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The concepts of officer safety, health, and wellness are both distinct and interrelated. This research paper will focus on ongoing and emerging issues in police safety (e.g., increased violence toward the police, increased risks due to encounters with dangerous situations and persons, vehicular safety including officer pursuits, and protective measures that can be employed by agencies and law enforcement officers). In addition, issues of officer stress will be examined in terms of stress types, causes, and effects.
Recent research has also focused on health issues associated with shift work and the profession of policing more broadly, indicating greater risks for cardiovascular disease and cancers (compared to the general population), causes and sources of officer fatigue and its relationship to various negative outcomes, the higher rates of sleep disorders for police officers compared to the general population, and earlier morbidity from various causes including suicide.
Finally, policy and practice implications are discussed to promote a culture of safety, health, and wellness while also emphasizing personal responsibility. Individual officers vary significantly in the extent to which they make physical health a priority, focus on mental and emotional health (although many do not take responsibility for seeking out such assistance), and practice general safety procedures such as wearing seatbelts and body armor.
The issue of officer safety, health, and wellness not only impacts the length and quality of officers’ lives but also has significant implications for community safety, as well as departmental costs and liability. Although the issue of police stress has been examined by scientists and practitioners alike for many years, there has been little empirical research when it comes to long-term health, wellness, and safety. However, due to a number of recent national initiatives, there has been increased awareness of, and attention to, the issues of safety, health, and wellness among police officers. First, the National Institute of Justice (US Department of Justice) initiated a series of studies in the last decade focused on these issues. More recently, current US Attorney General Eric Holder committed $40 million for officer safety initiatives in 2010 and launched a law enforcement officer safety initiative in October of that year called VALOR – Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability (http://www.mainjustice.com/2010/10/26/holder-launches-new-law-enforcementsafety-initiative/). Then in March 2011, the Attorney General issued a directive to all US Attorneys which was copied to the agency heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), US Marshals, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) calling on them for increased actions related to his Officer Safety Initiative (http://www.mainjustice.com/2011/03/22/holder-launches-officer-safety-initiative/).
As a result of these initiatives, two US Department of Justice offices have become involved in the issue. Specifically, the Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) have, on behalf of the Attorney General, convened the Officer Safety and Wellness Working Group (OSWWG) made up of research scientists, practitioners, and policy makers in order to address these issues. This working group has focused on felonious killings and shootings of police officers, traffic accidents, and a variety of health and wellness issues, including officer suicides. Also, BJA has published a fact sheet entitled Officer Safety Initiatives (Edwards and Meader 2011) that includes links to a number of officer safety resources and web links (https://www.bja.gov/Publications/ OfficerSafetyFS.pdf).
In addition, initiatives by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have focused on violence against officers and traffic safety. For example, in August 2011, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) initiated an innovative partnership to promote law enforcement officer safety on the roadways. Finally, the IACP has initiated and produced a number of safety initiatives and publications. One such initiative is Safe Shield which looks at all aspects of officer injuries and deaths through improved education, training, and policies as well as improvements to uniforms and equipment. As recently as September 2012, the IACP held a webinar on officer safety and wellness to announce the opening of its new Center for Officer Safety and Wellness with the goal of enhancing law enforcement’s ability to be well equipped, well trained, and physically and mentally prepared to confront violence as well as other threats and dangers. In sum, it is increasingly apparent that researchers and police leaders have answered the call and become more involved in addressing concerns over officer safety, health, and wellness including the prevention of violence against officers and an improved ability to confront it.
Importantly political leaders have also taken an interest in officer safety issues. For example, in May 2012, US Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) hosted a briefing for members of Congress and their staff to learn about and experience wearing bullet-resistant and stab-resistant vests. The Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) Grant Act of 2012, which was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in May 2012 and cosponsored by Senator Coons, is a reauthorization of the competitive grant program from the Bureau of Justice Assistance that provides funding to state and local law enforcement agencies to assist in their purchasing of ballistic-resistant and stab-resistant body armor that complies with National Institute of Justice body armor standards. Since the BVP program’s first authorization in 1999, it has reimbursed grantees approximately $247 million for their purchases of nearly one million vests.
