Could police officer sabbaticals reduce rural retention woes?

Chief Paul Wegner believes it is a viable solution that he’s willing to try in order to save his staff

“I’m not a teddy bear, I’m a cactus. I’m all about getting the job done,” Chief Paul Wegner warned the Paynesville, Minnesota city council when he started. The statement came to mind again when the village of 2,500 residents started getting publicity for approving its new police sabbatical policy, unheard of in a small town. To Wegner, the policy isn’t about being soft, but about keeping officers healthy and showing them they are valued because that is how effective policing gets done.

Chief Wegner began his career in 1998 working primarily in small towns. Rising from patrol officer to sergeant to chief, he learned well that organizational politics are stressful. He now presides over several full-time officers supplemented by a few part-timers; like any other department right now, retention is tough and recruiting even harder. When a big department loses officers, it’s hard. When a small department loses a single officer out of four, it’s catastrophic: an immediate 25% staff cut.

“There are recruiting difficulties,” Wegner said. “Minnesota was one of the first states to license police officers. A growing culture of criminalizing mistakes impacts morale for existing officers, and recruiting for potential ones.” Minnesota police applicants must have a postsecondary degree or substitute extensive law enforcement or military experience, before being hired. It makes for a professional force, but for small towns, it can make a small hiring pool into a hiring droplet.

“We see the same things any police department sees. It’s a smaller volume, but we have fewer people to handle it. There have been four homicides here in the last two and a half years, one a double homicide,” Wegner said. In Paynesville, there are no full-time detectives or CSI to handle complex crimes.

Routine stressors

The drumbeat of routine crime pounds on. And so do stressors normal to police work that are foreign to the public.

“This isn’t a program about us, it’s about the employee.” – Chief Paul Wegner
“This isn’t a program about us, it’s about the employee.” – Chief Paul Wegner

“It’s not the big things, critical incidents that burn people out. It’s compounding stress from the 'every day' that burns up and burns out officers,” Wegner said. “Burnout brings fatigue, numbness, cynicism. It’s paramount in policing, that mindset that nothing is supposed to bother us.”

Consequently, in 2018, Wegner created an officer wellness program addressing physical, mental and spiritual wellness including free 24-hour access to the local school district’s fitness center.

It didn’t accomplish what he hoped. “As I failed miserably helping, what I discovered is I need to find another way. I lost four officers to other departments or left the field entirely. We were failing at health and wellness, at dealing with stressors at work and at home,” Wegner said.

Then at church one Sunday, his pastor mentioned having benefited personally and professionally from a 10-week sabbatical, and that resonated. Wegner said, “Disconnecting, getting away entirely, is how I always decompressed.” He started to wonder what disconnecting could look like for police officers if they could have a break – a real one – around the time that research says officers start to struggle.

How the sabbaticals would work

Sabbaticals are common in academia and in the clergy; they are gaining popularity in business and industry as a tool for combatting turnover, especially among executives, but the idea is foreign in law enforcement, especially for line officers.

When Wegner searched, he discovered a larger police department with a successful annual sabbatical program and decided to scale it down for Paynesville: one month paid sabbatical leave for eligible officers who have served for five years. He just needed to convince the city council to approve it.

“My first goal was just to get it added to the contract,” Wegner said. “I brought up the financial aspects of it, yes, but mainly this is about doing right by staff. We spend tens of thousands of dollars to train people, and if they don’t stay that’s a complete loss. There’s not a ton of data on it, but in other industries (sabbaticals) are shown to increase retention and productivity.”

In the short term, Wegner said, keeping trained officers reduces the costs of constant recruiting, hiring and training. There are longer-term costs to consider as well: changes to Minnesota law require cities to continue paying health benefits for medically retired first responders, including police officers disabled by post-traumatic stress. Keeping officers healthy physically and mentally could help the city keep long-term expenditures in check.

Asked about practical matters like scheduling a 30-day break in a small department, Wegner said, “We have one guy on at any time. We may have to shorten shifts to add days, and I’m always available to answer calls as well. But these are hours we already budget. It’s no different than covering parental leave. It may be inconvenient, but it also rarely happens.” In fact, Paynesville PD has only one officer approaching the five-year mark, a point he made to the council. “How big a risk can it be?” he asked. “If they don’t stay five years, you’ve lost nothing anyway.”

The council approved his pitch and now Wegner is planning the logistics of a police sabbatical. “This isn’t a program that needs to be over complicated. I’ll meet with the officer at the four-and-a-half-year mark and we’ll choose the time. When it goes into effect, they’ll turn in their work phone, all their emails will be diverted, and I will order them not to come into the department property.” Complete disconnection from work is the goal; Wegner even plans to notify the courts of the officer’s unavailability during the sabbatical.

Heading off exhaustion

Will Wegner’s novel solution to police stress and fatigue work? There’s plenty of research to suggest it will, and not just from academia.

Military researchers contended in vain with what they called shell shock, battle fatigue and combat stress through the years: soldiers pushed too far for too long, without rest or control over their environment. Captain Frederick Hanson made a breakthrough in 1943 by removing affected warriors temporarily from the front lines and providing them hot food, sound sleep (pharmaceutically induced, if necessary), and clean clothing. He insisted on replacing more pejorative descriptions for their condition with a simpler term: exhaustion.

There was nothing complicated about Hanson’s program, and some sources report that for up to 70% of the soldiers he treated, it was effective. What if exhaustion – physical, mental and spiritual – could be headed off instead for modern police officers subjected to a constant barrage of stressors? What reason would there be not to try it?

Paynesville Police Department is willing to try. “I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I think it will. If it does, it could start a trend across the country,” Wegner said. “This isn’t a program about us, it’s about the employee.”

NEXT: Converting officers with 5-10 years of experience into career employees

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