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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
“We were shocked by how great the increase in morale was, and how much the citizen’s view of our officers improved… plus the nearly 60% decrease in days lost to injuries,” says Jim Porter, Chief of the Bend (Oregon) Police Department (BPD), describing the results of his department’s expanded wellness program.
Like law enforcement leaders throughout the country, Porter recognized the toll that police work took on his people—a fact brought painfully home when one of his men died of an undiagnosed heart problem—and developed a program to improve their quality of life.
Numerous studies indicate that the most common threats to officer safety don’t come from gunfire, but from poor physical and mental health, which can lead to outcomes ranging from vehicle accidents and deadly errors in use of force situations to coronary disease and even suicide.
In response, sheriffs and police chiefs throughout the United States have adopted a variety of practices to reduce the incidence of fatigue, stress, and depression while helping officers improve their overall health and fitness. To highlight some of their success stories, the COPS Office has published Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Programs: Eleven Case Studies. Among the agencies studied in this publication, the BPD stands out for the comprehensiveness of its wellness program.
Begun in the early 2000s with an hour of weekly physical fitness training made available to patrol officers while on duty, the BPD’s program has since expanded into a holistic officer resilience program aimed at supporting wellness in mind as well as body for all sworn and non-sworn employees and their spouses.
Today, the program, which is entirely voluntary, also includes team activities, a progressive mental health program, stress reduction classes, emotional support programs for officers, and an on-site psychologist for referrals and informal consultation.
Measured by the staff’s overall high level of wellness, morale, and job performance, as well as the BPD’s enhanced ability to retain officers and attract recruits, the program has been very effective. It’s also popular: 75 percent of BPD officers participate in at least one wellness program on a regular basis.
To participate in such programs, officers need the time. Chief Porter solved this problem by readjusting patrol shifts, which now consist of three teams covering three shifts, working 11.25 hour days with four days off each week.
The new schedule provides enough shift overlap to allow officers on duty to participate in wellness programs without causing gaps in coverage. There is always a full complement of officers on patrol while members of another unit are engaging in fitness activities.
Patrol teams also rotate shifts every two months, which is less disruptive to the natural sleep cycle than the previous schedule, reduces fatigue, and allows every officer to have access to the wellness programs. This change addressed the top issues reported by officers in the anonymous survey, which were fatigue, difficulties in trying to stay fit, and lack of time with family. To reduce sleep deprivation, the BPD also installed facilities for restorative rest while on duty.
The department’s physical fitness programs allow entire patrol teams to participate in group activities such as biking or running while on duty two working days each week. There is also a gym on site for individual workouts.
For mental fitness, the BPD offers voluntary mindfulness sessions. Available on a daily basis, they are hosted by sergeants and facilitated with an app that provides guidance for group or individual meditation. As one participant remarked, officers can feel as if they never have the time to shut off. This helps them find peace and relieve stress after even the toughest of days.
Based on positive feedback, the department has expanded the program by collaborating with another police department to share training tailored to the needs of law enforcement. And because Chief Porter believes that “a healthy family is vital to a healthy cop,” BPD offers a similar program to spouses.
A happy home life is also of critical importance to mental health, and the BPD has a program to help spouses, who often feel isolated and anxious about their officers’ wellbeing and don’t fully understand the stress of law enforcement work.
In addition to events such as family picnics and dinners, and activities that include an Emergency Vehicle Operations Course and shooting range training, they provide stress management programs and arrange volunteer meal trains and childcare for department families after critical incidents.
Another key component of the wellness program is its psychological support. The BPD developed a team of peer support officers who have been trained to offer help to colleagues suffering from traumatic professional and personal situations, such as officer-involved shootings and divorce. The department also has a staff psychologist who is available for informal conversation or referrals.
Despite initial skepticism, many officers are also now enrolled in BPD’s yoga classes, which they say are very helpful, not only for relieving stress, but for relieving chronic pain, especially in their lower backs and shoulders.
Flexibility measurements taken by instructors showed that participants have also increased flexibility in their spines, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Participants reported improvements in their sleep and levels of stress and anxiety, as well.
And since the yoga program begun in 2015, there has been a significant decrease in on-the-job injuries. This finding is reflected in data from Oregon’s State Accident Insurance Fund, which indicate that the department’s claims and lost work days have gone from 213 down to 92, and the cost to the agency from $107,000 to $65,000.
Officer job satisfaction has shown a remarkable improvement as well. As indicated on internal surveys taken from 2014 to 2018, it has gone from 53 percent to 80 percent, with four times as many officers in 2018 saying they would recommend the BPD as a place to work.
This has paid off in recruiting, too: of new hires asked to rank the importance of BPD benefits, 93 percent rated the proactive support of employees and family as very important factors in their decision to join the BPD, and 80 percent ranked the wellness program as very important too.
Just as importantly, relations with the community appear to be positively impacted too. Though there has been a significant increase in 911 calls since 2015, there has been a 40 percent decrease in use of force. Officer involvement in community activities has also increased, a development which Porter attributes to stress relief programs and shift schedules that allow time for rest and participation in outreach activities.
An officer who is tense, angry, or sleep-deprived is not likely to engage with the community, be alert on the job, or function at a high level. Says Porter, “If they took officers off the road for 15 to 20 hours a week in order to focus on wellness, there wouldn’t be an actual loss of hours but rather more productive and effective officers during their hours on the street.”
And as the BPD’s story demonstrates, there are practical ways to improve physical and mental health. New programs take time to develop, implement, and gain acceptance, but where there’s a will, there’s a way—and the need is urgent.
According to BPD Police Chief Jim Porter, many aspects of his department’s program can be replicated in whole or in part by other agencies, regardless of size or resources. Every department has unique needs and challenges, but Porter believes that some practices make success more likely and offers these tips:
Greater detail about the BPD’s and other agencies’ programs can be found in Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Programs: Eleven Case Studies.
Sr. Technical Writer
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