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From critical leave to officer napping: How Chief Marcia Harnden is shaping culture and wellness

Albany Police Chief Marcia Harnden faced many challenges when she stepped into the role, including employee discipline, high-profile uses of force and staffing shortages

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In the past four years as Chief of Police for the Albany Police Department in Oregon, Chief Harnden (pictured here at the left) has prioritized culture building and officer wellness.

Photo/Albany PD

“Relationships matter,” is the core principle by which Chief Marcia Harnden lives and leads. This mantra, while often repeated by numerous leaders, tends to meet skepticism among veterans who might say, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ Their skepticism is understandable, as experienced officers have witnessed numerous administrative changes, each promising new priorities. The impact of such a mantra diminishes when a manager’s actions or words do not align with their stated values. It’s vital that leaders not only express, but also demonstrate genuine care for their teams.

Chief Harnden began her law enforcement career in Bellevue, Washington, where she served for nearly 27 years. During her tenure, she rose to the rank of captain, engaged in organizational leadership and union activities, and contributed to training future leaders at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

In the past four years as Chief of Police for the Albany Police Department in Oregon, Chief Harnden has navigated numerous challenges. Albany, a city of 60,000, offers a small-town feel yet faces complex issues akin to larger cities. Let’s delve into these challenges and the strategies Chief Harnden has implemented to address them.

Navigating challenges

In her role as Chief of the Albany Police Department, Chief Harnden has faced and addressed several critical challenges, from handling internal discipline to managing the fallout from changes in public policy.

Employee discipline

On her first day of work, Chief Harnden was informed by the officers’ union of criminal allegations against one of their members. She immediately took action to investigate the matter. Chief Harnden recognizes the inherently adversarial role of unions. “Their role is to protect working conditions and employee rights,” she explained. Conversely, it is the administration’s responsibility to manage risks, create effective policies, and provide officers with the necessary tools to perform their duties.

Chief Harnden is a proponent of involving unions early in the discipline process. She has actively reached out to union leadership to address behaviors in employees that may be heading in a problematic direction. This proactive strategy has been effective in correcting behaviors before escalating to progressive discipline. Additionally, Chief Harnden emphasizes the importance of leadership beginning with inquiry. She questions whether the actions under investigation are out of character for the employees involved, and if so, seeks to understand the underlying issues. Her approach aims to assist employees in returning to their normal, productive behaviors. Chief Harnden stresses that accountability is essential, but it should be conducted through an employee-focused and compassionate approach.

To facilitate cooperation between union leadership and command officers, the City of Albany sends both groups to the same training sessions on employee rights. This strategy ensures everyone receives high-quality training that is grounded in legal principles, effectively leveling the playing field. As a result of this approach, no grievances have been filed by the union in the past four years.

In-custody death investigation

Chief Harnden inherited a pending investigation into a custodial death. Two months after the incident, the officers involved were still on administrative leave and prohibited from returning to the station. Recognizing the detrimental effects of this isolation on the officers and staff, Chief Harnden saw how being cut off could make officers feel betrayed by a leadership that professes to look out for their best interests. She reviewed the investigation and the findings of the county district attorney, which concluded that the use of force was not the cause of death.

Chief Harnden consulted with the district attorneys of Linn and Benton Counties, where Albany is located, to discuss the authority to reinstate officers to duty. Both prosecutors confirmed that the authority rested with her. Consequently, Chief Harnden acted swiftly to reintegrate officers back into the workforce as soon as they were ready. Depending on the specifics of the investigation and what was deemed best for both the officers and the organization, she returned them to service on light duty. Recognizing the importance of community within the department, she believed that reintegrating them into the “blue family” was beneficial for their overall health.

Drug decriminalization, crime spikes

Some challenges faced by police chiefs are beyond their direct control. For instance, in the fall of 2020, Oregon voters decided to decriminalize user-level quantities of all narcotics, including cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl. Following this legislative change, Chief Harnden reported that the City of Albany saw a 600% increase in overdose rates. This dramatic rise illustrates the complex issues that arise from changes in public policy and their direct impact on community safety and police operations.

