by Sean Peterson, Taunton (MA) Police Department; Guest Author, Law Enforcement Today, January 29, 2019
What is the greatest threat to law enforcement in 2019? Ourselves!
Allow me to explain, before you dismiss this scathing claim. The following article is going to ask a lot of questions. Questions I don’t pretend to have the answers to, but questions nonetheless, I have been asking myself since I stepped foot into this career. I’m not an academic scholar and I don’t even know the proper format for an article, but I do know that according to bluehelp.org, 159 officers committed suicide in 2018; the same number in 2017. For the third straight year in a row, police officer suicides outweighed the number of line of duty deaths. So, what are we doing about it? The answer is: not nearly enough.
I recently attended training for Critical Stress Incident Management (CISM). Two officers from my agency and I were, by far, the youngest in the class. The majority of the class consisted of detectives, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and chiefs—all with 20-30 years on the job. The vast focus of the training was to guide us in providing proper peer support for our fellow officers following a “critical incident.” It didn’t stop there, the training also forced us to “look in the mirror” and aggressively address the overwhelming presence of post-traumatic stress disorder within our profession. At the end of our training, the instructor asked, “Does anyone have any final questions?” A 30-year vet said, “Yeah! Where the f*** were you 30 years ago?”
This brings me to my next point. Why is this not being taught in our academies? Instead of spending three consecutive days on “How to be better huggers” or “effective communication,” we need to be educating recruits on the mental ramifications of the job BEFORE they hit the street. By educating recruits on the proper methods for mitigating the myriad stressors of law enforcement, we are providing them an invaluable tool for a lengthy and prosperous career. If my mental health is in check, don’t you think I would be a better communicator with possibly the best hugs? We aggressively structure our academies around stress inoculation, but I ask the simple question, do we really become immune?
Let’s step away from the mental health aspect for a moment and focus on physical health. Although, I believe the two are directly related. My agency alone lost two officers in 2018 to health-related deaths and one is currently set for retirement due to a heart attack that occurred the same day as the services for his fellow officer. Further, in the entire history of my agency, we have lost two officers in the line of duty; both motor-vehicle related. In no way, am I lessening the loss of these fine men or their tremendous sacrifice, but in contrast, in the last 10 years alone, my agency has lost five officers to health-related illness ranging from cancer, to heart complications and even suicide.
We spend millions of dollars for overtime and training on Officer Safety and related curriculums, but how much are we spending on the physical and mental health of our officers? Now, I’m not ignorant to the fact our already high number of line-of-duty deaths would likely be much higher if it weren’t for the time spent on Officer Safety related trainings. Obviously, Officer Safety is paramount in our profession and I value every ounce of training I have received to date. That being said, isn’t our physical health an Officer Safety issue?
In Massachusetts, you can’t even think about stepping foot into an academy without passing a Physical Abilities Test (PAT). Further, you can’t graduate an academy without maintaining a specific level of fitness and adhering to the State minimums. These are important standards and necessary processes to prepare recruits for the physical demands of the job, right? OK, then what happens? Nothing, the minute the badge is pinned on your chest, physical fitness, in your municipality’s eyes, falls to the bottom of the priority list. This is a major shortcoming that if addressed, would likely cut the costs in half associated with line of duty injuries, illness and health insurance.
Now, there is a definite self-accountability issue here as well, but what are we really learning in our physical training? My PT experience at the academy was outdated and failed to teach recruits realistic and sustainable methodologies for physical fitness. We performed outdated warmup protocols and were forced to run miles upon miles: Miles that resulted in multiple injuries and limping recruits. We lost a recruit on the first day of PT to a pot hole. I understand there are other things learned like perseverance and fighting through discomfort and injury etc., but when was the last time you ran miles after a suspect? This is, by no means, an attack on the instructors or heads of the academies. I am aware of the costs and efforts required in updating training protocols for recruits and the budgetary limitations of such an undertaking. However, just a quick glance at the statistics, would almost mandate a change to our current thinking.
The majority of “gyms” at police stations seem to be full of outdated or hand-me-down equipment from schools or other municipalities. Further, most officers have no idea how to use any of the equipment at their disposal. I had a friend, on the job in Florida, tell me he has access to a gym at work, but has no idea what he’s doing or where to even start.
