How to honor injured officers
Injured officers performed bravely and heroically, and those actions need to be honored and remembered
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Continuing care for injured LEOs | Honoring disabled cops | Tracking injuries, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
By Barbara A. Schwartz
How would you feel if you were catastrophically injured on duty and left disabled? Would you want your sacrifice to be acknowledged? Your bravery recognized? Your years of service honored? Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for many officers injured on the job. Instead, they often feel forgotten and unacknowledged.
Let’s begin to change that by remembering and honoring injured and disabled officers who live with their sacrifices every day.
Medical advances save lives, but cannot prevent injury
Advances in medical care, the advent of tactical medicine and police carrying equipment for self-aid have kept officers from becoming a name on the wall. Living doesn’t diminish their sacrifice or their valor.
An officer who was shot and catastrophically injured told me in a conversation that if a tactical doctor hadn’t accompanied his unit on a warrant service and an ambulance been on standby, he would be dead. “If I had died,” he said, “I would be honored for my service and valor. Because I lived, ended up disabled, I am forgotten. No one acknowledges my years of service or what happened that day or what my family and I have lost.
Injured officers have lost their lives. They lose the job they loved and their identity as police officers. They lose the social support system that came with going to work every day. Their injuries force them to give up hobbies and recreational activities. They sacrificed the life they knew – and lived – by performing their sworn duties. In return, they are often forgotten because they are a reminder of the risks all officers face. Officers don’t want to see how an on-duty injury can shatter lives and careers. Colleagues stay away and distance themselves from the injured officers.
We need to stop blaming injured officers
Law enforcement culture historically views injured officers as weak, harshly judges their actions and often blames officers for their injuries. Injured officers who return to work are considered tainted or damaged and treated like they can no longer perform the job.
"My colleagues don't see me as they used to," an injured officer who returned to work told me. "I have to prove myself again. Like I had to do as a rookie. My years of experience are meaningless."
Families of injured/disabled officers experience grief and loss. The dreams they held for the future have been denied and dramatically changed. Families must wage an ongoing battle for workers’ compensation benefits. The injured/disabled spouse/parent may not be able to participate in family functions, provide the same level of caregiving that they did before the injury, or assist in household duties and chores. Disabled officers may need round-the-clock care that taxes their loved ones.
Injuries aren’t always physical. Trauma and stress-related injuries are invisible. Despite officer wellness initiatives, the law enforcement culture continues to scorn and disparage officers asking for help when invisibly wounded by exposure to critical incidents, stress and trauma. Those who do reach out for assistance, and acknowledge their invisible wounds, are considered weak and damaged.
How to shift the culture
How can we reverse this attitude and culture toward injured and disabled officers? Here are some steps both police leaders and officers can take:
- Culture change starts with one officer. Be that officer.
- Reach out when another officer shows sign of an internal or invisible injury. Offer to listen, acknowledge their pain and help them help themselves.
- Include injured/disabled officers in Police Week activities. Honor their service, valor and sacrifice as wounded veterans of the war against crime.
- Follow the lead of the Chicago Memorial Foundation and erect a permanent display bearing the names of catastrophically injured/disabled officers.
- Visit injured officers regularly to thank them for the sacrifice they made.
- Acknowledge the pain these officers have suffered due to their injury or disability and what they live with daily.
- Invite an injured/disabled officer on a ride-along and include them in department activities and celebrations.
- When an officer who was injured returns to work, treat them as you did before. Don’t doubt their skill or ability to do the job. Support the battle they went through to get back to work.
- Reach out to the families of injured officers. Few support groups exist for the spouses and children of injured officers. Bring them a meal. Offer to mow the lawn or wash a car. Toss a ball with a child or take them to the park or the zoo.
- Lobby for legislation in your home state supporting workers’ compensation benefits for catastrophically injured officers. Lobby for laws that recognize traumatic invisible injuries as a disability and worthy of workers' compensation.
Injured officers performed bravely and heroically, and those actions need to be honored and remembered. Honor their sacrifice throughout the year.