In 2019, 228 law enforcement officers across the United States completed suicide, far exceeding the 132 officers who were killed in the line of duty during the same time. This sobering statistic underscores the need for a continued emphasis on officer wellness. In our first Spotlight Series, we focused on responding to community mental health issues and in this post, we examine efforts to address our own mental health and wellness.
For many years, the law enforcement community has dealt with a number of challenges related to addressing mental health and officer wellness. Some stressors in law enforcement may be obvious, while other, less obvious sources of stress can have just as great of an impact. The threat of being in harms way or responding to a critical incident are obvious stressors. Shift work, continually handling the unknown, cumulative stress, and second hand trauma can all impact officer wellness in a number of adverse ways.
In 2015, The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing identified officer wellness and safety as one of the six key focus areas for improvement. Locally, in 2016, the Dane County United Way’s Special Community/Police Task Force examining use of force issued a series of recommendations and among them was the idea of ensuring officer well-being. Both of these reports discuss the importance of having healthy officers on duty in order to best serve the community. With the publication of these reports, momentum built nationally and locally to more adequately address officer wellness.
In 2018, our department, in conjunction with Fitchburg Fire Rescue and FitchRona EMS, launched a joint Fitchburg Public Safety Wellness Initiative. Through this initiative, the departments formed a Peer Support and Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which provides mental and emotional support to officers, firefighters, paramedics, departmental staff and city staff.
Members of the Public Safety Wellness Team work with a professional mental health provider and have received training from experts in the field of critical incident stress management. Team members provide peer support following critical incidents or other difficult calls for service. Members also aid in facilitating debriefings and other events to support their co-workers. Team members have also shared their skills when other agencies experience tragedies such as an officer death. In addition to the peer support services, the Wellness Team has developed a website for wellness resources, worked with physical trainers, yoga instructors, and many other wellness providers to improve the overall well-being of Fitchburg’s first responders.
In 2019, all department members participated in our first annual wellness assignment. The primary purpose of the assignment is to attend an appointment with a mental health professional who specializes in assisting first responders. This appointment is designed as a regular mental health “check-in” and another layer of support for department personnel. The contents of the appointment remain confidential and additional support is offered if needed.
2020 has brought a number of challenges to our department and our officers, including physical and mental wellness. In addition to addressing the physical safety of officers through items like ballistic vests, we remain committed to furthering the work of the Public Safety Wellness Team and finding new ways to improve officer wellness. In closing, we wish to thank those who have helped make our wellness efforts possible and especially those who have supported our personnel.