness (HOW) program in 2021 after receiving a Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness grant from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office). The HOW program provides officers with access to yoga and meditation practices, group workouts, peer support, financial literacy education and more.
In 2023, NCCPD sought to expand its wellness initiatives and improve officer engagement.
After gauging receptiveness from officers, the agency decided to explore the world of health and fitness smartwatches. After experimenting with several different brands, NCCPD formed a partnership with Garmin and purchased over 100 health and fitness smartwatches (Garmin Venu SQ2) with additional grant funding through the Delaware Criminal Justice Council by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program.
With buy-in from staff-level officers, all the way down to newly minted academy graduates, the department has witnessed a remarkable improvement in officer engagement with wellness initiatives, as well as improvement in officer health. Most notably, NCCPD has seen an increase in participation of over 200% in yoga and meditation class offerings since the smartwatches were implemented.
Taking part in the program is voluntary. Finding officers to participate has been a breeze since police notoriously love free things, especially from a pioneer in the health and fitness industry like Garmin. Additionally, program requirements are minimal. Officers are simply asked to wear the smartwatch throughout their daily activities, take part in one of the department’s wellness initiatives a few times per month and report their “stress score” on a digital survey once a month. Ultimately, NCCPD is using the data collected to see if the agency’s wellness initiatives are having an impact on officers’ overall wellness.
With the early success of the program, NCCPD has extended the smartwatch program to other entities within the Division of Public Safety, including EMS and 911.
Gamification: Make it fun!
In addition to having buy-in from the top-down, one of the key strategies employed by the department in improving engagement is the concept of gamification. Officers can participate in friendly monthly challenges and competitions based on fitness goals, steps taken or sleep quality. This not only fosters a sense of camaraderie but also encourages officers to prioritize their health in a fun and engaging way.
Currently, NCCPD offers gift cards to officers who win the monthly challenge. Not only does this create friendly competition within the ranks, but it creates an easy way for people to motivate one another and offer support.
More than a timepiece
Health and fitness smartwatches can be worn 24/7 and go far beyond telling time. The barely noticeable devices monitor and record a wide array of health-related metrics.
Equipped with sensors, each device tracks various aspects of the wearer’s wellbeing through heart rate, physical activity, sleep patterns and more. The real “bang-for-your-buck” mechanism behind these devices is their ability to synthesize complex data into actionable insights, offering wearers the ability to make informed decisions about their health.
Metrics that matter
A clear advantage of health and fitness smartwatches is their ability to capture health metrics and have officers review them in real-time. This includes:
Heart rate variability: This provides insights into stress levels and overall cardiovascular health. Generally considered a trustworthy measure of stress, heart rate variability is used as an indicator of the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous systems. In other words, it reflects to what degree the body is in a state of stress vs. rest. Most of the health and fitness smartwatches on the market will provide the wearer with a “stress score” so they can easily monitor their stress levels throughout the day. By understanding how stress affects their bodies, officers can take proactive steps to manage it – potentially reducing the long-term impact on their health.
NCCPD officers have routinely identified how their levels of stress, measured through the Garmin Venu SQ2, is impacted by things like alcohol, sleep and exercise. The smartwatches have turned into a useful tool for officers to see in real-time that consuming alcohol during the evening hours can negatively impact their sleep quality and their overall performance the next day. In reference to drinking alcohol, one officer reflected: “I guess I didn’t realize how much it was impacting me. It’s crazy, just a few drinks and my stress scores go through the roof and my sleep is all messed up that night. It has really changed the way I think about things.”
- Sleep scores: This is another important metric tracked by these devices. Poor sleep is at the forefront of cognitive impairment, physical health and overall performance. Irregular shifts can exacerbate these issues for police officers. However, smartwatches can analyze sleep data and offer suggestions to improve sleep quality, ultimately contributing to better cognitive function, mood and overall health. In addition to loving free things, police also love competition. NCCPD has heard from more officers than they can count who are foregoing their usual late-night cocktail because it would result in poor sleep and recovery, essentially taking them out of the running for that month’s sleep score competition.
NCCPD officers are also experimenting with other bedtime routines, such as eliminating late-night phone usage, to see how they can improve their sleep quality. A more senior officer said: “I’m fully addicted to this thing. Ever since I started really trying to improve my sleep score, and I have been getting better sleep once I changed a few things around, my overall mood is just way better.”
- Fitness tracking: This is the hallmark feature for most health and fitness smartwatches. Officers can monitor their physical activity levels, set fitness goals and receive reminders to stay active throughout their busy days. Friendly competition between officers is also a major benefit of these devices and can lead to an increase in overall engagement.
As part of the gamification strategy to bolster officer engagement, NCCPD offers monthly incentives to top scorers in various measurements, such as steps taken, minutes of intense exercise and sleep scores. In reference to one of the monthly incentives involving the highest number of steps taken for the month, an officer who is a known fitness enthusiast proclaimed: “I refuse to be beaten this month.”
Empowering officers through data utilization
Data collection is essentially pointless without some form of analysis. Luckily, health and fitness smartwatches make data analysis seamless and easy to understand through their mobile applications.
By allowing officers to access their health metrics via smartphone apps, officers can track their progress over time and make informed decisions about their lifestyle choices. For example, if an officer notices a trend of poor sleep, they can adjust their bedtime routine accordingly. If heart rate variability indicates heightened stress during certain shifts or activities, supervisors and officers can work together to implement strategies for stress reduction over time.
Funding resources for smartwatch initiatives
While the benefits of health and fitness smartwatches are arguably undeniable, a lack of funding is a real concern for police leaders that could be seen as a barrier to entry. However, there are avenues to explore.
As NCCPD demonstrated, grants are a great option when looking to implement any type of health and wellness initiative during this unique time in policing. Additionally, partnerships with universities and health organizations looking to explore health and wellness initiatives within police populations is an avenue worth exploring. Finally, some smartwatch manufacturers, such as Garmin, offer bulk discounts to organizations looking to invest in the health of their employees.
The prioritization of officer wellness is a worthy and valuable long-term approach for police organizations of all sizes. Health and fitness smartwatches have emerged as a key tool for achieving this goal.
These wearable devices provide officers with tangible insights into their health, empowering them to make positive lifestyle changes. The success story of the New Castle County Police Department showcases the potential of integrating smartwatches into wellness initiatives to enhance engagement and overall officer wellbeing.
By investing in the health of their officers, police departments stand to gain a more resilient and effective organization capable of serving their community.
About the author
Gene Reid is a police sergeant for the New Castle County (Del.) Police Department. Gene is currently assigned to the Professional Standards Unit and is highly active with the department's officer wellness initiatives. Before being promoted, Gene was assigned to the Criminal Investigations Unit for over six years.
Gene holds a Ph.D. in criminal justice, with a specific focus on stress management and resilience. Gene also has an MS in education and a BS in public safety administration. Gene is an avid fitness enthusiast who regularly trains jiu-jitsu and has completed numerous triathlons, including Ironman Maryland.