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Charting new territory: Q&A with Chula Vista Police Department’s first-ever wellness coordinator

Mike Lawson leads the charge in bolstering officer support, outlining initiatives for peer support, resilience groups, wellness hours and mental health check-ins

Last month, our second annual First Responder Wellness Week offered an in-depth exploration of topics, such as enhancing officers’ physical fitness, fostering peer support, embracing balanced nutrition, prioritizing mental health and strengthening family bonds.

However, prioritizing even a single goal from these can be challenging when officers are already stretched thin with overtime and off-duty work. That’s why it’s imperative to make one change at a time — slowly and gradually.

Fortunately, most officers today no longer have to make these changes on their own. They have support systems at work — well-rounded teams or members who dedicate their time to ensuring their officers’ physical and mental health needs are met. And not just on their first day, but continually throughout their career and into retirement.

For Mike Lawson, his move into the first-ever wellness coordinator at the Chula Vista (Calif.) Police Department was written on the walls throughout his law enforcement career.

With an extensive background in peer support and wellness programs, it was a no-brainer for Lawson to take the helm during a pivotal time of expanding law enforcement wellness initiatives.

I recently sat down with Lawson to ask him about his goals as a wellness coordinator, how he’s addressing mental health concerns within the department, and what other departments can do to secure support from their officers and command staff when launching a wellness program.

1. What led you to become the first-ever wellness coordinator at the Chula Vista Police Department?

I started my career as a deputy at the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and retired after nearly 24 years. During my last 10 years, I was part of the peer support team, became a peer support coordinator and was eventually assigned to sheriff headquarters to begin to establish a wellness program. I helped establish the department’s first wellness day and authored the proposal to initiate a wellness unit, which was eventually adopted by the board of supervisors.

I have been a resident of Chula Vista for about 20 years now. About eight years ago, I began volunteering for the Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) by assisting families dealing with a tragic accident or death.

After meeting and becoming friends with a CVPD chaplain, he introduced me to a lieutenant who was asking for assistance with their department and wellness goals. After meeting and discussing wellness ideas and projects I was working on, we kept in contact and eventually came up with a job description for a wellness coordinator for the department.

2. What are your primary goals in this position?

My primary goals are building a rapport with all personnel, creating a culture shift on how command and the officers view wellness, having the employees proactively use the resources, and supporting the employees from their first day on the job through retirement.

MikeMurphy.jpg

Mike Lawson and Murphy.

Courtesy photo

3. What does a typical day look like for you as the wellness coordinator?

Working only part-time as a civilian, my days are kept busy with meetings for planning and preparing for events, meeting with and getting to know the staff and officers, and providing resources to the department.

A unique part of my week is bringing Murphy, the department’s first official wellness dog, to visit. On these days, I spend most of the day visiting with and talking to employees around the department. They love petting Murphy, but it has allowed me to talk to people and ask how they can better be supported. Bringing Murphy has been such a great icebreaker for me and the employees. This has led to me having those conversations with people that may have not happened otherwise.

4. Can you describe some of the key wellness programs you’re planning to implement?

The key programs I will be working on trying to implement or support include the peer support team, resilience and support groups for employees and spouses/partners, a wellness hour and regular mental health check-ins for employees.

The peer support program was previously established but needed reorganization and updated training. As that moves forward, it will allow officers to support their fellow officers in need.

The resilience and support groups for the employees and their spouses/partners are held once a week — either at the department or a local church. These meetings typically have a speaker, such as a therapist, who gives a short presentation relevant to law enforcement wellness, followed by a group discussion.

Looking forward, I would like to implement a wellness hour/half-hour for employees during their shift. This would allow them to participate in a variety of wellness activities that best meet their needs. Presenting this program to the department is in its infancy stages, but this would create an atmosphere of healthy employees — both physically and mentally.

Finally, I would also like to start wellness check-ins for the employees, where they would periodically check in with a therapist, chaplain, life coach or someone like myself. Allowing employees a safe place to have someone listen to their traumas or everyday stressors will help them manage these better as they advance in their careers.

The Bakersfield PD and Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office are leaders in prioritizing officer wellness. Here’s a summary of their best practices

5. Mental health is a critical aspect of overall wellness, especially in high-stress professions like law enforcement. How are you addressing mental health concerns within the department?

As a department, we have recently onboarded with a company that has culturally competent therapists that know the mental health concerns of first responders. The department has also carved out a segment in its annual training, which directly relates to officer wellness and mental health concerns.

Individually, I am attending team briefings, informing supervisors that I am available to check in on officers who may need resources and becoming familiar with as many officers as possible. In doing this, I can then reach out to that person to help connect them with the appropriate resources. Additionally, becoming familiar with employees who are either on light duty or medical leave allows me to reach out to those people, offer assistance and let them know they are not alone. Having been on extended medical leave myself as a deputy sheriff, I know how important it is to remain connected to the department — even when you are out.

Because many employees view me as more neutral, people feel comfortable coming to my office and having those tough conversations. I try to build a rapport with them and will check in with them periodically via email, text or in person. Most people just want to be heard and I try to provide a safe place for that.

6. Given the physically demanding nature of police work, what initiatives are you introducing to support officers’ physical health and fitness?

We just started a fitness/wellness challenge throughout the department. We have put teams and units against each other for bragging rights. The challenge involves the percentage of total weight loss, points for workouts, points for eating healthy, points for reading 10 pages of self-help books and more. This is all documented in our Cordico wellness app.

I currently lead boot camp workouts two days a week and we will start having a yoga class once a week. We recently updated the department gym with new equipment and have seen a big increase in the employees getting in a quick workout.

Additionally, I will send out articles or videos specifically related to health and fitness.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can share that my physical training regimen allowed me to retire physically, legally and emotionally undefeated after a career full of challenges

7. How do you gather feedback from officers and other department staff about wellness initiatives, and how do you adapt programs based on that feedback?

