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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Though law enforcement is widely recognized as a very stressful occupation, exposing officers to violence and tragedy on a routine basis, many officers don’t recognize the full impact the profession has on their lives or do not seek treatment for the emotional distress that often comes with the job.
A tragic example of this is Craig Tiger, a Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department (PPD) officer who developed post-traumatic stress disorder following an officer-involved shooting in 2013. To alleviate his depression, he turned to alcohol, and a year later, died by suicide. Soon afterward, the City Manager of Phoenix formed a task force to inventory existing city programs and training available to first responders dealing with traumatic incidents and compare them to best practices in the field.
In 2016, the PPD’s newly hired Chief Jeri Williams and Executive Assistant Chief Michael Kurtenbach used the task force’s findings to allocate resources and staffing to support employee wellness. This resource allocation led to a change in department culture. Mental health and employee wellness became a priority, and Williams made it one of the goals of her strategic plan for optimizing the department’s policing services.
To accomplish this goal, the department devised a holistic program to address the overall wellness of both sworn and civilian employees, offering support for their physical health while also providing resources for emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being. The program also offers help to PPD employees’ family members.
These services are provided through three different support groups:
The EAU is staffed by eight PPD detectives, as well as a sergeant and a lieutenant, who, though not counselors or medical professionals, have been trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). Under the leadership of Sgt. Jared Lowe, they help department employees and their families access confidential crisis intervention, peer support, and referrals to medical professionals.
Though this support is available, there is a cultural bias against asking for it. Says Sgt. Lowe, "We in law enforcement like helping others, but we don’t like to ask for help for ourselves. In law enforcement, many believe that it’s a show of weakness.”
To overcome this reluctance, the EAU treats psychological help like physical therapy. Says Sgt. Lowe, “We explain that the brain is a muscle, a part of your body, and when it’s affected, you need therapy to build the strength back just as if you broke your leg.”
The EAU unit takes a three-pronged approach to wellness. The first prong is peer support, provided by EAU staff or department volunteers with the message “you are not alone.”
This support is available 24/7 to the department’s nearly 4,000 sworn officers and staff as well as their families for issues like anger, addiction, loss, divorce, or other work or home life concerns. “Sometimes, we connect spouses for support too, and one wife can tell another ‘he’s going to get through this,’” says Sgt. Lowe.
If more help is needed, the unit refers out. This is the second prong – professional help, which is available through CPR, a behavioral health company contracted by the PPD. One of their social workers, licensed counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists is available for meetings at PPD headquarters six hours a day, four days a week.
Employees and family members can simply walk in, though most meetings are arranged by EAU volunteers. Some just want to talk, but other individuals are in distress. In that case, the CPR professional will provide onsite help and direct them to other services if needed.
In addition to their professional qualifications, these providers understand the issues that law enforcement professionals and their families deal with and approach them accordingly. “You have to have folks who know what it's like to run towards the sound of gunfire and can relate to that,” said Tom McSherry, President and Founder of CPR. Adds Sgt. Lowe, “You have to understand what their families experience, too.”
The final prong of this approach to wellness is spirituality. Pastor Bob Fesmire is one of five volunteer chaplains available to PPD employees, day or night, should they want such counsel. He works mostly out of his truck, responding to critical incident scenes, visiting injured officers in the hospital, or meeting with them or their families outside of work.
"The greatest threat to police officers is not bullets. The greatest threat to police officers is what happens to them here," he says, while motioning to his heart.
The department also contracts with another behavioral health team that can provide mental health services to all employees, as well as training, post-shoot psychological exams, and mental health wellness checks and referrals.
To make all these services easy for individual employees to access, the PPD added an EAU tab to the department's intranet, which leads to a menu with information about the services, resources, and programs that EAU supports.
Employees and their families can also access these resources on PolicePoint, the PPD’s page on Bulletproof, a law enforcement website and app provided by the 100 Club of Arizona. PolicePoint allows them to get information about the EAU’s services, resources, and programs confidentially from their home computers, tablets, and cell phones.
Because physical health is just as important as mental health to job performance and employee safety, the PPD also implemented programs with incentives to encourage healthy weight and exercise. One program allowed officers to work out during their lunch breaks with restrictions that enabled a quick return to service if needed. Approximately half of PPD officers now participate.
The InBody Challenge is another popular PPD program. About 600 employees have voluntarily participated in this challenge, which has shown impressive results by providing employees with eight weeks of physical fitness programming and nutrition support. The department also started the Physical Fitness Assessment Incentive Program, which rewards employees who pass the standardized FitForce test at Level I with one day's leave.
All these wellness initiatives have proved invaluable, not only in ensuring the well-being of the department’s staff and their families but also by enhancing employee performance in addressing the community’s public safety needs.
In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that law enforcement agencies that implement wellness programs for both sworn and civilian employees show not only enhanced ability to cope with stressful situations. The Journal of Counseling & Development further states that wellness programs decrease rates of absenteeism and improve job performance. These benefits also enhance recruitment and retention efforts.
Said Sgt. Lowe, “Even starting a one-person wellness unit can help a lot—they’re going to be better employees, [and] their families are more supportive too. Our program has made a big difference in our department. “
“We’re told that it is one of the best out there,” he adds. “A lot of people come to see us, to learn about our policies and procedures, and how to set up something similar. And we’re always glad to help. We’re willing to share from our growing pains and help anybody else out too.”
Faye E. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
Written with contributions from Sgt. Jared Lowe of the Phoenix Police Department. All photos courtesy of the Phoenix Police Department.
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