The Stockton, California, Police Department recently introduced a new wellness unit to address mental and emotional health issues among its personnel.
According to Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden and police chaplain Jesse Kenyon, the Officer Wellness Unit includes two wellness officers, a police psychologist and two counseling rooms located at the police operations building in downtown Stockton.
McFadden and former Stockton Chief Eric Jones said it is important for officers to talk about stressful or traumatic experiences, like car crashes or child abuse cases, rather than hold them inside.
“If we can deal with our own pain and trauma, we’re going to be much more compassionate dealing with community members who typically are not having their best day when coming in contact with law enforcement,” Jones said.
According to former Lieutenant Rodney Rego, Stockton is one of California’s most violent cities and was ranked eighth-most violent in the nation in 2012. Due to high stress and financial issues, many officers at the department began to struggle with divorces, bankruptcy and substance abuse issues.
In 2014, the department suffered an emotional blow after it suffered its first line of duty loss in 20 years.
The department, which had trialed various health and wellness programs in the past, realized something more needed to be done for its officers.
A month after the Stockton officer’s death, two civilians were killed during an attempted bank robbery that led to an hour-long police chase and hostage stand-off. One of the hostages was killed by an officer’s bullet.
“Never in the history of U.S. law enforcement has a police force dealt with an event such as this,” the National Policing Institute said.
“The police department had gone through, literally, a lot of trauma, from the bankruptcy, officer deaths, the tragedy of (the hostage who was shot),” Jones said.
In response, the department established a “wellness network” that eventually led to the creation of the new Officer Wellness Unit.
In the past year, the Northern California department has been involved in two officer-involved shootings, as well as the death of a person while in custody.
According to Jones, officers involved in shootings are required to meet with psychologists. He also said wellness programs can reduce use-of-force incidents.
Wellness Unit Officer Antoinette Lizardo said relating to one’s peers in wellness programs is important, and this was one of the reasons why previous programs failed.
Lizardo said officers have no problem relating to her, explaining her own experience of how she and her partner were shot at while on duty four months ago.
Furthermore, Lizardo has worked at the department for 11 years, serving on a parole task force and on the surveillance team.
“I’ll probably cry with you,” she said about counseling her colleagues.
McFadden hopes the unit will lead to improved mental health, and said he will determine its efficacy “by the look of the men and women of this department — on their faces.”
According to a 2020 study by the nonprofit Ruderman Family Foundation, police officers are five times more likely than civilians to have PTSD or depression. Suicide rates are also higher in the law enforcement community than in the wider public. According to the study, deaths due to suicide in 2020 were triple that of line of duty deaths.
In an article written by Rego, he noted that the department’s previous wellness network improved retention rates and officer engagement.