Staffing and forced overtime
Incessant staffing issues, leading to forced overtime, is another major contributing factor to our lack of preparedness. Personally, working out after a particularly difficult shift has been my saving grace. I work a “five and three” schedule on the day shift from 0800 to 1600. Come 1600, I cannot wait to leave work and get to the gym, but often, a supervisor informs me at 1530 I am being held until 2400. Now, if I’m on a strength and conditioning program with specific workouts and weight prescriptions on specific days, this really throws a wrench into my training.
Further, if I am working the following day at 0800 again, by the time I get home and ultimately fall asleep; it could be around 0130 or 0200, providing there wasn’t a last minute DOA or particularly stressful call. In that case, I may not fall asleep until after 0300 or at all sometimes. This leaves approximately 3 ½ hours, until I am at it again for my next shift.
Wait, there’s more!
I could be forced, again, to the following nightshift. This results in a resounding 6 ½ hours of sleep in 48 hours. To make matters worse and even more unrealistic, you must perform your job perfectly, in every aspect, while being filmed under a tremendous amount of stress. In addition, you better write a perfect report while your supervisor is constantly telling you to “hurry up” because they want to get the guy over to court before they close. Subsequently, the shitty report you wrote, on no sleep, will be the entire basis for the ensuing court proceedings a defense attorney will have months to comb over.
I’ll transition by reiterating something our instructor told us at the recent CISM training I mentioned earlier. During a particularly stressful call, your body releases a flood of chemicals in response to that stimulation. If you don’t perform some sort of exercise within 24 hours of exposure, those chemicals will promote harmful “deposits” in the heart. Just think of how many “hot calls” an officer goes to, over a 30-year career, and doesn’t perform any exercise after their shift. I would venture to say this is a major contributing factor to the overwhelmingly short life span an officer has post retirement. How many times have you either said or heard, “These kids on the job today don’t want to work.” Is this a bad thing? I’m not skirting the inherent laziness of some “Millennials,” but maybe they’re smarter for not wanting to live in their uniform and go home at night.
We wear a restrictive vest, made to stop bullets, that locks us into a bad postural position for a minimum of eight hours per day. This alone puts excessive stress on our cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine. Now, strap on shin-high boots that restrict the normal functionality of the ankle joint. This subsequently puts undo stress on the knees and hips. Speaking of the hips, slap on a 30-pound duty belt and sit crammed in a cruiser for eight hours. The resulting immobility of the hips becomes a major culprit in lower back pain.
Now, when that guy flees from your car stop, get out and sprint at full capacity without getting injured. When you get there, if you do, you may now have to fight for your life. This is the reality of our profession we have all just come to accept. We could adjust and update the uniform, right? Not without an Act of Congress to approve the money for new uniforms and equipment. Let’s not forget about the ever-important uniform policy we all must adhere to regardless of its impracticality.
I have owned and operated a training facility going on eight years and police officers have, without a doubt, been the hardest target market to get into. Over the years, I’ve realized the following:
1. Cops are cheap.
We all want something for nothing and immediately dismiss any discussion of spending over $100. We are especially cheap when it comes to our own health and wellness. How many guys do you work with that have boats, motorcycles and vacation homes, but are on blood pressure medicine and can’t fit in a uniform from five years ago?
Why are we cheap? A lot of us are overextended because of those boats, motorcycles and vacation homes. A lot of us are divorced and pay alimony and child support. A lot of us have pigeon-holed ourselves into financial obligations requiring us to work an ungodly amount of overtime and details. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I’d love to work out, but I just don’t have the time.”
We are the big, bad, police … right? We identify ourselves as authoritarians with a level of pride and prowess. Because of that, no officer wants to feel inferior in front of civilians or coworkers. To show up to a gym or group training class, appearing unfit and uncapable is a very difficult pill to swallow for most cops. No officer wants to be placed in a vulnerable position, in front of an audience, being told what to do. It goes against every ounce of our being.
3. Gossip, sh*t-talking and haters.
This segment could be an entire book in itself. I once had a firefighter tell me, “Cops are worse than high-school girls” and he was 100% correct. We are notorious for gossiping about each other, the inter-workings of and the drama within the department. Every one of us is a so-called expert on what this guy or girl should have done on a particular call. We are all more qualified than the next for that specialty job he or she didn’t earn. “Why did John get to go to that training and I didn’t? … He doesn’t even do anything! Sound familiar?