Background On Officer Safety, Health, And Wellness
Issues of officer safety, health, and wellness are not new. However, due to advances in the field, state of the art, and a resurgence of interest in recent years, this research paper will focus primarily on data from the past 10–15 years. The two major safety issues include assaults (including felonious killings) and vehicular accidents. Data on law enforcement officers killed and assaulted has been collected for decades. The number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty was collected by the FBI from 1937 to 1971 as part of the Uniform Crime Reports. However, in 1972 the FBI started to collect more detailed data associated with officers killed in the line of duty. Additionally, benefits are offered to victims’ families via the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, a federal (Bureau of Justice Assistance), state, and local collaboration to provide to death and educational benefits to survivors. Most states offer pensions, worker’s compensation, and burial support to spouses and children of fallen officers, and other organizations provide programs for survivors and/or law enforcement agencies. One example is the group Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) that provides resources to assist in the rebuilding of the lives of surviving families and affected coworkers of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, provides training to law enforcement agencies on survivor victimization issues, and educates the public of the need to support the law enforcement profession and its survivors.
As early as 1929, police departments began to concern themselves with traffic safety. For example, the Evanston, Illinois, Police Department established an Accident Prevention Bureau led by a young sergeant and student at Northwestern University (NWU) who developed a safety model that took ideas from engineering, enforcement, education, and research. Later, that sergeant became a lieutenant and went on in 1936 to become founding director of NWU’s newly established Traffic Safety Institute, the first known of its kind nationwide. Today, many of the courses offered at NWU’s Center for Public Safety are offered to the general public like defensive driving. However, the Center focuses on educating law enforcement officers in many areas such as police accident investigation, motorcycle operation and instruction, radar, and field sobriety instructor training, as well as many non-traffic safety areas.
Assaults and Felonious Killings. During the decade from 2001 to 2010, the FBI reported that assaults on police officers averaged about 58,500 (ranging from a low of 53,469 in 2010 to a high of 60,851 in 2007). While assaults on police officers appeared to be dropping at the end of the decade, data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) showed that during the 10-year period between 2002 and 2012, shootings of officers (570) surpassed vehicle accidents (470) as the leading cause of line of duty officer deaths. In 2011, there was a 20 % increase in fatal shootings of law enforcement officers over the prior year according to Executive Director Craig Floyd (2012) of the NLEOMF (http://www.nleomf.org/facts/ officer-fatalities-data/causes.html and http:// www.nleomf.org/facts/officer-fatalities-data/).
Data from 2011 showed that over 30 % of officers killed were not wearing body armor (http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/OSWG/Meeting_01-26-2012.pdf), in spite of the fact that since the introduction of modern material vests/body armor in the 1970s, the number of officers surviving shootings has gone up dramatically. Indeed as of March 2011, the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club® had documented more than 3,126 incidents where body armor protected officers from more serious physical injuries or death. In 1994, the FBI also found that the rate of death of officers shot is 14 times greater for those who do not wear body armor than for those who do (as reported in Miller 2001). Advanced material bulletand stab-resistant vests can be costly. Since the 1970s, several new bullet-resistant fabrics, fibers, and construction methods have been developed besides woven Kevlar, such as DSM’s Dyneema, Honeywell’s Gold Flex and Spectra, Teijin Twaron’s Twaron, Pinnacle Armor’s Dragon Skin, and Toyobo’s Zylon, to name several examples. While the manufacturers of many of these newer materials advertise these as thinner, lighter, and more resistant than Kevlar, they tend to be more costly.
Taylor and colleagues (2009) conducted a national survey of law enforcement agencies and found that the vast majority (87 %) issue body armor to their officers. Slightly fewer than 20 % (17.7 %) indicated that their officers purchase their own body armor, but 37 % of those provide full reimbursement, and the remaining 63 % provide reimbursements of at least 33 %. Furthermore, in an effort to increase protections to officers, the federal Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) Program (which has a mandatory wear policy) has provided over $300 million to provide bullet-and stab-resistant vests to agencies for provision to their officers.
