How officer health fits into Obama’s police community task force initiative

I was privileged to be selected as one of the panel members reporting to the Task Force on Officer Wellness and Safety in Washington DC


In the wake of a number of controversial police use-of-force incidents around the country, President Obama convened a task force to travel around the country, listening to the testimony of experts in a wide variety of law enforcement and related fields, in order to develop universal standards of police-community policy and practice.  

The goal was to synthesize these diverse inputs, then report back to the President with a set of concrete recommendations that would form the foundation of a universal policy that could foster the highest quality of law enforcement and criminal justice in the served communities, while at the same time providing for optimal safety, health, and respect for dedicated police officers. 

The task force produced an interim report divided into six main sections:

1) Building Trust and Legitimacy
2) Policy and Oversight
3) Technology and Social Media
4) Community Policing and Crime Reduction
5) Training and Education
6) Officer Wellness and Safety

More detail can be found here, and the C-SPAN video of the panel presentation is available here. Setting aside discussion of the first five sections, I will share some observations on the main conclusions of that sixth panel.

Steps Toward Officer Wellness
I was privileged to be selected as one of the panel members reporting to the Task Force on Pillar Six: Officer Wellness and Safety, along with Dr. John Violanti, Sergeant David Orr, and Dr. Sandra Ramey in Washington DC on February 23, 2015. 

I began the morning’s discussion by emphasizing that just as proper maintenance of an officer’s weapon, vehicle, radio, and utilities is crucial to effective policing, so is proper care and repair of what is arguably every officer’s most valuable resource: his or her brain. 

I outlined the day-to-day, cumulative, critical-incident, posttraumatic, and organizational stressors that can adversely affect officers, and I made some recommendations for embedding a comprehensive suite of stress management techniques in the training and continuing education of police cadets and officers.  

I noted that law enforcement need not abandon its paramilitary culture of discipline and chain of command, which are useful for team commitment and force solidarity, but this approach can be supplemented by a wide variety of empirically-tested behavioral strategies that provide scope and flexibility to the interpersonal aspects of patrol policing.

Dr. Violanti described his research into the tragedy of police suicide, and made recommendations for addressing it, including: 

•    Recruiting leaders who care about the mental wellness of their officers
•    Establishing effective early warning and intervention protocols to identify and treat at-risk officers
•    Evaluating and improving existing psychological services
•    Investing in agency-wide training on mental health awareness and stress management
•    Beginning mental wellness training at the academy and continuing it throughout the officer’s career
•    Including family training to reinforce healthy family connections
•    Changing the police culture to reduce the fear and stigma associated with mental illness

It’s a cop’s job to deal with the sometimes gruesome horrors of life — child homicide, sexual assault, home invasions, kidnappings, torture, mass casualties, and the like — that the rest of society has the option of ignoring by turning the page or switching the channel.  

The syndrome of PTSD that these experiences can engender in some officers was the focus of Sergeant Orr’s presentation. He pointed out that only 32 states currently provide adequate mental health coverage under workers’ compensation, and that 18 states do not recognize a mental health injury — including PTSD — as a compensable injury under its workers’ compensation laws.  

For example, officers who experienced PTSD symptoms following their response to the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut were compelled to return to duty before they had sufficient time to recover.  

Orr urged policy changes that will allow psychologically injured officers to get the treatment and recovery time they need.

Not all stress disabilities are mental, however. Dr. Ramey’s research has documented the role of stress on measureable indices of cardiovascular disease and other medical disorders in police officers, and her presentation focused on the development of proactive strategies to inculcate psychophysiological resilience through training in self-regulation, stress-coping, and decision-making skills. Many of these strategies have already been used effectively in the military and sports psychology fields, and can be adapted and applied to law enforcement training.  

Admirable Objectives
Overall, I was impressed by the Task Force’s broad approach to the issue of improved police-community relations in their understanding of the critical role of officer safety and wellness in ensuring effective, ethical, and honorable service to the community.   

The goal is to have officers who are physically and psychologically healthier, who have learned how to constructively manage their own stress, who are more confident and secure because they possess a more diversified tool box of interventional skills, and who feel that they are treated fairly and supported by their agencies in seeking help when needed.  

These officers will usually reciprocate in their daily patrol efforts, will be less likely to express their frustrations on the street, will be more willing to identify the miscreants who spoil it for everyone else, and will generally be motivated to uphold the culture of honor that police agencies strive to maintain.

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