We spend so much time focusing on the negative aspects of our job, co-workers and departments, there’s nothing left for the positives. A police officer in today’s climate is inundated with negativity from all angles, with the media being the biggest culprit. We face enough adversity and negativity from the outside world, let’s be better toward each other and let the small stuff go. When it’s all said and done, all the sh*t-talking goes out the window the second you hear that officer in distress over the radio. There isn’t a thing in the world that will stop you from coming to their aid. Never forget that.
I firmly believe you shouldn’t complain or raise a series of issues without putting the same energy into finding a solution. Eldridge Cleaver said it best; “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” So, where do we go from here? How do we approach these obstacles? Who will be responsible for adherence and implementation? The following is a series of proposed solutions to the things I addressed above:
1. Make stress management a major priority in our academies and departments.
As I said before, we should be giving recruits the tools to mitigate the inevitable stressors of this profession. When I say make this a priority, I don’t mean just putting on a PowerPoint Presentation full of graphs and numbers displaying how early we are going to die. Establish meaningful group work where recruits speak to officers who tell their stories and offer structured peer support. Educate us on how to listen, offer guidance and create healthy outlets for one another.
Officers on the job will experience something that is going to test their coping abilities. Our departments should be putting stress management and peer support at the top of the priority list.
A chief from a local department was at the same training I recently attended and it was impressive to hear his standpoint and willingness to adopt peer support. He believes it’s the agency’s responsibility to take care of their officers and provide whatever resources necessary. This is a great start and hopefully, with more administration getting on board, we’ll be able to address the things that were once taboo.
2. Updating or adjusting the material taught in our mandatory trainings or yearly in-service.
Obviously, this would be a good place to insert any of the stress training I have been hammering on. Taking it a step further, we should be teaching realistic forms of physical training again. I’m not talking about running miles or deadlifting, although variations of those wouldn’t hurt. What I’m talking about is teaching officers proper eating habits and maintenance strategies that align with the job. For example, teaching guys on the midnight shift how to strategically eat when nothing, but a Wendy’s or gas station is open.
Officers could be taught basic exercise routines, reintroduced to proper movement patterns and shown stretches to alleviate back pain. These classes would be interactive and keep officers engaged, rather than trying to keep them awake, during a block of instruction, on a subject matter the officer couldn’t care less about. We’ve all sat through numerous trainings, for hours and left with a modicum of additional knowledge.
3. Substituting outer carriers or load-bearing vests for duty belts.
This seems to be a growing trend within the profession as more and more research sheds light on the consequences of wearing a duty belt. Departments like the Lake Dallas Police in Texas have started wearing load-bearing vests and Austin Police recently announced they will begin testing. Officers from Lake Dallas described it as “instantaneous relief on their back and hips.” If more and more departments jump on board, hopefully we will see a profession-wide switch in a reasonable time.
4. Update PT in the academy.
I can’t speak for academies around the country, but I can attest to my own experience. My instructors were great and attempted to implement a modern approach to the normal physical training routines mandated by the State. The problem is they still had to adhere to the State’s training protocols. Regardless of the fact, they are outdated and do little to teach recruits for long term success. The paramilitary structure of PT is important, but it seems to create an atmosphere of forced training with little to no focus on long term retention or adherence.
There is a wealth of training that can occur in an eight foot area, with a simple squat rack and a barbell. The problem is, these movements with these tools are not being taught. If taught, a department could extravagantly outfit their gym for under $10,000. This is peanuts compared to the thousands spent on treadmills, bikes and all-in-one stations you would find at your local hotel’s gym. Police officers are required to possess an insane amount of physicality to adequately perform the job. We shouldn’t have the same equipment as Holiday Inn.
Upon graduation, officers are not going to get themselves into formation, at double arm intervals and run, perform pushups and sit-ups for 45 minutes. In a perfect world, a recruit would graduate with an extensive knowledge of proper diet, nutrition and possess the ability to develop a fitness routine for himself or herself.
