If you have been in or around the policing profession for any period of time, you’ve probably heard, “Being a cop today isn’t like it used to be. Back in my day, we just handled business….” If we look at this from an external-facing perspective, we might presume the officer is referring to the way in which criminals were handled differently 15 or 20 years ago. There was little emphasis, if any, on de-escalation, diversion or crisis intervention. Right, wrong or indifferent, policing is changing. Conversely, we could look at this phrase from an internal perspective. We might then presume the officer is referring to the way in which stress and trauma from the job was handled differently “back then.” The culture of “suck it up, drink it away, stuff your problems down and don’t you dare show emotion” was how it was. In many cases, it continues to be the way things are. Unfortunately, our people are dying because of it.
The beauty of our profession is that it is always changing. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The idea of officer wellness seems to be taking a hold on the law enforcement community in a positive way. Of course, some agencies wouldn’t know wellness if it was free money that knocked them upside the head, but I’m speaking in generalities. As a police psychologist, I am seeing these changes from the bottom up and top down.
Bottom up: A couple months ago I was teaching a class of about 40 cops. We just completed our wellness portion of the class during which one of our retirees spoke about his trauma, his partner’s suicide, his marital problems and how he sought help through each one of those instances. Seeking help allowed him and his wife to stay together, and now they are building their dream home in a faraway magical land, full of promise and cheap gas, a land called Idaho. One of the youngsters on FTO (who already has a jacket for being a proactive go-getter and general badass) raised her hand and asked, “Sir, do you think we should start seeing a therapist before we get all fucked up?”
I could see it. There it was. The clouds parted, the light of God shown down on this woman who had no idea that what she just said had completely changed the wellness landscape for every officer in that room, regardless of time on.
Top down: A few months back, at about 2100 hours, I was just beginning to engage in the nightly “my kids are finally asleep” celebratory couch dive when I got a call from a police chief from a neighboring county. “Doc, I have my guy on the other line. He won’t stop crying. He remembers you from that debrief you did for us last year. Can you talk with him?” A call from the chief … about the well-being of his officer? I peeked outside to make sure the world wasn’t on fire and replied, “Chief, of course. Have him call me right now.” About three hours later, we hung up the phone and I saw him in my office the next morning. The decision the chief made to call me that night saved his officer’s life, of that I have no doubt.
Plainly speaking, in 2022, we know too much. We know our officers are dying by suicide. We know our LE families experience high rates of alcoholism and divorce. We know the effects of stress on the body and the brain. It’s sometimes hard to sleep, hard to smile, hard to care what you’re eating for dinner. We know that the cups our brothers and sisters are holding are overflowing with memories of traffic accidents, kid calls, fights and close calls, and that many are contending with post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI). Here is the good news: knowing is half the battle.
(Insert crusty cop voice here) “OK, doc, if we know what the problem is, why are we still struggling?” The answer: knowing is not enough. If I jump in a pool of water, knowing how to swim isn’t going to ensure my survival. I have to use my training, experience and common sense to navigate to safety. Officer wellness is no different. Taking a class is one thing, putting what you’ve learned into action is the hard part. Consequently, it’s also the other half of the battle.
That guy the chief called me about? Well, he had seen his fair share. A swatter, hunter mobile field force team leader and firearms instructor. What brought him to his breaking point was his son, who, at the age of 7, asked one night, “Daddy, you are my daddy even though you’re not here with us, right?” It wasn’t the job that broke him — it was his son. See, the thing is, cops are really, really good at what most would consider the hard stuff. Sitting on a house for hours looking through a scope, scooping up brains off the floor of a bedroom … most people say “no, thank you,” but we say, “let’s do it again tomorrow, on overtime!” We tend to neglect what matters most — our kids, our bodies, our marriages, our relationships, our mental health … until we break. Sometimes we can recover. Apologies, commitments, healthy habits and onboarding mental tools gets us back in the game. And then sometimes … we can’t fully recover. It’s too late. Our kids are grown, our marriages are in pieces and our bodies start working against us. Oh, and our brain? That little a-hole can really, really hurt us if we are not paying attention. “I should have spent more time with the victim,” “If only I had made a left turn instead of a right turn,” (insert image of kid call here), “I messed it up,” (insert scream here from the death notification from 10 years ago), “I am a failure,” “I let my team down” … you get the idea. It’s important to keep in mind this notion that just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true. Thoughts are just that, thoughts.
If I had a magic wand and could somehow convince all cops and administrations to move from “knowing” to “doing,” I would champion the following:
Mandatory on-duty workout time. In my office, I work exclusively with first responders, mostly cops. I specialize in trauma and take pride in helping the guy who should have been in my office 15 to 20 years ago but was “fine” up until he wasn’t. There has yet to be a circumstance where I’m working with a cop and we don’t talk about exercise right off the bat. Exercise isn’t just a way to keep you in good shape or off of YouTube after a foot pursuit, it is a way to gain power back over what might feel like an insurmountable battle. By the time someone walks through my door, they might have already been spiraling for months, if not years. In our culture, we like structure. We like setting goals. We like consistency and we like being in control. Getting back into an exercise routine is a really good way to address all of the above. The more you move, the less likely it is you will be stuck in your head. After all, you can’t think your way out of a thinking problem (trust me, I’ve tried).
Annual check-ins with a psychologist. OK, hear me out. Cops tend to see psychologists under two circumstances — pre-employment exam and fitness-for-duty exams. In both of those instances, the psychologist has the power to make or break your career. Generally speaking, we humans (especially cops) do not appreciate when someone else is in control of our life. (Unless you’re married, and then we love it, right? Right?!) Ideally, this psychologist (or therapist) is culturally competent, meaning they understand law enforcement culture or were former cops themselves. In other words, they can handle what you need to unpack in a professional and compassionate manner. If you have a psychologist meet with every officer once or twice per year, when a critical incident like an OIS comes up, your people already have a relationship with someone who can help them with an established level of trust and comfort. Not to mention, they may have already onboarded tools from their mandatory sessions and have built up their resilience prior to the incident. Finding the right psychologist is not easy and needs to be done with care. You don’t want to have the same psychologist who does your pre-employment or FFD also be the one who does your annuals or debriefs. They should be separate in order to facilitate trust and eliminate the power differential.
Mindfulness training. You may have been taught tactical breathing or box breathing in the academy. This type of diaphragmatic breathing directly impacts a part of the body called the autonomic nervous system. Think of your fight/flight system like a car — you have a gas pedal (sympathetic nervous system) and a brake pedal (parasympathetic nervous system). You hit the gas pedal when a call comes out (for example) and rather than continue heading to the vending machine because you were hungry, you jump in your car and roll code. After you get back to the station, your body reminds you that you need to eat. That’s how our autonomic nervous system is supposed to work — it’s a balancing act. What happens in law enforcement is your gas pedal is engaged more than your brake pedal, and suddenly you’re in Hawaii having dinner with your family and within the first 10 seconds you know where the exits are, who the parolees are and how you might square up against the biker-looking dude in the corner. Diaphragmatic breathing engages the brake pedal — pretty immediately. It helps bring your body from a 10 to a two. There are times you need to be a 10 and times when it’s more appropriate to be a two. Mindfulness training helps you understand how to master the control over that dial.
In summary, we know too much. We know our people are hurting and some are hurting so much so that they only see one way out. I am here to tell you, there are other ways. I’ve seen it. It is time to go from knowing to doing. “Being a cop today isn’t like it used to be. Back in my day we just handled business….” Are you tired of hearing it yet? What are you going to do about it?