Case studies: How two law enforcement agencies built effective officer wellness teams
Employee wellness programs can be key to reducing stress-related incidents, on-duty injuries and medical retirements, as well as preventing officer suicides
This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, "Smash the stigma: Building a culture that supports officer wellness." Download the guide here.
Many police agencies have specialized groups of peer volunteers trained to provide support to officers after critical calls. Peer team members provide critical incident debriefings, address family needs, notify family members of employee deaths, and provide support during and after stressful events. But most of what officers do during their careers falls outside the scope of post-critical care. Employee wellness programs can help bridge that gap.
Such programs may be the key to reducing stress-related incidents, on-duty injuries and medical retirements, as well as preventing officer suicides. This article highlights two exemplary agencies making a difference in building a culture of officer wellness.
Agency size: Around 700
Wellness coordinator: Sergeant Verion Coleman
Why a wellness program?
Many agencies fail to provide employee wellness resources until something bad happens. There is usually a catalyst that sparks the push for more resources. In the City of Bakersfield, it came down to numbers – the number of officers who died in the line of duty last year, of which many deaths were preventable.
The city manager, police chief and community of the City of Bakersfield all wanted to improve employee wellness and resiliency, so they focused on creating an employee-centered culture.
“Officers are tasked with handling high-risk, dangerous events in the community daily. They are exposed to many traumatic events like suicides, murders, traffic accidents, violence against children, sexual offenses and families torn apart by death. Many of these events can have a negative emotional and mental impact on everyone involved,” Sergeant Verion Coleman notes.
The City of Bakersfield leadership understands what the officers and professional staff face in day-to-day operations and made it a priority to help.
KEY COMPONENTS OF THE PROGRAM
The Bakersfield Police Department took an all-inclusive, holistic approach to employee wellness. Agency leaders understand there is more to employee wellness than just a peer support team, so they added members trained in physical fitness, nutrition and spirituality.
Bakersfield Police Department thought outside the box when it came to employee health incentives. The agency provides classes and seminars on health, fitness, stress, yoga and finance, and even partners with a food catering company to provide discounted meal-prep services. And for those employees who like to read, the agency created a library where officers and professional staff can check out police and wellness-related books and resources. Having multiple approaches is a good way for agencies to build trust between employees and the wellness program.
Bakersfield Police Department’s wellness program also extends beyond its agency. The agency supports the community by hosting fundraising events for collegiate scholarships and a lift-a-thon to fund veteran suicide awareness.
WHAT PROGRAM DO OFFICERS LIKE BEST?
The biggest surprise to Sergeant Coleman was the overwhelming use of the Cordico wellness app.
The Bakersfield Police Department has 28 peer team members, 23 physical fitness members and 11 chaplains. The app includes direct contact, photos and bios of the agency’s wellness team members. “Every single member has 100% access to everyone on the team right away,” Coleman said.
If you want to lose weight, you can directly reach out to a member who can help. If you need counseling, you can confidentially reach out directly to a team member of your choice.
The member’s spouses also have access to all the resources on the Cordico app including educational articles and videos. Using the app is confidential, so no one will know what the officer or spouse is searching for or reading. Maintaining confidentiality is the first thing police leaders can do to build trust with their employees.
Since the Bakersfield Police Department started using the Cordico app in September 2021, the app has been downloaded over 900 times by employees and their immediate families.
There are many local, state and federal grants available to start a wellness program, but to be sustainable, the wellness program should be at least partially funded by their agency.
Working directly with the Bakersfield community has brought unexpected benefits to their agency, like community engagement and better community relations. Community businesses and industry leaders are eager and happy to help. You just have to go out to the community and tell them “from your heart what you are doing and why you are doing it,” Coleman said.
Sergeant Coleman has many success stories. The agency had one employee who was out on mental health leave. The officer had PTSD and was struggling to meet the demands of the role of an officer. The officer hit a breaking point, so he reached out to the wellness team. They got him the help he needed, and he was able to come back to work. The system works if the employee trusts it.
ADVICE FOR OTHER AGENCIES
“Getting an employee to be vulnerable and understand it’s OK not to be OK, and to say, ‘I need help,’ was difficult,” Coleman said. Officers are naturally skeptical of anything new, so developing an employee program that officers trust was a big hurdle.