In light of the above statistics, it is both astounding and curious as to why officers would not wear vests especially because cost does not appear to be a major factor. One possible reason is that many agencies do not require that their officers wear body armor. Taylor et al. (2009) reported that just 59 % of law enforcement agencies surveyed had a mandatory wear policy for body armor and only 45 % had a written policy on this matter, even though most provided body armor to their officers. Anecdotal information suggests that some of the other reasons or circumstances in which officers choose not to wear body armor consistently include living in hot climates or during summer months, at times or in places where they do not feel at a high risk (even though any situation can become risky), or that they are cumbersome (although modern technology has resulted in significant reductions in weight, thickness, and heat retention). Most certainly these concerns ought to be outweighed by the lifesaving statistics.
Importantly, the VALOR program (above) provides training and technical assistance to officers and agencies in order to become more aware of and prevent violent encounters and ambush-style attacks on police. A number of other organizations are providing training in tactics, rapid response, and mitigation of risks and threats. Researchers examining aspects of deadly encounters and assaults as well as officer involved shootings identified a number of offender characteristics in domestic assault cases that predicted assaults on police officers like alcohol consumption, living with the victim of domestic violence, and hostile demeanor toward officers. The provision of training to raise awareness of these risk factors could help prevent violent attacks on police.
Vehicle Accidents. Until very recently, traffic fatalities have been the leading cause of death of officers killed in the line of duty (at least for the years from 1997 to 2010). Yet, according to the NLEOMF, 21 % of officers killed in vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts at the time of their fatal crashes (http://www.cops. usdoj.gov/pdf/OSWG/Meeting_01-26-2012.pdf). According to a 2011 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 93 % of all law enforcement officers involved in fatal crashes were males, although Bureau of Justice Statistics’ data indicates that by 2007, 12 % of all local law enforcement officers nationwide were women.
Among the most risky driving situations in policing are pursuits. In 2000, the IACP established a police pursuit database after years of recommending reforms via its “Vehicular Pursuit Model Policy” developed in 1996. That policy, in recognition of serious public safety risks in pursuits, establishes that officers should take into consideration the weather, population density, vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the capabilities of the pursuit car as well as the vehicle being pursued, the presence of others in the vehicle, and perhaps the most controversial aspect, the seriousness of the offense. Perhaps the reason for this controversy stems from what leading expert Professor Geoff Alpert has called the “competing values” of apprehending law breakers and ensuring public safety. Of course, it also comes from the increased liability to a law enforcement agency for injuries (or even death) of both bystanders and those involved and also for property damage. According to the IACP Pursuit Database, over 40 % of pursuits result from traffic-related infractions, and 35–40 % of pursuits end in a collision, and the FBI reports that 50 % of the collisions occur in the first 2 mins of the pursuit. As the area of pursuits continues to be more closely managed through greater restrictions and more specific policies set by police leaders, the risk factor for vehicular accidents and the associated outcomes involving the police and the public will continue to go down.
Summary. Current policies and procedures related to officer safety in public encounters and in vehicular operation and pursuits are reflective of the knowledge attained through statistics on the risk associated with various types of encounters such as traffic stops and domestic disturbances, as well as vehicle safety and police pursuit practices. Perhaps we are beginning to see signs of safety improvements and initiatives taking effect. As of September 15, 2012, firearm deaths of officers were down 38 % and traffic-related deaths 18 % over the same period in 2011.
Background On Officer Health And Wellness
Psychological Impacts of Stress. The issue of police stress has been studied for several decades. Originally thought to be one of the most stressful occupations in America, the assertion that policing is exceptionally stressful has not always been supported by scientific research. Early stress models emphasized a “life events” approach to stress; however, subsequent research has tended to focus on routine and organizational stressors. Emerging research on the personality dimension of resilience has provided some promise for new ways to prepare officers to better deal with jobrelated stress. Later in this research paper the issue of wellness will include some discussion of programs related to building resilience and overcoming stress.
Stress Measures. Similarly, within occupational stress literature, and specifically that of policing, the measures of occupational stress have typically focused on either operational or organizational stressors. For example, Evans and Coman (1993) found that work stressors were either related to job content (the duties of the officers) or job context (derived from the police organizations). Similar research by Hart, Wearing, and Heady (1995) suggested that daily hassles associated with police work and the organizational bureaucracy produced greater levels of stress and affected quality of life more so than critical incidents. Most recently, McCreary and Thompson (2006) developed the Police Stress Questionnaire to assess two forms of stressors, those caused by the operational aspects (critical incidents) of policing and the other on the organizational stressors (administrative or imposed by the organization).
