*|MC_PREVIEW_TEXT|*3 ways leaders can listen | LEO suicide | 'Crisis Cops' on HBO
April 21, 2021 | View as webpage | Too many emails? Update Subscription Preferences
3 ways to be a listening leader
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. 

A persistent charge against police administrators by line officers is that desk-bound suits have forgotten what it is like out in the real world. Most of those wearing sparklies on their epaulets are much more in touch than their accusers might assume. Nevertheless, a good leader will, from time to time, reflect on what it is like in the patrol officers’ shoes. Even in small departments with working chiefs, the view from the top is different.

Police1 recently compiled results of a survey of 4,000 officers to understand how cops want law enforcement to evolve. Leaders can learn from what officers are saying as reflected in such surveys in order to be very intentional in filtering out the usual malcontents complaining and hearing core issues that can be addressed.

[Click here to listen to an on-demand webinar that reviews the survey's key findings.] 

Perhaps the most encouraging data comes from the idealism that attracted most officers to policing and has kept them there. The desire to serve is listed as the top reason for police officers choosing law enforcement as a career for 75% of respondents, along with other admirable aspirations. Only 4% fell into law enforcement because it was the only job available to them. This points to a self-selection of individuals with a high service orientation. The ability to be of service is also listed as the most satisfying aspect of policing.

Not only does this contradict the narrative of some critics that we are attracting the wrong kind of people into the profession, but it provides leaders with a reminder of what is at the heart of their officers’ daily work. Keeping that alive and in focus must be a primary goal of leaders. Here are three ways to accomplish that:

1. Be an intentional encourager

Leaders can be sure to pass on accolades and compliments whenever they hear them. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed that 79% of officers had been thanked for their service in the month preceding the survey while 67% had been verbally abused. When one intuitively includes the absence of appreciation and all of the grumbling and negative body language that won’t fit into the outright abuse category, the ratio of appreciation to ingratitude can become cumulatively harmful to morale. We all know that the brain gives more attention to negatives and threats because that focus has greater survival value. That means that positive inputs must outweigh the negative by multiples.

When some concerned citizen asks what they can do for your officers, have a concrete idea for them:

  • Ask them to write a letter to the local newspaper or TV station in support of the department.
  • Ask them to send a card signed by kids to put on the bulletin board.
  • Let them know of any anti-police legislation coming up and ask them to email their representatives and send a copy to you to share.
  • Provide information about how to donate to a police relief or scholarship fund.

Our concern about staying neutral and not accepting gifts must be balanced with giving civilians the opportunity to serve their public servants.

2. Be a public advocate

Police1's survey indicates that the most harmful ingredient in low morale is the public’s misperception of the police.

With false and misleading narratives abounding in the media and from the mouths of politicians, the real substance of improvements in policing is lost and replaced with punitive rhetoric:

  • Police leaders should intelligently point to statistical realities in public and private discussions about reform proposals.
  • Police leaders should brag about their agency constantly.
  • Police leaders should speak out against unwise legislative proposals with the goal of educating the public about these measures.
  • Police leaders should pursue partnerships with citizen groups for the advancement of quality law enforcement.

3. Offer substantive training

Officers already possess the skills that many misinformed critics are clamoring for inclusion in police training. But police officers, 80% of which have post-secondary education under their belts, are open to more training in conflict resolution, crisis communication, and weaponless arrest and control skills.

Police leaders should do their best to reject some of the unscientific and politically driven “training” and make an honest assessment of their officers’ training needs. Police leaders must move beyond checking boxes on recurrent training in order to move toward training that is need-based and outcome-oriented.

Our officers desire to serve with pride. Police leaders must be intentional about keeping that desire alive.

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Be honest: We are not doing enough about law enforcement suicide
By Nicholas Greco 

Last month the Chicago Police Department lost two officers to suicide within days of each other. Town Hall District Officer 21-year veteran James Daly, 47, fatally shot himself in a locker room inside the district’s police station on the North Side. Four days later, Officer Jeffrey T. Troglia, 38, an 18-year veteran, died after shooting himself inside his home in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood on the Far Southwest Side.

We have a problem

Across the country, officers continue to take their own lives. Forty-four officers have died this year by suicide. While line-of-duty death continues to rise – primarily due to COVID – the loss of an officer to suicide is preventable. So why, once again, do we find ourselves talking about what to do? Why are some of the same agencies once again scrambling for answers?

