Wellness programs aim to support police officers through stressful work

Published 8:05 pm Monday, June 17, 2024

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By Jon Collins

Funeral services are being held Monday morning for Minneapolis police officer Jamal Mitchell in his home state of Connecticut. His fatal shooting late last month shook the state’s law enforcement community, and brought the issue of officer wellness to the fore.

In the last decade, officer wellness programs have spread across the country. They aim to keep officers mentally healthy and equip them to better cope with the stress of the job so they can be more effective police officers.   

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In 2005, Lino Lakes Police officer Shawn Silvera was hit and killed by a vehicle during a car chase. His partner Kelly McCarthy remembers the supportive response she got from her chief, who she says was open and honest with the grieving officers under his supervision. That mutual trust helped the officers in the department get through it.

“It’s just like with the community, you can’t show up when an emergency happens and expect to have a relationship,” said McCarthy, who is now head of the Mendota Heights Police Department. “It’s those day-to-day interactions that matter, then when an emergency happens, it either shows the cracks or it amplifies that cohesiveness.”

McCarthy became chief just three years after Mendota Heights Officer Scott Patrick was shot and killed during a traffic stop.

Her department now offers officers mental health support and has a program allowing them to work out during their shift. But she says the most important thing they do is support one another. McCarthy said some police departments that experience a loss like that can become paralyzed, which creates a heavy mental burden for officers.

“The best thing you can do to honor those officers is to be an ethical, effective, kind police officer. So we keep that spirit of service alive through Scott,” McCarthy said.

During her career, McCarthy said she’s seen a transformation in how officers navigate mental health issues.

“When I started in police work, it’s not something you talked about,” McCarthy said. “It’s something that if you did seek help, you kept it quiet because the idea was that if you were seeking help, you were damaged or flawed and if the agency found out about it, they would fire you or not promote you or all sorts of things.”

While many of the stresses for police officers are the same as two decades ago, McCarthy said one of the main causes of stress is the proliferation of firearms. She said officers used to rarely encounter firearms during routine calls, but now any call could.

“I think we’re definitely suffering from that now. There’s just too many guns in the wrong hands,” McCarthy said. “I know people are afraid to speak out on it, but if we really want to protect officers and support law enforcement, we’ve got to start with firearms.”

Researchers at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority have compiled studies showing the impact police work can have on officers, and on their ability to effectively do their jobs.

Studies have found that routine stress can cause symptoms as mild as irritability or fatigue or as severe as heart disease. It suggests that officers often have lower life expectancies and higher rates of suicide than the general public.

Facing violence has always been a possibility for police officers and a source of stress. FBI uniform crime data analyzed by the APM Research Lab shows that officers in the state have reported an increase in assaults and injuries on the job in the last decade. That includes both aggravated and simple assaults, although the analysis excluded any reports that were simply threats of violence.

The movement to support officer wellness really kicked off in 2015 with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, according to Michael Hatch, a senior program manager at the National Policing Institute, which helps police departments set up wellness programs. A 2017 act of Congress funded the programs. Since then, officer wellness programs have sprouted up across the country.

“It was really just an opportunity to start preventing some law enforcement suicide, to make sure that our officers were prepared to deal with the stressors of day-to-day of being a police officer,” Hatch said.

Wellness is also a way to keep up staffing. Minneapolis, and communities around the state, have been hit hard in recent years by police officers making duty disability claims for PTSD and leaving the force. Minneapolis is down about 340 sworn officers in the last four years.

Wellness is now one of the main objectives for both officer training and continuing education by the POST Board, which oversees officer training in the state.

Minneapolis is also under a court-enforced agreement on policing with the state Department of Human Rights. The agreement includes many provisions requiring the city to boost wellness programs for officers in order to ensure they can act effectively in high-stress situations involving the public.