Officer-Involved Shootings. Research suggests that officers who are directly involved in shootings experience a variety of short-and long-term physical and psychological reactions such as tunnel vision, misperceptions of time, sound reductions, a sense of numbness, ruminations about the incidents, difficulty sleeping, sadness and associated crying, and nausea (see e.g., Artwohl 2002; Beehr et al. 2004). However, research over the past decade by Klinger (2006), in which he interviewed law enforcement officers involved in 113 separate shootings during the course of their careers, revealed that the act of shooting someone did not lead to lasting disruptions in the lives of officers. In more than half of the shootings, officers did not report negative psychological, emotional, or physical responses after a week following the incidents. After 3 months, that proportion increased to two-thirds. However, the primary lingering consequence appeared to be recurrent thoughts. Negative reactions appear to be mitigated by support from fellow officers following the incident and mandatory time off. However, family support and mandatory counseling did not appear to be associated with negative outcomes for police who engaged in shootings (Klinger 2006). However, it should be noted that research has previously demonstrated that officers’ accounts typically differ from reality due to memory distortion. Nevertheless, recent research by Komarovskaya and colleagues (2011) indicated that killing or seriously injuring someone in the line of duty was significantly associated with PTSD symptoms and marginally associated with depression symptoms.
Police-on-Police Shootings. An additional stressor related to officer-involved shootings, is the issue of police-on-police shootings especially those resulting from mistaken identity. Unfortunately, these incidents often result from encounters between on-duty and off-duty, plainclothes officers. These encounters can escalate quickly due to misunderstandings either as a result of poor training, unclear protocols, or when officers are from differing jurisdictions. The New York State Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings found that such shootings can easily traumatize police officers, families, and police departments, sometimes even polarizing entire police agencies. Importantly, the task force found “persuasive scientific evidence” that officers, like the rest of the population, share unconscious racial biases. This topic was of great enough concern that it became the focus of a 2010 “Research for the Real World Seminar Series” of the National Institute of Justice. In that series, an interview was conducted with the chair of the New York State Task Force Christopher Stone of Harvard University. Stone indicated that since 1981, 28 mistaken identity police-on-police shootings had occurred. The above data suggest that traumatic experiences may in fact increase officer stress and result in related physical and psychological consequences.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Typically associated with experiencing or witnessing severely traumatic incidents, PTSD is a constellation of symptoms of a psychiatric nature marked by clear biological changes and/or psychological symptoms. Psychiatric and psychological research over the past decade has demonstrated, consistent with other stress research, the routine work environment stressors are most strongly associated with PTSD symptoms, even when controlling for prior traumatic experiences, current negative life events, gender, ethnicity, and recent critical incident exposure (Liberman et al 2002; Maguen et al. 2009). Among the most common environmental stressors are lack of concern by management and supervisors, equipment safety, training, discrimination, shift work, role conflict, peers, and unfair public perceptions. This recent research suggests the need for greater attention to environmental stressors of a more routine nature that can build over time or be additive in nature.
Ongoing longitudinal research by Violanti and colleagues (see e.g. Violanti et al., 2006) has examined many health and safety factors for police officers in Buffalo, New York. One of the factors being examined is cortisol (otherwise known as the “stress hormone”) in order to determine if stress is associated with risk factors predictive of more serious illnesses. Almost two decades ago, Violanti found that organizational stressors increased psychological distress by 6.3 times more than did inherent operational police stressors (Violanti and Aron 1994). And a decade prior to that, he found that police stress increases significantly in the first 13 years of an officer’s career and then progressively decreases after 14 years (Violanti 1983).
Physical Health, Sleep, and Fatigue. Recent research by Violanti suggests that some longstanding patterns associated with police officers’ careers (shift work, smoking, alcohol use, etc.) increase the likelihood of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a clustering of cardiovascular disease risk factors (obesity, elevated blood pressure, reduced HDL cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, and abnormal glucose levels). In one study Violanti (2012) found that officers with severe PTSD symptoms were three times more likely to have metabolic syndrome and therefore have higher risk for cardiovascular disease, further emphasizing the role of stress in ill-health and greater risks for disease including various forms of cancer (Vena et al. 1986).