Currently, I have gathered a lot of feedback from face-to-face meetings with people when I visit with Murphy. I have also received feedback from people coming to my office as well as via email or text.

I will soon be putting out a short survey to the department to get their feedback on what they think is important and what they would like regarding wellness. I will be generating a report from the feedback I receive and presenting it to the chief and command staff. While I have plenty of ideas, I feel it is extremely important that the employees have a voice in expressing their views not just to me, but also to command staff.

8. In what ways do you provide ongoing support to officers who may be struggling or need additional wellness resources?

Before I even began with the department, I highly recommended that they contract with a culturally competent therapist company. They have recently onboarded with them and I assist employees with making appointments or whatever they may need.

Once a week, I will email the department a video related to wellness, list of upcoming events, provide my contact information for anyone to reach out and provide the login information for our Cordico app.

9. What are your long-term goals for the wellness program at the department?

My long-term goal is to lead a comprehensive wellness program that employees are using both proactively and reactively. My goal is to be a person that people feel comfortable contacting — either in times of crisis or just to talk and be heard.

The mission of CVPD states it will provide fair, courteous and compassionate service to enhance the quality of life in Chula Vista. I truly believe that by enhancing the lives of all of its employees through a comprehensive wellness unit, the department will succeed in living out its mission. I want to work together to have a department that supports their personnel, attracts quality candidates and retains them for years to come.

10. What best practices can you share with other departments looking to enhance their wellness resources for officers?

My top best practices include:

  • Create a wellness coordinator position or start a wellness unit.
  • Have a culturally competent therapist or company.
  • Start a wellness day for employees and their families.
  • Team up with other city/county/government departments to work on wellness initiatives.
  • Reach out to your POA, police foundations and local businesses for support.
  • Research and apply to local, state and national grants related to wellness.
  • Invest in a wellness app, like Cordico, and encourage the use of the app.

11. For departments just beginning to explore the idea of adding wellness resources or appointing a wellness coordinator, what advice do you have on getting started and securing buy-in from department leadership and officers?

First, come up with a strong proposal of what the wellness coordinator would be responsible for in the department. Provide solid evidence from other departments of their successes. Once the ball is rolling, staffing the right person is a crucial aspect. Bringing in either a retired officer from the department or someone from another department may be a great option.

Build rapport, get involved, be present, get to know your people, open up and let them know who you are. Building relationships of trust from the start will let them know you are there to help them, their family and their partners.

Don’t forget to ask for input. Ask the employees what they would like to see implemented regarding wellness. This can be done by a survey, email, or by talking to the employees. Providing an opportunity for the employees to feel like they have a say will help with morale and retention.

Finally, go slow! Starting too fast can be met with roadblocks from command and the department. Getting early wins will help with your credibility and buy-in from officers and command. Introducing my dog, Murphy, and helping update the gym assisted me in getting those early wins.

Here’s what you can do today and in the long-term to develop a culture of wellness in your department

12. Implementing new wellness initiatives can come with a set of challenges, including budget constraints, skepticism or resistance to change. How have you addressed these obstacles, and what advice can you offer to other departments facing similar issues?

In California, police departments recently received a two-year grant for wellness. That grant provides money toward salaries, training, guest speakers and funds to invest in wellness. These next two years, we will need to show command how important these programs are and try to convince them to make wellness part of the annual budget.

Skepticism must be squashed with results and employee buy-in. As more employees begin to participate in the wellness programs, the goal is to increase participation and create departmental change.

For departments just beginning the wellness journey, I would suggest connecting with other departments to gather as much information as you can on what has been successful in other departments. Seek out funding in the form of grants and other creative sources to get you started financially. Then, be persistent and optimistic. Change takes time.

Future surveys will need to be given to show command that they are getting a return on their investment. My hope is that employees will want to stay at the department, and word will get out to the public and others interested in joining law enforcement that they should choose CVPD because of how much they take care of their people.

13. As someone who supports the wellness of officers, how do you ensure your own wellness, and what advice do you have for others in similar roles to maintain their wellbeing while supporting others?

Admittedly, during the first 14 years of my career, I could have done better in ensuring my wellness. In the last 10 years as a sheriff, a light went off and I began to surround myself with mentors, coaches, chaplains, pastors and others who became my support system.

I began to proactively go to therapy sessions with my wife. I also started going to church again, joined a men’s group and now lead a group of 20-plus men at my church. I began to regularly do some of the things I used to love, like stand-up paddleboarding and pickleball. I also started working for a company that act as life coaches for law enforcement. This has not only kept me connected with other law enforcement officers from across the country, but I can connect and do some coaching sessions with others on the team.

While I am still working on some things with family and life balance, I feel I am in a much better place than I was 10 years ago. I realize this cultural shift of concentrating on wellness will take some time. However, the time to take better care of our men and women in law enforcement is now.


About Mike Lawson
Mike Lawson recently retired from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department after 23 years. During his last 10 years, he worked on the peer support team, was a peer support coordinator, lead first responder support groups and was instrumental in starting a full-time wellness unit. Mike is currently a life coach and is the director of public relations for Law Enforcement Coaching. Mike was recently hired as the Chula Vista Police Department’s first-ever wellness coordinator. You can contact Mike at mlawson@chulavistapd.org or here.

Sarah Calams, who previously served as associate editor of FireRescue1.com and EMS1.com, is the senior editor of Police1.com and Corrections1.com. In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delves deep into the people and issues that make up the public safety industry to bring insights and lessons learned to first responders everywhere.

Sarah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in news/editorial journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Have a story idea you’d like to discuss? Send Sarah an email or reach out on LinkedIn.
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