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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Policing is a difficult and stressful job, with higher physical risks and mental health risks than many other professions.1 Studies have shown that when officers’ physical and mental health issues go unaddressed, job performance decreases,2 decision-making abilities are impaired, and agency costs increase.3 Everyone should be invested in maintaining police officers’ wellness because it has a direct impact on officers’ ability to be effective.
In recognition of the critical role that officer wellness plays in police work, law enforcement agencies across the country have created programs aimed at preserving and promoting officers’ physical and emotional health.4 These initiatives have been broadly referred to as officer safety and wellness programs. Many programs also have been expanded to include civilian employees, as well as sworn officers.
In 2016, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) entered into a cooperative agreement with the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) to conduct a case study of the San Diego (California) Police Department’s (SDPD) officer wellness program, which is considered one of the top programs in the country.5 PERF is studying the program to identify promising practices, lessons learned, and model policies for other agencies to consider when implementing their own wellness initiatives.
While the SDPD has long offered wellness-related programs, such as peer support, stress management training, and access to psychologists and police chaplains, these services were decentralized. In July of 2011, SDPD leaders established the Wellness Unit, which is fully staffed and located in an easily accessible location in SDPD headquarters, in order to coordinate the delivery of the various decentralized services. The new unit was staffed by two sworn officers, whose very first task was deploying resources after an SDPD detective and her daughter were murdered.6 In the weeks that followed, the Wellness Unit responded to four more officer deaths. This series of tragedies demonstrated that the services of the Wellness Unit were needed.
Today, the Wellness Unit continues to be a highly utilized and visible presence within SDPD. Its mission is “removing and reducing interferences to employee wellness, whether personally or professionally induced, by providing help resources, training, and intervention.”7 The Wellness Unit’s responsibilities include identifying resources for employees, assisting employees in crisis, and provide training, educational seminars, and workshops. The unit also manages all department “help services,” including the Peer Support Program, Police Chaplain Program, Alcohol/Substance Abuse Program, and psychological services. These programs and services are available to all sworn and civilian employees, as well as their family members.
As part of its case study, PERF conducted two site visits to SDPD and interviewed key stakeholders from all of SDPD’s wellness program components. This includes Wellness Unit staff (past and present), help services providers (police chaplains and members of the counseling team), command staff, peer support members, and members of the department who have utilized wellness services. Additionally, PERF staff observed wellness-related trainings and interviewed academy graduates who received wellness services, such as the Psychological Preparedness Training for New Officers. This training is offered immediately after graduation from the academy and is intended for new officers and their family members so that they are all familiar with SDPD’s wellness services and the importance of using them when needed.
Project team members also visited the Wellness Unit’s office, the Wellness Center. The center is strategically located in SDPD headquarters (rather than off-site) to encourage officer engagement and reduce any stigma about utilizing wellness services. The Wellness Center offers coffee and snacks, and is centered on a relaxed lounge area, designed to encourage department members to casually visit the center to learn more about its role and the services it provides. Even when the center is not open, the unit’s full-time staff members ensure that wellness resources are available to department personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week by making themselves accessible by phone through an on-call protocol.8
The unit appears to be an effective catalyst for strengthening a culture of wellness within SDPD. In a 2013 survey, SDPD employees described a greater awareness of employee wellness and resiliency building within the agency. A majority of respondents reported a reduction in the stigma associated with asking for help, and said they would feel comfortable walking into the Wellness Unit regardless of the reason for the visit. Nearly all participants had heard of the Wellness Unit’s services, and more than half had utilized the services.9
The forthcoming report will outline a set of policy and programmatic recommendations based on lessons from the San Diego Police Department’s wellness initiatives. Other law enforcement agencies will be able to use these recommendations to create their own customized wellness programs that reflect their needs and resources.
Police Executive Research Forum
Police Executive Research Forum
1. Hartley, T.A., Burchfiel, C.M., Fekedulegn, D., Andrew, M.E., & Violanti, J.M. (2011). Health Disparities in Police Officers: Comparisons to the U.S. General Population. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 13 (4): 211–220.
2. Fox, J., Desai, M.M., Britten, K., Lucas, G., Luneau, R., & Rosenthal, M.S. (2012). Mental-Health Conditions, Barriers to Care, and Productivity Loss Among Officers in An Urban Police Department. Connecticut Medicine, 76 (9): 525-531.
3. Andersen, J. P., Konstantinos, P., Arnetz, B.B., Collins, P.I. (2015). Mental Preparedness as a Pathway to Police Resilience and Optimal Functioning in the Line of Duty. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 17(3): 624-627.
5. Officer Wellness Winner. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.nleomf.org/programs/destination-zero/award-winner-submissions/officer-wellness/officer-wellness-winner-2016.html
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