The least common denominator and most valuable resource in any police organization are its personnel. The quality of service a police department provides its community is directly related to the quality of its personnel. Agencies across the country expend considerable resources each year to identify, recruit, and select the most qualified candidates.
Over the course of their career, officers are engaged in a staggering number of traumatic events. Isolated, extremely traumatic incidents such as an officer-involved shooting, vehicle pursuit resulting in an injury or death, or a gruesome crime scene can have an immediate and significant impact on an individual. At the same time, the cumulative effect of frequent, less impactful events is just as damaging as a very serious, isolated incident. For example, imagine extending your arms out from the body holding five-pound weights. At first, the weights can be held with ease. However, the longer the small weights are held the harder it is to keep the arms extended. Stress from small incidents has a similar impact on an individual. The stress from events such as the adversarial nature of the legal system, inability to resolve a victim’s pain and feelings of insecurity, baseless complaints, constant need to defend their actions, and conflicting administrative directives becomes very heavy. Compound this with the recent social unrest, rhetoric blaming police for societal issues, and political efforts to defund police agencies the cumulative effect can be overwhelming. Over time, this stress compounds to create post traumatic issues that lead to social, mental, and physical health issues in our officers.
For decades, we have read about police cynicism, machismo, authoritarianism, burnout, and fatigue. When stress ‘bottles-up’; the pressure must be released. Many individuals simply choose to opt out of the profession after their first few years. While some officers learn positive approaches to let off steam such as hobbies and exercise, others ignore or dismiss the symptoms. Eventually, the problem manifests itself in those who stay on the job in a variety of behavioral issues including a poor work ethic and inappropriate on and off-duty behavior. Some abuse alcohol, prescription drugs, or other self-medication options. Research has demonstrated police officers are an elevated risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, stokes, and other chronic diseases.
The most troubling statistic is the number of officers who choose to take their own lives each year. In 2019, the number of police officers who committed suicide (n=228) was almost twice as high as the number killed in the line of duty (n=132). All of these consequences come at a huge operational and financial cost to organizations.
The police profession has failed to prepare officers how to maintain a balanced lifestyle and address the mental health challenges they will face over the course of their career. Despite the long-held recognition of stress associated with the profession and its resulting behaviors, no comprehensive strategies have been implemented to mitigate the problem. When officers struggling with side effects of stress reached out for help, they were often told by senior officers, supervisors, departments, and training academies “Suck it up, buttercup!”.
Recently, the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council (POST) began seeking a viable plan and training solution to strengthen officers’ resistance to stress and improve encounters with the public, without placing them in greater danger.
As the ‘War on Terror’ continued for more than a decade, the United States Armed Services identified the impact of stress from repeated deployments on service personnel as a serious issue. A global assessment tool was used to measure ‘psychological assets’ of 1.5 million personnel. Findings of this assessment revealed military personnel using illicit drugs, committing violent crimes, or committing suicide were concentrated at the bottom of the psychological fitness curve. Attrition from basic training was three times higher for persons scoring in the bottom 10%. Individuals returning from deployment experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at one-third the rate of soldiers in the bottom 10%. At the same time, personnel selected for early promotion were in the top 25%.
Because of these findings, treating psychological injuries and disease by managing and building psychological strength became just as important as physical injuries and disease. A resiliency training program was created for military personnel to combat Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorders (PTSD) caused by stressful experiences.
This program has been adapted for law enforcement officers. The premise of the training is simple: just like soldiers, police officers experience high and extremely stressful conditions. This program focuses on helping individuals develop their sense of personal wellbeing and addressing stressful encounters with a better mindset.
Recently, representatives from Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST), the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP), and Georgia Sheriff’s Association (GSA) attended a resiliency training program required for all officers in the State of New Jersey.
The New Jersey program is composed of 12 modules that are focused on four domains:
• Mental: The ability to effectively cope with unique mental stressors and challenges;
• Physical: The ability to adopt and sustain healthy behaviors needed to enhance health and wellbeing;
• Social: The ability to engage in healthy social networks that promote overall wellbeing and optimal relationships;
• Spiritual: The ability to strengthen a set of beliefs, principles, or values that sustain an individual’s sense of wellbeing and purpose.
The program utilizes an interactive training format including role plays, videos, and discussions focusing
on areas including:
• Learned Optimism
• Real-Time Resilience
• Signature Character Strengths
• Deliberate Breathing
• Managing Difficult Conversations
The goal of the program is to provide attendees with strategies and skills to manage stress, overcome challenges, and adapt to adversity. The training provides individuals with a set of tools that can be used in any situation, at any time. In turn, this provides persons with a stronger foundation to handle the residual aftermath of stressful events.
Research has shown officers completing resiliency training have an increased ability to regulate their response to stress at work as well as in off-duty activity. They experience reduced levels of negative emotions and depression along with increased feelings of peacefulness and vitality. This resulted in improved communications, cooperation, and relationships at work as well as with their families.
Seasoned officers attending the training reported they were literally changed by the course. Many noted they did not realize how the residual aspects of stress had affected them daily. Not only did the training enable them to address the past, they began to view the job as a positive and meaningful profession.
It is important to note resiliency training complements other programs including crisis intervention and peer support which are designed to provide an immediate response to help stabilize an individual. Based upon the premise it is ‘okay to not be okay’, the three programs provide a 360 degree approach to prevent, respond, and recover from the effects of stressful events. Talking to someone during those times is acceptable and encouraged.
At its September 9, 2020 meeting, the Georgia POST Council approved the proposal to move forward with implementing resiliency training for Georgia’s law enforcement officers. In the coming months, a group of 20 – 25 master resiliency training officers (MTO) will be identified. These Master Instructors will be responsible for training approximately 180 instructors across the state to serve as resiliency training officers (RTO). It is expected agencies will be able to begin training of officers across the state of Georgia in 2022.
Agencies have an obligation to train officers how to protect themselves and the public they serve. Department leaders must begin to consider that each officer is an investment to be nurtured, cultivated and developed over time. This must include giving them the tools to not only keep them tactically outfitted, but more importantly mentally and physically capable to handle the stresses that inevitably comes with the job.
This training will help agencies ensure officers cultivate effective, positive, healthy, sense of well-being. Leading to individuals who are happier in both their personal and professional lives.
To accomplish this, it is incumbent on police executives to build a culture making resiliency a priority. Processes need to be embedded in training, supervision, and performance appraisal systems supporting the program. Those leaders accomplishing this will enjoy a stronger, more positive work environment with lowering attrition, increased applicants, reduced absenteeism and sickness, outstanding morale, productivity, and public support.
Buddy Johnson is the County Administrator for Grady County Georgia. He served for 27 years
with the Georgia State Patrol where he rose from Radio Operator to Troop Commander and Captain of Southwest Georgia. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration. He is a graduate of the Georgia Command College and the 244th Session of the FBI Academy. He also serves as a Master Resiliency Lead Instructor.