One of my main objectives as a chief, and one of the top priorities of any law enforcement leader, is to provide a safe environment for our law enforcement officers who are tasked with engaging in a range of very complex and dynamic situations during the course of their daily activities.
Promoting officer safety and wellness within your agency involves several responsibilities, including advocating for your officers to have the equipment they need to safely and efficiently perform their duties, such as the wearing of protective body armor and seat belts. However, ensuring that each officer is taking the appropriate measures to reduce the risk of injury is not enough. One of the consistent issues that I have spoken about to the brave men and woman in my agency, as well as others, is the danger of officers being distracted in their patrol vehicles. Today, police vehicles are becoming encumbered with technology that can often be a dangerous distraction. While technology has certainly empowered officers in the field and augmented their enforcement and investigative capabilities, it may also represent a challenge to their safety. As law enforcement executives, you must make sure you speak to your officers about the dangers of being distracted by technology while on patrol.
As much as we focus on the tangible safety measures that we want for our officers, you cannot negate the impact that this very stressful profession has on the overall well-being of our officers. Policing has increasingly become more complex, and our officers are not only constantly exposed to situations that are traumatic and demanding, but they are also often expected to move immediately from one stressful event to another. This creates a situation that places officers in a work environment that is not healthy and, in fact, contributes to the diminishment of their physical well-being (e.g., poor diets, fatigue, lack of exercise.)
On a daily basis, law enforcement officers encounter a variety of situations ranging from traffic stops to shots fired. We are frequently responding to individuals who have mental illnesses, are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or have anger management issues. Often, we are not only operating as law enforcement officers, but also assuming the responsibility of social workers and other community support roles. The reality is that officers are now expected to enter into very volatile situations, successfully negotiate a peaceful outcome, and then move on to the next call.
As stewards of our respective policing agencies, we have a responsibility to think seriously about the traumatic impact it has on an officer when he or she is compelled to use force, particularly deadly force. Having taken an oath to preserve all life means that, as administrators, we have a special obligation to preserve and protect the sanctity of our officers’ lives and their overall physical and emotional well-being.
What is becoming increasingly evident is with the growing demands and expectations that are being thrown at their feet by society and, sometimes, even by their own law enforcement administrators. Often, this stress results in officers resorting to a variety of coping mechanisms that may not be the healthiest of options. Overwhelmed officers may potentially resort to alternative outlets such as excessive drinking and other forms of self-medication—behaviors that often coincide with stress and trauma. We expect our officers to suppress repeated exposure to stress and horrific encounters so that they can move on to the next call for service. These stressors can build up and lead to officer suicide, divorce, and other destructive behaviors.
As you are all aware, there has been an increasing call for officers to resort to methods other than the use of force and, in the most extreme circumstances, the use of deadly force. While de-escalation remains the goal of every law enforcement officer when dealing with confrontations and violent encounters, we must remember that it is not always possible in every situation, particularly given the split-second decisions required by many of these encounters.
The continued pressure put on our officers to use alternative tactics in their daily dealings with society to avoid the use of force has served to compound the stress that our officers are facing as they struggle to maintain a positive attitude in an environment of ever-increasing negative narratives.
In order to improve these social conditions, the next phase for us, as chief executive officers, is to find methods that are designed to incorporate how our officers engage in activities and behaviors that build upon officer wellness and resiliency. We often talk about how the philosophical shift to police legitimacy is the underpinning on how we employ policing in our communities, which actually promotes increased officer safety. If all segments of the community believe that the police are engaged in activities that are intrinsically fair, just, and impartial for the purpose of promoting public safety, social equity, and justice, then the community will be more supportive of law enforcement’s efforts, thus promoting greater officer safety through voluntary compliance, among other things. In order for our communities to undertake this philosophical shift, police legitimacy must first start internally within our very own organizations.
This may raise a list of questions for you, as a law enforcement executive. What does police legitimacy look like inside a 21st century police agency? How do we, as police executives, make meaningful reforms within our respective agencies that creates an atmosphere of trust and belief so that our officers can convey that belief to the members of their communities? How do we promote greater participation by the rank and file in how we think about engaging our communities in a proactive fashion as opposed to reacting to situations and then moving on to the next situation without any understanding of what the cumulative effect is on our officers? How do we distinguish our approaches in dealing with situations when officers make a mistake of the heart as opposed to intentional misconduct? How do we promote a systematic approach of promoting officer self-care and well-being and help officers maintain a balanced perspective when they are often and repeatedly exposed to the worst of human conditions?
I personally believe that some of the answers to those questions involve an examination of how we manage our personnel and how we promote greater involvement to improve the working conditions within our agencies and for the profession as a whole.
We need to search for an alternative approach to how we currently employ disciplinary measures. Currently, because of the long-held tradition of operating in a “para-military environment,” we engage in what is often a lengthy investigation that puts officers subject to a complaint into a “suspect-like” status. Even if they are cleared, the officers who were investigated are left with a feeling that they are on their own, and their fellow officers are left guessing when they will be subject to similar treatment. Even if the complaint is substantiated, the complainant often feels unsatisfied with the outcome, in part due to the length of time it take for the investigation to close and the lack of an opportunity to engage in a conversation with the officer who mistreated the complainant.
Some progressive agencies have been using methods such as alternative resolution and mediation as alternative methods of redress for complaints that are relatively minor in nature. The belief behind this is that officers can benefit through constructive conversations or a facilitated discussion between the officer and the offended party.
A few forward-leaning agencies are even promoting workshops for officers and their families to have facilitated conversations that are designed to recognize the stressors that are created by the daily working environment.
Each agency should examine its internal support approaches. As law enforcement executives, we need to promote officer resiliency and self-care in our agencies at the front end, as opposed to the traditional approach of reacting to officers who are already in crisis. This proactive approach involves helping officers identify stressors and traumatic events that they can first recognize and then counter with other constructive approaches. As the head of your agency, encourage your commanding officers to engage their subordinates in one-on-one conversations to help promote professional development and enhance the overall peer support and culture of mindfulness throughout your agency.
The bottom line is, if we expect our officers to effectively make the transition from the traditional law enforcement paradigm to one that embraces the constructs of police legitimacy, we first must internalize that paradigm shift within our own police organizations as managers and leaders. I ask you, as law enforcement executives, to strive to promote a positive culture within your agency. Your success as a leader depends on the well-being and ability of your force. If your officers don’t have the support they need, they won’t be able to safely and effectively provide their communities with the public safety services they need and expect.♦
Terrence M. Cunningham, “Creating and Promoting a Culture of Officer Safety and Wellness,” President’s Message, The Police Chief 83 (May 2016): 6–7.