Despite changes in legislation, Chief Harnden emphasized the importance of continuing police work. She encouraged Albany officers to actively pursue criminals who were victimizing the community, reinforcing her support for their enforcement efforts even amid the evolving legal landscape.

The combination of legal changes and COVID-19 booking restrictions conveyed to some criminals a perceived lack of consequences, leading to a notable increase in property crimes such as vehicle prowls, shoplifting, and burglaries in many communities. Chief Harnden recognized the importance of supporting officers in their efforts to arrest criminals and detain them, not only as an effective method to combat crime but also as a significant morale booster for the police force.

Personnel shortages

Chief Harnden faced the widespread issue of staffing challenges, similar to those affecting many law enforcement agencies across the country. The Albany Police Department addressed this issue using a focused, whole-team approach. “It’s been a lot of work. We went as high as 15 vacancies. We put everything else aside and really focused on bringing good people in the door. But the thing that is often missed is that you have to take care of the people who are here because they are going to be your best recruiters,” Chief Harnden explained. Emphasizing the importance of internal culture, she noted that officers would only recruit their neighbors, friends and family if they genuinely believed in the healthiness and positivity of their workplace.

Chief Harnden believes that merely creating an officer wellness program is insufficient for truly supporting her staff. She advocates for cultivating an officer wellness culture that permeates the entire career span of her officers, from the moment they join the force until retirement. Under her leadership, Albany is committed to integrating health and wellness into every aspect of departmental life. This comprehensive approach begins with establishing the right mindset and is sustained through various initiatives that the Albany Police Department has put into practice.

Building a culture

Under Chief Harnden’s leadership, the Albany Police Department has cultivated a supportive and inclusive culture that recognizes the diverse needs and contributions of all its members, from frontline officers to administrative staff.

Start with mindset

Chief Harnden understands that law enforcement agencies are fundamentally engaged in dealing with trauma. She recognizes the broad range of traumatic experiences community members may face — from the theft of Christmas gifts from their vehicles to more severe incidents like felony assaults, homicides, child abuse, burglaries, and even issues with problematic neighbors. Given this perspective, Chief Harnden emphasizes the importance of Albany Police officers being acutely aware of the trauma that citizens may endure. She encourages her officers to approach all interactions with care and compassion, underscoring the need for sensitivity in their daily duties.

Chief Harnden is acutely aware that her officers collectively absorb a significant amount of trauma. She highlighted two major cases from the past three years involving mothers who killed their young children, underscoring the profound emotional impact such high-profile investigations can have. These events, combined with the demands of long hours, night and weekend shifts, and continuous exposure to crime and disorder, create a challenging environment for officers. Chief Harnden emphasizes the importance of recognizing and addressing the cumulative trauma her team faces as they perform their daily duties.

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Chief Harnden (pictured front left) believes that maintaining a good sense of humor is an essential component of a positive mindset. She strives to be approachable and light-hearted.

Photo/Albany PD

Move to humor

Chief Harnden believes that maintaining a good sense of humor is an essential component of a positive mindset. She strives to be approachable and light-hearted. “We take the work very seriously, we are a very busy city, but we don’t take ourselves seriously,” she explained. On one occasion, while leaving a visit with her patrol squad, she wished them a “Quiet night.” In police culture, it’s well-known that you should never utter the “Q word” as it’s often seen as tempting fate. True to form, the city experienced a flurry of major incidents that night. In response, her officers humorously awarded her the “Blue Falcon” award, a military slang used to describe someone who inadvertently causes trouble for their comrades. The award was presented in good spirits, and Chief Harnden accepted it with a smile, appreciating the jest.

The Albany Police Department showcases its sense of humor not only in the office but also during appropriate moments in the community and on social media. They utilize various social media platforms to engage with the community, ensuring a mix of informative and entertaining content. Some posts aim to educate or update the public, while others are designed to bring a smile or laugh, demonstrating the department’s approachable and relatable side. This balanced use of humor helps to humanize the police force and strengthen community relations.

In a particularly popular social media post, Officer Gina Bell of the Albany Police Department is featured lip-syncing to Celine Dion’s song, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” The video is elaborately staged with background officers, flashing police lights, theatrical smoke, and wind that dramatically blows Officer Bell’s hair back in a Hollywood-style effect, created by a strategically placed leaf blower. This creative touch, intentionally included in the video, resonated widely, garnering over 45 million views on TikTok. This post is a prime example of how the department uses humor and popular culture to engage effectively with the community online.

