Why PDs must support, not discard, cops in distress

Agencies and legislatures must protect these professionals from job loss for seeking care where no permanent threat to public safety exists

My article on recognizing signs of distress in a colleague garnered several emails — two of which illustrate the drastically different ways administrators may react to cops in crisis. 

One officer related how his supervisor and friend began to recognize signs of depression in his behavior, speech, and work. His colleagues called him on it and offered support. After engaging in some therapy, the officer was able to recover and remains a productive detective on his department. 

Another officer — by contrast — wrote to tell of his struggle with drug dependence. After a surgery, the officer discovered that he had become dependent on the pain killers he was prescribed. Although there was no effect on his work performance, he recognized his need to address the problem and sought help. He was able to get into a rehabilitation program which successfully got him back to his pre-surgery mental and physical fitness. 

Other than his time off for treatment, there were never any performance concerns from his department regarding his work. Regardless, based on medical records from his department’s medical providers, the department filed charges on some technical violations of failing to disclose his prescription use. The case may result in the loss of his career. 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
An officer who recognized his problem and solved it is being punished for his honesty. The obvious irony is that confronting a health problem that could have affected his career in the long-term may have short-circuited it in the short-term. A bad outcome in this case doesn’t just affect this officer, but the profession as a whole. Such an outcome would suggest the lesson is to keep your struggles to yourself and hope you can avoid disaster.

The law enforcement and corrections professions cannot afford to encourage its members to keep their problems secret. Mental health issues such as depression and substance dependency rarely resolve on their own — especially in the pressure cooker of this kind of work. Agencies and legislatures must protect these professionals from job loss for seeking care where no permanent threat to public safety exists. 

Stress and Survival
Stress and other health and wellness issues must be elevated to more than a short block of instruction in the police academy. Along with Constitutional Law, EVOC, arrest control, and firearms, holistic health should be the fifth pillar of knowledge for every law enforcement officer. 

Health stresses, whether originating in the brain or the rest of the body, always ultimately impact the health of a department and, by extension, the community it serves. Prevention and treatment are the keys to preserving an agency’s most vital asset – the well-trained officer. Punishing the sick and losing decades of potential service by failing to preserve an employee is wasteful and cruel. 

Rookies and Administrators
One of the ways that these issues slip through the cracks is that mid-career officers are the most vulnerable, both in health risk and to the risk of losing a career. Rookies tend to be healthier (not yet worn out), and less self-aware of the subtle corrosive effects of job-related stress. They frequently lack the foresight to maintain self-care, including reporting and attending to injuries on the job.

Administrators may tend to forget what patrol and shift work does to a human body. They may also be so focused on liability and short-term costs that they find it easier to rid the department of a “problem” than to address it and preserve a valuable asset.

Dollars and Sense
For an agency that hopes to retain an employee for 20 years, the cost of extended leave compared to a new hire is simple math. It costs money to recruit, train, and equip a new officer, in addition to the liability, supervision costs, and low productivity of two or three rookie years. It makes much more sense to make efforts to restore an existing officer to health and productivity.

Sadly, the common presumption about things we classify as mental health issues is that they are chronic and permanent. With professional attention and peer support, the things we worry about the most — PTSD, drug dependence, and depression — are all treatable with success. Members who have addressed and resolved these kinds of health issues must not bear the label of “defective,” but as valuable “overcomers.”

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