Police Officer Safety and Wellness—New Directions
June 29, 2017
Concern for law enforcement officer safety and wellness has grown markedly over the past several years—and with good reason. Reports of officer risk, vulnerability and injury from ambushes and attacks are on the rise.[i] And—perhaps less known—the police suicide rate far exceeds the rate at which officers are killed by members of the public.[ii] Risks such as vehicular accidents, officer suicide and shootings and assaults on officers are calling attention to the need to better understand and support officer safety and wellness, including officer physical, mental and emotional health.
Law enforcement officers typically work in environments that can easily compromise safety and wellness. As officers respond to situations involving cruelty, injury, danger, risk, anger and strife, they encounter—more frequently than the rest of us—the down side of life. The stress of such encounters can affect officers through an individual event and/or cumulatively over several years or a career, sometimes leading to post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the Office for Victims of Crime, through its Collective Healing in the Wake of Harm program, now recognizes law enforcement officers as possible victims of large-scale and high-profile critical incidents in communities.[iii]
Trauma from law enforcement encounters can also affect officers’ families. Consider the law enforcement officer accused or suspected of a wrongful shooting or use of force incident. As these incidents become public, the officers’ families—particularly their children—feel the stress of the natural questioning of neighbors and community members. School-age children often bear the brunt of questioning, comments and taunting or worse while at school or during community activities.
Greater recognition that law enforcement officers and their families regularly encounter stress, uncertainty and trauma has led to growing support for expanding and destigmatizing officer safety and wellness services. The Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services have each emphasized research and programming on officer safety and wellness in their recent funding solicitations. Also, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund memorializes officers who have lost their lives defending American freedom and public safety and raises funds for the families of fallen officers.
We also now recognize that addressing officer safety and wellness requires a multifaceted, coordinated approach. For example, law enforcement agencies and police psychologists should not address these issues without input from, and collaboration with, officers’ family members, community health providers and physicians with expertise in stress and human performance. Law enforcement agencies are offering more opportunities and incentives for improving officers’ physical health and are expanding in-house and other opportunities for confidential mental health counseling for officers affected by sudden or career-long stress and trauma.
Research is beginning to shed light on the positive outcomes of enhanced training in officer safety and wellness. Research in Santa Barbara revealed that police training in physical safety and injury prevention reduced certain types of injuries by 60 percent, and reduced the costs of those injuries by 90 percent[iv]. Other research suggests that anti-fatigue training can reduce officer injuries by 15 percent or more.[v]
Officer safety and wellness services are still at a low level and a much stronger investment in research on their use and effectiveness is needed. Hopefully, the expanding concern and informed perspective on officer safety and wellness will soon result in additional funding, research, technical assistance and positive outcomes for our public safety servants and their families.
Law enforcement officer safety and wellness should concern everyone. If officers are not safe and well or do not feel safe and well, they will be less able to protect us from harm. Think about our teachers, doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians: we want them to be in good mental, spiritual and physical condition because when they excel, their performance excels and lives are saved. The case of law enforcement officers is no different. As I am fond of saying, “take care of our police and they will take care of us.”
For more information visit www.cna.org/news/events/keeping-police-officers-safe.
[ii] Jim Baker, Director of Law Enforcement Operations and Support, International Association of Chiefs of Police, speaking at the CNA Executive Session “Keeping Police Officers Safe and Well” (February 24, 2017).
[iv] Anti-Fatigue Measures Could Cut Cop Deaths 15%, Researcher Claims.