Many of the ill effects of police work are attributed to shift work, which typically refers to those types of schedules that require working at nontraditional times such as evening or midnights. Violanti (2012) also found that the number of metabolic syndrome components was greater for younger officers working midnight shifts and that shorter sleep duration and increased overtime combined with midnight shifts may be a contributor to metabolic syndrome.
Shift Rotation. Various aspects of shift work and especially working night shifts have been demonstrated to be associated with poorer sleep and/or sleep disorders, metabolic syndrome, and other health risks. Another aspect of shift work that has been examined across industries is the extent to which shifts rotate. Shift rotation has traditionally been a common practice in law enforcement agencies, with officers rotating from day, to evening, to midnight shifts (forward rotation) or from midnights, to evenings, and then to days (backward rotation), although the frequency of rotation varies substantially as well. Typically, schedules that change twice a year or less frequently are not generally referred to as rotating shifts. Instead, a rotating shift is one in which officers rotate on a monthly basis or more typically on a much more frequent basis like every 2 weeks, week, or even every-day.
Given the extent of research suggesting negative impacts of rotating shifts, Amendola and colleagues (2011a) conducted a random national survey and surprisingly found that as recently as 2005, the use of rotating shifts was still a somewhat common practice (46 %), particularly in smaller agencies (52.1 %). However, they also found that the larger the agency, the less likely they were to employ rotating shifts (41.5 % for medium agencies and 30 % for larger agencies). When the survey was conducted 4 years later, the percentage of agencies using rotating shifts declined by almost half from 46 % in 2005 to 24.7 % in 2009. Similarly, there was an increase (about 40 %) in fixed shifts from 54 % to 75.3 %, a trend that seemed most apparent in small and medium-sized agencies. Again in 2009, the use of rotating shifts was somewhat more common among smaller and midsize agencies (25.2 % and 26.3 %, respectively), as compared to larger agencies (20.5 %). These reductions may be due to an increasing awareness of research showing that rotating shifts typically disrupt circadian cycles and result in greater fatigue, insomnia, or other health problems (e.g., Colligan et al. 1979; Czeisler et al. 1982), and increases in worker errors and accidents (e.g., Gold et al. 1992). Furthermore, by 2009, we saw the advent of the use of both fixed and rotating schedules in agencies (4.3 %).
Shift Length Practices. While most law enforcement agencies have traditionally relied on a standard 40-h workweek consisting of five consecutive, 8-h shifts, followed by 2 days off, many agencies have used alternative shift schedules over the past several decades. In recent years, however, an increasing number of agencies have moved to some variant of a compressed workweek (CWW) schedule in which officers work four 10-h shifts per week or three 12-h shifts (or some variant). In the recent Amendola et al. (2011a) survey, researchers found that there had been a significant drop in agencies employing traditional 8-h shifts from 40.1 % in 2005 to 29.3 % in 2009. In the largest agencies (200 or more sworn officers), 10-h shifts are the most common with 35 % of them employing these shifts in 2005 and 33 % in 2009, followed by 8-h shifts and then 12-h shifts. However, small-and mid-sized agencies predominantly used 8-h shifts in 2005 (41–42 %); by 2009, these agencies had roughly equal numbers of 8and 12-h shifts (32 % and 31 % for small agencies; 27 % and 26 % for medium).
While the trend toward CWWs had been increasing over the past decade, there had been few, if any, rigorous scientific studies examining the advantages and disadvantages associated with these work schedules for law enforcement officers and their agencies. As such, Amendola, Weisburd, and colleagues (2011b) conducted a comprehensive, randomized experiment in which shift lengths of 8, 10, and 12 h were randomly assigned to law enforcement officers in Arlington, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan, to assess their potential impacts on performance, health, safety, quality of life, sleep, fatigue, alertness, off-duty employment, and overtime among police. The study found some distinct advantages of 10-h shifts and identified some disadvantages associated with 12-h shifts that are concerning. Specifically, officers on 10-h shifts got significantly more sleep per 24-h period than those on 8-h shifts (approximately 30 min), had a higher quality of work life, and worked significantly less overtime hours. However, those on 12-h shifts did not obtain the sleep benefit, and indeed reported greater levels of fatigue and lowered alertness at work. It is important that agencies consider the safety and quality of life of their personnel and the public they serve, and therefore 10-h shifts may be optimal in this regard.
