*|MC_PREVIEW_TEXT|*Wellness programs aren't optional; Do you know why cops really leave?
April 20, 2022 | View as webpage | Too many emails? Update Subscription Preferences

If you haven't downloaded our analysis of Police1's second annual State of the Industry survey, you should immediately click here to add this report to your leadership library. We asked 2,300+ LEOs to describe the support they want from their agencies and our findings will impact the way you lead your personnel.

Several additional resources supplement the Police1 report: We asked your officers for their opinions and they answered. Now is the time to start listening.

Stay safe,

— Nancy Perry
Editor-in-Chief, Police1
Why officer wellness programs are no longer optional
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. 

The often parodied child’s question “Are we there yet?” has a variety of parental answers. Among them: “Stop asking,” “I’ll let you know,” “We’re never ‘there’, we’re always just ‘here,’” and “Yes, get out!”

As it applies to the question of how well our law enforcement agencies and communities are addressing officer mental health and wellness, the answer is we’ve only just left the driveway.

What is our destination when it comes to officer well-being? There are several outcomes that can be articulated.

Peak job performance

Anxiety, constant stress response, lack of sleep, distractions, brain fog, depression and other factors detrimental to brain health are detrimental to the physical, cognitive and emotional performance necessary for law enforcement assignments. A holistic wellness approach recognizes that diet, physical activity and healthy relationships are all intertwined and affect quality police delivery.

Retention and recruitment

Keeping an officer for optimum value and return on investment of the agency is a priority for law enforcement managers. Veteran officers bring a lot to an agency, including their encouragement to others to enter the law enforcement profession. Police1's recent survey indicates that this important personal recruitment and encouragement has drastically diminished in the past couple of years. Agencies that show that they value their personnel will have healthier retention rates and easier recruitment.

Suicide prevention

Although the extent of first responder suicide relative to the rate of self-harm in the general public is not fully known, the number of police deaths that occur on duty is alarming enough. Suicide not only has the obvious tragic consequences of rippling trauma to the agency and the survivors, but it can also create mistrust among the public that assumes police officers have superpowers to cope with their jobs. Not all first responders who die by suicide do so as a direct result of their work, but a holistic approach to wellness is more likely to address issues such as relationships, financial management and existential crisis that can affect the job or the decision to die prematurely.


Mandating exposure to mental health services has an educational impact on officers responding to mental health crisis calls. If an officer lives in an environment where their whole health matters, including brain health, the officer will perhaps be more open to helping a person deal with a matter that generated the 911 call and police presence. Skills to which an officer is exposed in mental health maintenance can be reflected in encounters with those who have a mental health crisis.


Agencies must create a balance between recognizing stress-related illness and performance deficits, including PTSD, and recognizing that most officers, most of the time, are quite resilient with a quiver full of coping skills so that an expectation of a mental breakdown doesn’t become a cultural norm. Training on stress must emphasize the reality that brain health is largely a physiological issue just like any other wound or injury. Stress injuries affect digestion, brain waves, neurological connections, biochemistry, muscles and the whole somatic realm. Much of the information officers receive about stress injury is expressed in words describing feelings, which is a vocabulary often avoided because of the real need to suppress emotional reactions on the job. Recognizing that repeated trauma exposure and cumulative stress are a reality can help officers be more receptive to intervention.

Once some of these destinations (to continue our “are we there yet” theme) are recognized, agencies need to establish landmarks to establish direction and progress. Some of the results of increased attention to wellness should become evident if monitored and include:

Fewer citizen complaints

Keeping generally positive attitudes and realistic expectations can lower the emotional impact of dealing with citizens in distress. An officer’s confidence will reduce unhelpful fear and increase self-regulation in the face of conflict.

Fewer sick days

While leave policies should be as generous as possible, science has long recognized how much illness and ailments are related to mental health. Fatigue, mental fog and distraction are tied to workplace injuries and vehicle accidents. Healthier minds and bodies should result in better attendance patterns and fewer chronic complaints.

Reduced uses of force

No mental health or even de-escalation training should take away an officer’s safety or threat awareness. Coercion by physical means and tools will always be essential in policing when offenders become combative. Officers can, however, lower their threshold for aggression with better self-regulation awareness and an interest in preventing their own injury.

Better internal relationships

Having healthy professional relationships within an agency not only creates a better atmosphere but influences performance as well. Officers who withhold information because of a lack of trust or because of unhealthy competition within the ranks deprive the public of the collective efficacy of the agency. Reluctance to engage in teamwork can create a squad of Lone Rangers who do not share the workload or engage in effective team tasks at scenes where multiple officers are required. A mutually supportive environment makes for better operational effectiveness.

NEXT: 6 things police leaders must do to improve officer wellness in 2022

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Issues assessment: Find out what police are not saying when they leave
By Tim O'Brien 

When the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released the findings of its 2021 survey of members, which included many chiefs of police departments, the report highlighted two cities that have suffered some of the most significant exoduses of veteran officers in recent times.

The report stated that in Seattle, a record 180 officers left the police department in 2020, and 66 more officers have left so far this year. "I have about 1,080 deployable officers. This is the lowest I’ve seen in our department," said Police Chief Adrian Diaz.

In Minneapolis, former Chief Medaria Arradondo told a City Council panel that reduced staffing is making his department "one-dimensional," with officers mostly responding to 911 calls and not having time to do proactive policing.”

Chiefs of police in the Philadelphia region recently met to discuss their own staffing crisis, saying that the number of people applying for police officer jobs is “shrinking” and it’s more difficult to patrol the areas that need attention.

Police staffing shortages

A quick Internet search using the term “police staffing shortage” will quickly turn up similar reports from throughout the country.

Police departments throughout America in 2020 had to respond to widespread riots. Going into 2021, those same departments were under siege from activist organizations, politicians, the news media and even Hollywood celebrities. In some cases, they were restricted on how they could enforce existing laws in the face of sometimes widespread violence. To characterize this as an untenable working environment could be an understatement.

Meanwhile, police departments faced challenges tied to a pandemic, calls for defunding, actual budget cuts and ultimately reduced resources.

Even though all of this is well known, without good data, it’s easy for the root causes of the staffing crisis to get lost. Conjecture among politicians and local government leaders creates competing narratives. Lack of consensus and clear understanding of the problem can lead to misplaced priorities and ineffective recruitment and retention solutions going forward.

Don’t blame the circumstances on the circumstances

It’s not uncommon for leaders of any organization when faced with adversity to look for an easy explanation that will ruffle the fewest feathers. In other words, they can make excuses that obfuscate real underlying problems.

Meanwhile, in many cities, understaffed and under-resourced police departments are blamed for rising crime rates.

In my work in crisis and issues management, we describe this as blaming a problem on the circumstances to avoid having to deal with the real issues. It would be like a doctor saying the reason you have a heart problem is that your heart’s not working properly, while never exploring possible underlying conditions.

If you’re tasked with recruiting and retaining valuable members of your police department, one of the most important places to start is getting to the root of the attitudes driving perceptions, and how all of this manifests itself in police staffing shortages.

It’s equally important to have the data needed to convince local government leaders, city councils and others to allocate the funding and proper resources and obtain good faith backing.

Conduct an Issues Assessment Audit

An Issues Assessment Audit can be used to gauge the perceptions of key stakeholders. It would take shape in the form of anonymous surveys, interviews with officers who’ve recently resigned or retired, and possibly secondary research.

An Issues Assessment Audit would best be conducted by an outside firm to provide objectivity and process. (Full disclosure: This is something our firm can do.) Not uncommonly, when an organization tries to conduct its own research using internal resources, it encounters barriers tied to skepticism or distrust.

Specifically, the audit can be customized to the department or situation, but it would likely include some combination of:

  • Anonymous survey of current and former officers;
  • Interviews with a cross-section of current and former officers;
  • Possibly a review of existing reports, materials and other secondary research.

The raw data is collected, analyzed and used to create a report that lays out why the officers who’ve retired or resigned did so, the concerns of current officers, and perhaps, what the department could do or could have done to prevent many officers from leaving.

The steps for conducting the Issues Assessment Audit start with knowing what you want to achieve. What are your objectives? Then, what are the most pressing problems? Retirements? Resignations? Both? The more clarity you can achieve in outlining the problem and setting clear goals, the more focused your questions will be for the audit’s survey and interviews.

An obvious survey question for a retiree may be, “Was your retirement long-planned according to a schedule or a more recent decision?” This is a "yes-or-no" question that works well within a survey.

The deeper interview question for the retiree may be, “What were the major factors that helped you decide to retire when you did?” This is more open-ended and can be included in a survey or better yet as part of an interview.

Follow-on questions may include, (yes or no) “Is there anything the department could have done to retain you?”, and (open-ended) “What could the department have done to retain you?”

Based on my experience, while incorporating open-ended questions can be very useful and efficient for large-scale written surveys, they don’t elicit the same in-depth response you get when you conduct actual interviews.

To be sure, active-duty officers may be more suspicious or skeptical of the motives of the process and less willing to cooperate. Special attention would need to be made to demonstrate how their anonymity will be protected, and the significant role they will play in helping to convince leaders to make necessary changes.

Once the input and insights have been gathered, a thorough analysis would be conducted to look for patterns, trends and exceptions. It would seek to rank those issues that seemed most important to those who’ve retired or resigned. This all would then form the basis for a final report.

In my experience as a consultant, we can’t tell clients what to do with the data we give them, but in past communications audits, the effectiveness of the process almost always rests with the organization’s commitment to take seriously what the people are telling them and to act on that input in a constructive way.

The purpose of an Issues Assessment Audit is not to justify what you already plan to do, but rather, to make sure what you do resonates and connects with those you are trying to reach.

This may often touch on organizational cultural issues and fundamental changes that may be required before communication can start.

While all good marketing and communications efforts are based on solid intelligence, the true strength of a recruitment and retention program rests on the credibility the organization achieves by doing the right things, making the right changes and demonstrating its commitment to its people. In this case, those people are your law enforcement officers.

Declining staffing levels in some of the nation’s police departments is a serious problem. Identifying and shedding light on the issues at the center of that decline is the first step in a comprehensive effort to restore the nation’s police departments.

NEXT: 9 culture changes to fix your staffing shortage

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