Chief Harnden reiterated, “The work is serious enough, we don’t need to be.”

Tools to support the culture

Chief Harnden has introduced a variety of innovative tools and policies designed to support the physical and psychological well-being of her officers, ensuring they are equipped to meet the demands of their roles effectively.

Wellness command

Chiefs and sheriffs across the country frequently discuss the importance of wellness within their departments, but the focus on wellness can diminish when significant events occur, such as an in-custody death or officer-involved shooting. Although not intentional, these situations require command to manage multiple priorities, and wellness may take a backseat. Some leaders advocate that wellness should be a collective responsibility. However, there’s a risk in this approach: when a task is deemed everyone’s responsibility, it often ends up being neglected, as accountability becomes diffuse.

Chief Harnden has taken a proactive approach to address the issue of maintaining wellness amid critical incidents. In the Albany Police Department, whenever officers are involved in a critical incident, Chief Harnden designates a captain for the operational command response and another for the people command response. This strategy ensures that there are dedicated leaders with decision-making and financial authority focused on the immediate tasks at hand and on the welfare of the personnel involved. By assigning specific responsibilities, she ensures that the needs of the officers are not overlooked, thereby prioritizing both operational efficiency and staff well-being.

Workout facility and community networking

When Chief Harnden took charge of the Albany Police Department, she identified that the facility lacked a gym for officers to maintain their physical fitness. There was also no budget allocated for constructing one. To address this, Chief Harnden and her team took the initiative by first repurposing a detective office into a space for the gym. They then reached out to the local community for financial support, successfully raising funds when two Albany residents donated $38,000 to fully equip the workout room. To optimize the gym’s design and use, the department collaborated with physical therapists from Healing Motion. These therapists not only helped design the gym but also conducted individual and group assessments for the officers at no cost, ensuring the space was both functional and beneficial for the officers’ health and wellness.

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Chief Harnden and her team repurposed a detective office into a space for a gym, which was equipped through community donations.

Photo/Albany PD

Critical leave policy

At many law enforcement agencies, officers involved in critical incidents, particularly those involving significant force or resulting in the death of a citizen, are typically placed on administrative (admin) leave. This practice is also common when officers are under investigation for misconduct. However, the term “admin leave” itself can carry a negative connotation, suggesting to officers that they are in trouble or not supported by their department. This perception can be problematic, as it may affect the morale and mental well-being of the officers involved.

Chief Harnden sought to address the negative connotations associated with administrative leave by introducing a new policy termed “critical incident leave.” This policy empowers both command staff and supervisors with the authority to place Albany Police officers on paid leave when they determine it’s in the best interest of the officer involved in a critical incident. However, after implementing this policy and observing its application during a crisis, Chief Harnden realized that merely changing the name and intent of the leave was not sufficient to fully support the officers’ needs in such stressful times.

Chief Harnden was awakened in the middle of the night by a distressing call from one of her lieutenants, who informed her that his son-in-law, a deputy in the neighboring Benton County Sheriff’s Office, had tragically died by suicide. Given that Albany is a tight-knit community where many people, especially within the law enforcement profession, know each other well, Chief Harnden understood that this loss would deeply affect both her commissioned and non-commissioned staff. Recognizing the widespread impact of such a personal tragedy, she knew immediate and supportive action was required to address the emotional well-being of her entire department.

Chief Harnden shared a perspective from her colleague, Captain Mike Johnson of the Bothell Police Department in Washington, emphasizing a comprehensive approach to law enforcement teamwork: “Everyone who has a keycard to access the building is part of the crime-fighting team.” This inclusive mindset extends beyond officers to include all support staff, evidence technicians, and even janitors. Chief Harnden made a command decision to extend the critical leave policy to all police department employees.

Chief Harnden emphasized the flexibility of the critical incident leave policy, designed to support employees through various personal crises, including trauma and loss. Notably, the policy in Albany includes provisions like allowing employees to use leave for alcohol detox for a week, demonstrating a practical approach to addressing serious health concerns. Additionally, she mentioned that if employees need to be out for more than a few days, the department requests that they develop a return-to-work plan. This component of the policy ensures that both the needs of the employees and the operational requirements of the department are managed effectively.