Causes and Impact of Officer Fatigue. According to research by Vila (2000), police officers on average get 6.5 h per sleep, less than that of the general population. Importantly, 40 % of officers screened positive for sleep disorders also a rate well above that of the general population. Indeed, officers with sleep disorders had an increased risk of falling asleep while driving, committing an error or safety violation attributable to fatigue, and experiencing uncontrolled anger toward a suspect.
Types, Presence, and Causes of Sleep Disorders. A recent survey showed that 40 % of police officers experience sleep disorders (Rajaratnam et al. 2011). The most common sleep disorders in police officers are obstructive sleep apnea (roughly 33 %), followed by insomnia (about 6.5 %), and then shift-work sleep disorder.
Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing that can happen for a few times an hour or a few dozen times an hour. Obstructive sleep apnea is a form in which a blockage to air flow exists even though there is respiratory effort, as opposed to central sleep apnea in which there is a lack of respiratory effort.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found the frequent use of extended shifts, long work hours, and extended work weeks can lead to increased risk for errors, unintended injuries, vehicle accidents, and other health risks (Rajaratnam et al. 2011). Indeed, officers with obstructive sleep apnea in that study were more apt to be diagnosed with diabetes and have cardiovascular disease, and those with apnea did consume more caffeine than those who did not have the condition. In addition, those in the sleep disorder category in this study also reported feeling burnout and falling asleep while driving, in addition to having more gastrointestinal and anxiety disorders and taking medication for insomnia, than those who did not have the disorder. And officers with obstructive sleep apnea were 1.5 times more likely to have depression than officers who did not. In terms of other causes, obstructive sleep apnea is sometimes caused by excess weight, and in this study population, 79.3 % of officers were overweight or obese by definition, and 33.5 % were obese. Another common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring. Violanti (2012) found that night-shift workers had greater levels of snoring even after controlling for a number of other factors.
Insomnia is a disorder in which there is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. It is often associated with impairment in functioning while awake like excessive sleepiness, fatigue, and psychomotor functioning. Finally shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is associated with disruption in circadian rhythms, the normal internal clock influenced by light and dark. This disorder is most commonly experienced by those who work nights, very early days (starting at say 4:00 am), or rotating shifts. Those with SWSD are twice as likely to have work related accidents and have excessive sleepiness, reduced performance, and irritability.
Morbidity. Life expectancy of police officers is commonly believed to be lower than for the general population. Violanti’s (2012) research with a current police population and cohort of deceased officers showed that mortality from all causes of death combined for police officers was significantly higher than that of the general US population. Police also had significantly higher death rates from cancer and circulatory system diseases as well, although they had a lower rate of death from nervous system and sense organ diseases, respiratory diseases, accidents, and motor vehicle accidents as compared to the general population. However, mortality due to cirrhosis of liver (caused primarily by overuse of alcohol) and suicide was elevated.
Suicide. Research by Violanti (2012) suggests that suicide ideation in police officers is highly associated with psychologically traumatic police work experiences, the development of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) in officers, and the “inordinate use of alcohol associated with this condition.” Violanti suggested that police exposure to certain traumatic events increase the risk of high level PTSD symptoms, which subsequently increase the risk of high alcohol use and suicide ideation, noting that when combining the impact of PTSD and increased alcohol use increased suicide ideation risk by ten times.
Using data from the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance from 1984 to 1998, Violanti (2010) found that the police suicide rate was four times that of firefighters. Also when comparing police officer to firefighters, minority officers had 4.5 times the number of suicides, and female officers had 12 times the number of suicides. Finally, police suicides outnumbered homicides by more than 2.3 times. Although the suicide rate for police officers is often thought to be higher than that of others jobs, two meta-analyses have indicated that, after controlling for demographics, the suicide rate for police officers is actually lower than that of the population in general (Aamodt and Stalnaker 2001; Loo 2003).
Background on Officer Wellness Programs. Traditionally, most wellness programs have been limited to physical fitness, employee assistance programs, and critical incident stress debriefings (CISD). In the past, the typical focus on wellness has tended to emphasize the detection of problems and intervention such as in a CISD or an employee assistance program (EAP). Research and common wisdom regarding EAPs is that whether they are offered inside or outside the department, officers tend not to utilize them that frequently due to stigmas associated with the need for counseling or assistance, the fear that attending any sessions will be used adversely against an officer within the agency, or at a minimum that the agency will know who has participated.
However, in recent years, wellness programs have begun to emerge in law enforcement agencies across the USA. The concept of wellness today typically emphasizes physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions. Even at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Former Supervisory Special Agent Samuel Feemster championed the concept of officer wellness from a broader holistic model in which spirituality was central including the most recent development of a program called “Beyond Survival Toward Officer Wellness” (BeSTOW) where emotional and spiritual intelligence take center stage and suicide prevention is no longer a taboo topic. Spirituality in this sense is not about religion per se, but a larger sense of meaning and purpose in law enforcement.
Many issues are driving the increased attention to employee wellness including health care costs during an officer’s career and in retirement, agency liability associated with the performance of their officers, absenteeism, stress-related problems, emotional problems, and more. According to Quigley (2008), fitness and wellness programs can benefit individuals and officers, as “officers stand to profit from an improved ability to perform job functions, reduced stress, and better physical and psychological preparation. Agencies stand to benefit in terms of efficiency as well as fiscally.”
According to Fiedler at the Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS), US Department of Justice, promoting safety and supporting health and wellness, can be defined under four broad categories: (1) Leadership and Management, (2) Operational and Emergency Responses, (3) Training, and (4) Mental and Physical Health Wellness indicating the need for more comprehensive programs targeting policies, practices, tactics, strategies, academy and field training (including scenario based and simulation training), and physical and mental health programs (http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/ pdf/OSWG/e091120401-OSWGReport.pdf).
The past several years have seen an increase in the attention paid to officer safety, health, and wellness issues by researchers, practitioners, and policy makers. This increase is due to such factors as including changing trends in the types and severity of situational risk factors for police officers, calls from political and governmental leaders, increasing costs and liabilities facing law enforcement agencies, and increased health and safety concerns of officers. Whether it be increasing gun violence, inherent dangers in domestic disturbance calls and traffic stops, or hostility and attacks and assaults on police officers, safety risks are ever present in policing. Due to these risks, improvements are necessary in officer vigilance, training geared toward preventing and combating intense threats via new and emerging tactics and strategies, improved information technology and sharing, enhanced safety equipment and vehicles, and increased self-compliance with personal safety practices (e.g., seat belts, body armor).
There are also policies and practices that management should continue to explore and improve in order to enhance and promote safety, particularly those practices derived from scientific research (i.e., evidence-based policies and practices). For example, information on shift scheduling practices and pursuits can be useful in developing agency-specific practices and policies to improve safety, health, and wellness. In addition, the continued research and testing of various information technology modalities (iPhones, Mobile Data Terminals, Global Positioning Systems and Crime Mapping, and other similar tools) should be continued so that agencies can make technological upgrades that will remove officer distractions while also providing clear, concise, and relevant information in a dynamic fashion.
While peers can play a role in helping to protect other officers and provide support and compassion to their colleagues, the role of personal responsibility of officers should not be underestimated. The fact that any less than 100 % of officers do not use seat belts 100 % of the time or that less than 100 % of officers do not wear safety equipment (i.e., vests) 100 % of the time indicates some resistance to or lack of understanding of the data and information about the safety facts. Some officers continue to use excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine, smoke, engage in poor eating habits (or are obese and fail to lose weight), fail to get adequate exercise or sleep, or overuse or even abuse controlled substances. Despite the known health risks, these behaviors/conditions can shorten lives and increase health and safety risks many of these behaviors and conditions are within the control of individual officers. When these behaviors begin to be recognized as reducing health, wellness, safety, or shortening one’s life, there are opportunities to receive assistance through peers, professional counselors (e.g., psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers), sleep experts, nutritional counselors, and fitness advisors. At the same time, law enforcement agency leadership and culture must be supportive, that is, leadership and organizational structure, policies, and practices should work toward promoting safety, health, and wellness if their agencies are to be successful in promoting public safety.
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