Law enforcement suicide is not a new thing. It’s been occurring at agencies large and small for decades. We’re talking about it now because we haven’t done enough to curtail it within the ranks. At many agencies, the topic is avoided altogether.

When an agency loses an officer, or several, to suicide, what comes next? In many cases, posters about officer wellness and suicide are put up, pamphlets are distributed and maybe a short video is made about suicide prevention with the EAP number listed at the end. Additionally, someone from EAP will also come in with some pamphlets and business cards during roll-call and deliver the message that help is available, you are not alone and to reach out if you are having problems.

Stop going through the motions

None of this is bad, per se. But it’s more checking boxes than actual help, and the message is often lost over time: Most awareness and prevention efforts will end shortly thereafter. The EAP might get a few calls, but most officers will ignore the advice and their own feelings out of fear and mistrust. Who can blame them?

Trust between officers and command staff, as well as communities and police, is, in my experience, at an all-time low. When the cumulative stress of the job, along with that of one’s own personal life, becomes too much to bear, where can an officer seek competent help confidentiality, assured there will be no stigma or reprisal?

If I have you thinking right now, you should be. The current status quo and the notion that we didn’t have these issues a decade ago is a mindset that is killing our brothers and sisters. These issues have afflicted law enforcement for generations, but they were largely ignored in the past. Failing to change how we view suicide stifles innovative and creative ways of saving officers’ lives and their careers.

We must, simultaneously, acknowledge that times have changed. Public perceptions of police, coupled with the advent of social media and smartphone video, mean that any officer anywhere can become international news at any moment. Moreover, younger officers have changed experiences and expectations. This is the most diverse cohort of officers in our history, which means you need to cater your message carefully and specifically. If your department is merely going through the motions of passing out pamphlets, giving short roll-call talk and calling it a day, you’re not doing enough to prevent suicide among your ranks.

Real action is needed

It’s time to address why your officers aren’t using your internal resources. Let’s start from the top. If you are the chief, your words are meaningless without meaningful action.

Real action means officers from the top-down know you have their back: that you are unwilling to throw good officers away when they seek out help for a job that is oftentimes thankless and stressful.

Real action means you have vetted the members of your EAP, and they are trained to work with police officers and their families.

Real action means you have allocated resources – yes, money – as a line item in the budget each year to fund wellness initiatives, trainings and peer support. If you are serious about officer wellness and suicide prevention, you will have a budget for it. If you don’t have a budget to fund these things, don’t expect your officers to believe you or seek out help, because they will know it’s not taken seriously. You should also have a confidential peer support program in addition to EAP. Officers can volunteer to be a part of the peer support program and receive additional training on how to help one another in a confidential and trusting manner.

Other considerations

With robust and confidential EAP and peer support in place, present additional outside resources such as police-friendly private clinicians.

If you are sending your officers to crisis intervention teams (CIT) or any other mental health training, remember that their mental health is important as well. Many CIT programs I am involved with weave officer wellness and stress reduction into the 40-hour weeklong program. Officer wellness, suicide prevention, and stress reduction is discussed, and many resources are provided.

Agencies should begin to think about what it means to have a balanced life for the officer as well. Too much overtime can be a bad thing. Sometimes we need to look out for one another and encourage appropriate distance and time away from the job.

Remember, suicide will not go away on its own. Not talking about suicide within law enforcement has only exacerbated the problem. There’s a myth that talking to someone about suicide will somehow put the idea in their head. That’s simply not true. A person may very well be planning and thinking about taking their own life regardless. The person may not really want to die, but they don’t feel there is any other option. They are feeling helpless, hopeless, scared. In fact, talking to someone who you are concerned about may save their life. When it feels everything around you is falling apart, remember you may be their last hope. Let’s do more – because we must.

NEXT: The officer wellness imperative

spacer.gif Mental Health Outreach 

spacer.gif BE ADVISED
3. Listen to Ernie & Joe, the crisis cops behind the HBO documentary: The efforts of two Texas police officers have helped change the way police respond to mental health calls.

2. Learn how small LE agencies address mental health outreach: Research indicates rural locations have higher rates of mental illness, opiate addiction and suicide than urban areas.

1. Watch this video on Miami-Dade’s Criminal Mental Health Project: The program has been hailed as a national model for decriminalizing mental illness.
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