When asked about the potential for employees to abuse the leave policy, Chief Harnden reported that, in fact, the opposite has proven true. Over the four years since its implementation, she has not observed any misuse of the leave by employees. She shared instances where she decided to send the entire detective unit home early on a Friday, recognizing their need for additional time to decompress after particularly demanding investigations earlier in the week.

Chief Marcia Harnden recently spoke about leadership at the 28th Annual National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) Conference and took some time out of her schedule to speak with Police1:

Wellness dog

The Albany Police Department has welcomed a new addition to their team, Bentley the wellness dog, generously donated by the non-profit organization Working Dogs Oregon. Bentley plays a dual role, serving both the department’s employees and the wider community. His duties include accompanying officers to school lockdown drills, interacting with crime victims, and participating in various community events. A common concern among law enforcement leadership might be the logistics of caring for a wellness dog. However, Chief Harnden has addressed this by involving the entire department; Bentley does not have just one handler but is cared for by all 99 members of the Albany Police Department. Chief Harnden praises Bentley as an invaluable asset, describing him as the best return on investment for a freely acquired resource.

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The Albany Police Department’s wellness dog, Bentley, plays a dual role, serving both the department’s employees and the wider community.

Photo/Albany PD

Nap policy and more

“Lack of sleep is the enemy for first responders,” Chief Harnden remarked, highlighting the critical impact of sleep deprivation on the job. She shared a personal experience from earlier in her career when she was working a midnight patrol shift shortly after transitioning to the night schedule. During one of her patrols, she found herself feeling unusually drowsy. After driving a few blocks, she realized with alarm that she could not recall the previous few blocks she had driven.

Chief Harnden pointed out that sleep deprivation is a frequent issue for officers, emphasizing the significant toll it can take on overall health. She noted that lack of sleep can lead to a range of serious health problems, including cardiac issues, mental health challenges, impaired cognitive processing, and even effects on bone tissue structure.

Recognizing the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation, the Albany Police Department instituted a napping-on-duty policy. This policy allows officers to take a 60-minute nap in a designated quiet room to help mitigate fatigue. The only stipulation is that officers must inform their supervisor and their team when they intend to use this resource. While a 60-minute nap isn’t a complete solution to all sleep-related issues, it can substantially boost the alertness and functioning of officers, particularly those who have had a challenging day due to lack of sleep, court appearances, or other stressors.

The Albany Police Department has also invested in Alpha-stim electrotherapy units as part of its commitment to officer wellness. This technology, which has been shown to help manage symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, depression, and pain, is accessible to all employees. Peer support officers have received training on how to use these units effectively, ensuring that any member of the department can check them out for personal use. This initiative is yet another resource provided by the department to help officers manage the stresses of their job and maintain their mental and physical health.


It is said that people won’t care about what you know until they know that you care. Chief Marcia Harnden and the team at the Albany Police Department have embodied this principle by working collaboratively with other agencies to establish effective practices and policies. Their collective efforts have significantly enhanced relationships and fostered an environment of trust within the department. This has not only resulted in a fully staffed department but also a more joyful and connected workplace, where laughter can be heard in the hallways.

Many initiatives implemented could have been mere negotiation points, but Chief Harnden identified them as essential for supporting the staff in their demanding and noble roles. The Albany Police Department is grateful for the support from other agencies in these efforts and remains eager to offer the same support to others. Hats off to Chief Harnden for her exemplary leadership!

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Christopher Littrell is a retired law enforcement leader from Washington State. With almost 25 years of public service, he had the opportunity to serve as an Air Force security forces sergeant, patrol officer, gang detective, child crime detective, CISM peer support group counselor, SWAT member, school resource officer, patrol sergeant, detective sergeant and community services sergeant. Christopher is a survivor of job-related PTSD. He is a leadership instructor for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Christopher is the owner of Gravity Consulting & Training, LLC, and teaches leadership, emotional intelligence and communication skills. He and his wife co-host the Gravity Podcast with the mission of captivating audiences with perspective and support.