To help build trust, representatives from the Bakersfield Police Department toured several facilities looking for the best clinicians in the area. Police-trained clinicians can connect with their clients better than those who do not have that type of training.
The agency also started taking better care of all its employees. If an employee is out on leave, a wellness team member will contact them at least monthly. Frequent contact with employees on leave helps that member not feel neglected or forgotten. For the Bakersfield Police Department, it doesn’t matter if the officer is on medical leave, administrative leave, or even on suspension; they follow up and make sure that the employee is doing well, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, Kansas
Agency size: 537
Wellness coordinator: Wendy Hummell
WHY A WELLNESS PROGRAM?
Wendy Hummell retired from the Wichita Police Department in 2019 but participated in employee wellness and peer support for years leading up to her retirement. After her retirement, Sheriff Jeff Easter reached out to her to create the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office employee wellness team. Sheriff Easter recognizes the importance of not only having well-trained peer support members but also having a complete wellness program to support his officers and professional staff.
KEY COMPONENTS OF THE PROGRAM
Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office wanted a comprehensive approach to employee wellness. A good wellness program needs to “be infused into the ethos of the agency because it impacts morale, longevity, and retention.” The first goal was to get a well-established peer team up and running. Once the peer team was fully operational, the agency added other services and eventually a wellness team.
Then came resiliency training for all agency employees, police recruits and their families. “We are focusing on supporting families and bringing in a family component,” Hummell said. Wellness training and resiliency need to start early, so embedding them into the recruit curriculum is a natural place to start.
Health, nutrition, financial and stress management are all important topics for Sedgwick Sheriff’s Office. Employees can take courses and seminars on these topics or even take a yoga class. Independent of her full-time position with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, Hummell hosts her own podcast, Guns and Yoga, to help support all first responders and their families through different wellness topics.
WHAT PROGRAM DO OFFICERS LIKE BEST?
One of the programs that officers like best is the Cordico wellness app, which is “tailored and built to your agency’s needs” notes Hummell. It includes pictures, bios and contact information for all peer and wellness team members. The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office also partners with other agencies. If a member does not feel comfortable reaching out to their agency, they can reach out to another neighboring agency for the same help. Having options help build trust in the system to get the officer the help they need.
When it came to funding its employee wellness program the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office started with grants and federal resources. In 2020, the agency was awarded a grant from the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) Program to improve delivery and access to mental health and wellness services for law enforcement through the implementation of peer support, training, family resources, suicide prevention and other practices for wellness programs.
Through CRITAC, a COPS Office program, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office was paired with subject matter experts at the Nashville Police Department’s Wellness Unit and Sherri Martin, the National FOP Wellness Director, for a year. “These resources helped guide and inform our peer support and wellness program to include the expansion of the unit with a therapist and additional deputy,” Hummell notes.
FRST Midwest, a non-profit organization established to provide educational programs to promote healthy development following stress and critical incidents experienced by first responders and their families, including collaboration with culturally competent mental health professionals, also provided assistance. Inter-agency relationships have also proven important. “We have a great relationship with a lot of different agencies across the state, and we collaborate and work together. That has been instrumental in the development of our program,” Hummell said.
A good wellness program can help with officer retention. Those who leave because of mental or physical health can get the treatment they need and return to duty. A good wellness program reduces stress and provides foundational support to an already stressful profession.
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office has several success stories from the prior few years, but they are having impressive results with employees approaching retirement or are newly retired. Soon-to-retire employees can get the resources they need before retirement so they can live healthy and productive lives after they retire.
ADVICE FOR OTHER AGENCIES
Just like the Bakersfield Police Department, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office experienced trust issues when launching its wellness program. Officers are skeptical of almost everything, especially when talking about mental health. Hummell understood this hurdle, so she reached out to several agency leaders to join the team. Once those leaders were trained, employees slowly started to trust the program.
Confidentiality was also a concern for the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, so Hummell helped create peer support and wellness policies. Agency policies and existing state confidentially laws help officers feel safe and confident in their decision to seek help.
Recent retirees are also an underused, valuable resource. “Bringing retirees back to work in your wellness program and capitalizing on institutional knowledge helps both the retirees and their peers,” Hummell said. Retirees who come back are passionate about helping and can help supplement staffing if needed.
Wellness programs improve employees’ morale, improve employees’ mental and physical health, improve employee retention and prevent suicide. Creating a good peer and wellness team should be a priority for all police leaders.