Opinion: Should officer wellness be a condition of employment?

A review of the potential benefits of marrying yearly performance evaluations with physical and psychological wellness programs


This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession. Other articles in the Command College series review the officer safety benefits of wearable devices, how genome technology could be used to recruit police officers and why police should treat gun homicide like doctors treat bloodborne pathogens.

Policing is a difficult and stressful job, with higher physical and mental health risks than many other professions. Studies have shown that when officers’ physical and mental health issues go unaddressed, job performance decreases, decision-making abilities are impaired and agency costs increase. In other words, everyone should be invested in maintaining police officers’ wellness, because it has a direct impact on their ability to be effective.

In recognition of the critical role that officer wellness plays in police work, law enforcement agencies are creating programs aimed at preserving and promoting LEO physical and emotional health. Early evaluations of wellness programs have produced promising results, including increased participation in exercise, healthier eating habits and reductions in officer stress. [1]

Most wellness programs are voluntary, making it impossible to get everyone to participate. However, making the program a component of the performance evaluation system would mandate participation every year. A fusion between a performance evaluation and a holistic officer wellness program could significantly reduce the stress that bears down on the modern-day police officer.

A fusion between a performance evaluation and a holistic officer wellness program could significantly reduce the stress that bears down on the modern-day police officer.
A fusion between a performance evaluation and a holistic officer wellness program could significantly reduce the stress that bears down on the modern-day police officer. (Getty Images)

fitness for duty evaluation

When a police officer is hired, they have to pass medical, psychological and physical fitness examinations. A pre-employment psychological evaluation is a specialized examination to determine whether a public safety applicant meets the minimum requirements for psychological suitability mandated by jurisdictional statutes and regulations, as well as any other criteria established by the hiring agency. [2] Yet we never make them repeat any of those exams throughout the course of their career unless a specific issue arises, such as the necessity for a fitness for duty evaluation (FFDE).

A psychological FFDE is a formal, specialized examination of an incumbent employee that results from (1) objective evidence that the employee may be unable to perform a defined job safely or effectively and (2) a reasonable basis for believing that the cause may be attributable to a psychological condition or impairment. The central purpose of an FFDE is to determine whether the employee can safely and effectively perform his or her essential job functions. [3] Why are officers not held to the same standard every year throughout their career?

Poor mental health is not only a disease affecting the civilian population, it was the number one killer of law enforcement personnel in 2019 and 2020 (excluding COVID-19 related deaths). [4] In 2017, the number of suicides (140) surpassed the number of line-of-duty deaths (129). Just two years later, the number of suicides was significantly larger than line-of-duty deaths (239 vs. 146). [5] The need has never been greater for the infusion of a holistic wellness program into the law enforcement industry.

Overhauling performance evaluations

Law enforcement performance evaluation systems are in need of an overhaul. Most evaluate subjective metrics and rarely give the reader an accurate picture of an employee’s overall proficiency; they also have the fallible human factor of one person evaluating another.

“As a consequence of adhering to these customs, most evaluation systems are quite static and inflexible," writes retired Houston Police Department Executive Assistant Chief Timothy Oettmeier and John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Dennis Kenney. "The evaluation process is repeated time after time using the same performance criteria with little regard for the nature of one’s assignment or their experience. Many veterans find performance evaluation feedback relatively meaningless because the type of information given is the same year after year. Comments such as ‘why bother,’ ‘what difference will it make’, or ‘this does not mean anything to me anymore’ reverberate off walls behind closed doors when ‘its time to evaluate the troops.’ These comments are less of a reflection about their supervisors and more about dissatisfaction they have with the system.” [6]

If we could reconstruct the performance evaluation to include specific standards required for an applicant to pass medical and psychological screening, and add quantifiably objective metrics, it would improve both the officer and the department.

The CDC reports that among the leading physical and mental health conditions in terms of direct medical costs and lost productivity to U.S. employers are several chronic diseases (e.g., heart disease), depression, and musculoskeletal disorders (e.g., back pain). The CDC notes that with the significant time people are on the job, their employer is “in a unique position to promote the health and safety of their employees. The use of effective workplace health programs and policies can reduce health risks and improve the quality of life for 138 million workers in the United States.” [7] It would behoove law enforcement to incorporate these principles now and in the future by including new criteria in annual performance reviews. The most effective and enduring way to achieve these goals would be to mandate recurring mental and medical health exams for police officers and incorporate the statements of fitness into performance evaluations.

Dr. Miriam Heyman of the Ruderman Family Foundation endorsed the recommendation of mental health checks for police officers. “I think that mental health checkups should be routine, if not mandatory, perhaps annually, especially following critical incidents,” she said. “I acknowledge that mandatory checks might be challenging for departments to implement, but I’d encourage everyone to think about a step they can take right now, such as offering these checks at every annual review. I think that could be a first step that would lead to even greater progress." [8]

program Components

Performance evaluation systems vary widely from one agency to the next. Establishing a uniform system would help create consistency, neutrality and legitimacy. Some agencies have made progress to address this dilemma:

  • The Plymouth (Minnesota) Police Department implemented a “Check Up from the Neck Up” program, which requires officers to meet with a mental health practitioner at least once per year. Visits beyond the mandated yearly check-in are provided at no cost.
  • The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) is working with its union to negotiate a Health and Wellness Day and establish mental health assessments on the same day as annual physicals.
  • The Lansing (Michigan) Police Department is considering adding a yearly officer wellness check-in with a police psychologist, in addition to the resources it already makes available to officers experiencing crisis.

There are components of current performance evaluation systems that should remain. Statistical data related to arrests, citations and overall activity levels are impartial and reflect the work ethic of an employee. New metrics, incorporating a holistic wellness program, should include but are not limited to, a medical exam, a psychological exam, career development training, a physical fitness exam and a shooting proficiency course. While some of these metrics would adhere to current scoring systems, others would be in the form of a check box once they have been completed.

Once a program is in place, a city’s contracted physician can complete a medical examination, also known as a physical. Once the exam is complete, the physician would simply sign a form attesting that the officer meets standards and forward those findings to the city’s human resources department; this will help maintain confidentiality. The supervisor completing the evaluation will contact HR to ensure the exam was completed and simply check the box on the employee’s performance evaluation. If the employee fails to complete the medical exam, they receive a rating equivalent to meet standards or the minimum passing score on the scale. If they participate in the medical exam, they receive a rating equivalent to outstanding or the maximum passing score on the scale.

Most cities contract psychological services, which are a component of a peer support program. As part of this program, contracted mental health professionals would also complete an annual examination using the same standards as for new hire officers; the specific outcomes would also remain confidential. Once the exam is complete, the mental health professional will notify HR, which will be verified by the supervisor completing the performance evaluation. The supervisor will simply check the box once it is complete.

A program such as this begs the question, what if an employee does not pass the medical examination, the psychological examination or any other component of the program? Let us look at one component of the program that already exists and mandates proficiency, firearms qualification.

If an officer struggled with their shooting proficiency, we would have no choice but to put them on a performance improvement plan. The goal is to improve and get back to an acceptable level. That concept would also apply as it relates to all facets of a wellness program.

The Police Officers Association (Union) would undoubtedly oppose any program that could potentially lead to the termination of their membership. An example of this played out in Baltimore. A grand jury recommended mandatory psychological evaluations for officers. "This was one of the things we felt was important that after a certain period of time, some of us suggested three years, five years, but at least after every promotion, to have a psychological evaluation to determine whether or not you are the same person that we hired," said Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City. The Senate eliminated the language from the proposed bill. “Those opposed argued it would be cost-prohibitive at $750 per officer. They expressed concern about uneven diagnosis, because not all psychologists test the same way, and feared it would lead to city officers being fired because they were considered unfit for duty.” [9] However, a more viable option would be to make the program a condition of employment for all new employees who are at-will at the time of hire.

Program Implementation

We have two viable options to get such a program implemented nationally and impact the industry, both of which start on a smaller scale. The first is to have the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training mandate participation in the program statewide. The second is to start on a much smaller scale and experience unprecedented success, which would garner national attention.

Two components of the program would need a POST endorsement: creating a uniform performance evaluation system and making participation in the new system a prerequisite to maintaining POST certification.

Making participation in the standardized performance evaluation system a condition of maintaining POST certification would be a game-changer in our industry. Employees would no longer be able to opt out of participation in wellness programs, which had previously been voluntary. With the support of POST, qualified instructors could deliver the training across the state and ensure the introduction of the program in a unified manner.

A standardized performance evaluation system would include metrics that are objective, rather than subjective. It would incorporate components from a holistic wellness program that contribute to making the employee a healthier version of himself or herself. A physically and psychologically healthier employee will provide a higher quality of service to the public we serve.

Conclusion

In the past couple of years, we have seen officer suicide surpass line-of-duty deaths, the vilification of officers from the public we serve, and significant recruitment and retention issues. The necessity for a holistic wellness program has never been greater.

This approach is an innovative way of merging something old (yearly performance evaluations) with something new to law enforcement (physical and psychological wellness programs). The marriage of the two could revolutionize law enforcement in a positive way, reminding officers that they are our most valuable asset.

References

1. Building and Sustaining an Officer Wellness Program – Lessons from the San Diego Police Department, Police Executive Research Forum Report 2018. https://www.policeforum.org/assets/SanDiegoOSW.pdf

2. IACP. (2014) Pre-employment Psychological Evaluation Guidelines.

3. IACP. (2014) Psychological Fitness-for-Duty Evaluation Guidelines.

4. Officer Down Memorial Page.

5. Blue H.E.L.P.

6. Oettmeier T, Kenney DJ. (2001) Evaluating Police Performance” Cultural Diversity and the Police Project.

7. CDC. (2018) Workplace Health Strategies.

8. PERF. (2019) An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do To Prevent Suicide Among Its Officers.

9. Collins D. (September 2016) Reports Call for Routine Psychiatric Testing for Police Officers. WBALTV – Channel 11.

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