5. Assign department health officers.
We have officers in charge of the armory, firearms, cruisers, radios, details, and on and on I could go. Who is in charge or responsible for maintaining the health of the department? The immediate answer is obviously the officer himself. Let’s take it a step further and envision having a team of officers available for any questions regarding health and wellness—officers responsible for disseminating useful information to the department on workout routines and diet tips or strategies for handling stress; specific officers available if “Officer Smith” has a question about a stretch to alleviate his back pain. Every department I can think of has at least, a couple of officers, passionate and knowledgeable about fitness and overall health. Let’s celebrate these guys and girls by putting them in a position to help their co-workers. Send them to training; give them the title and resources needed to be a benefit to the department.
6. Reimbursement or incentives for physical fitness.
Remember I said cops are cheap? It is a widely known fact most health and life insurance companies offer reimbursements for health club memberships. Many life insurance companies now require you to wear an activity monitor before they will provide a quote. The more active you are, the less your policy premium is.
It would be easy for departments to create an incentive program around health and wellness. You can guarantee the local government would be on board because it would result in lower health insurance costs for that city or town. Healthier cops results in fewer injuries, less sick time, less overtime and happier cops on the street. Imagine hosting a voluntary physical fitness assessment every year where officers would receive a couple of extra days off or a $1000 bonus for maintaining a certain standard. At the very least, it’s worth a shot because whatever we’re doing right now, isn’t working. There’s a reason insurance companies offer reimbursements and incentives. It’s a business and like it or not, a police department is run like a business accountable for stringent budget expectations.
7. Staffing and forced overtime
Don’t get me wrong, overtime is a wonderful thing I am very grateful for, but it feels the best when you’ve planned for it. Maybe the officer that was unexpectedly forced into a double gets 30 minutes or an hour to get him or herself cleaned up, catch their breath and maybe perform a workout between shifts.
8. Addressing the incessant negativity inside the walls of the department.
I’m going to do everything in my power to keep this as short as possible. In my opinion, this is one area we fail at miserably in the police world. I have found it impossible to go out with buddies from work and not spend the entire evening bitching and moaning about our jobs. I can’t think of anything more detrimental or a bigger waste of energy. It’s exhausting. Think about it, we are outside of work, away from the stressors and yet we continue to talk about work and all the things wrong with it. We need to leave all of it at work and make a conscience effort to stop the negativity and sh*t-talking. You and I both know, it doesn’t do an ounce of good and just perpetuates the problem. Again, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Now, it’s healthy to vent and discuss the issues at hand every now and then, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I don’t know how to truly tackle this epidemic in the police world, except consciously making an effort to stop the negativity. I get it; we’re all type A personalities and whatever other Freudian concepts you want to apply. When it comes down to it, there isn’t a thing you wouldn’t do for your fellow officer in need.
This reminds me of an exercise we performed at the training I keep referring back to. Take the index fingers on both your hands. Place your left index about 2” in front of your nose. Now, reach out your right arm in front of you and place your right index finger in line with and at the same height at as your left. Intently focus on your left finger for a few seconds. Now, focus on your right for a few seconds. What you’ll notice is, by focusing on the finger closest to you, the furthest becomes blurry. Focus on the furthest finger and the closest becomes blurry. What is the point of this exercise? It’s a quick way to reinforce the idea; what you focus on will become your reality. Spend all your time and energy on negativity, then that will become your reality.
For the legitimate issues and conflicts, how about maybe sitting down with that person and addressing it like the adults we are. How often do we go to domestics or neighbor disputes and advise them to behave like adults and have a discussion about it? Maybe it’s time we start taking our own advice.
Look, my intention in writing this is to not come off preachy or pretend I even know what I’m talking about. This is simply a series of thoughts, trials and tribulations I have experienced since entering law enforcement. My hope is to invoke a discussion, illicit feedback and challenge the “norms” of our profession. That being said, I feel the need to express my true appreciation and passion for this career. I truly believe we have one of, if not THE hardest job on the planet. In no other profession, is someone required to wear so many hats and expected to execute with perfection. It’s obvious we aren’t perfect and need some work, but I love this job. I love my co-workers. I love the Thin Blue Line. I love the brotherhood. I love the honor, integrity and pure grit it takes to perform our duties.
After possibly ruffling a few feathers, I’ll leave you with this:
“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson