Officer wellness is a perennial top-tier focus for law enforcement leaders as well as researchers and scientists. It is well understood that when one enters the profession, they will likely be exposed to an exceptional level of mental stress and physical danger — unmatched by almost any private-sector job. Although this danger is most frequently thought of by observers from outside the world of law enforcement in terms of vehicle pursuits, armed encounters, and the kind of tense, dramatic situations that make for headlines — this isn’t always typically reflective of an officer’s day-to-day experience on the job. Policymakers, the public, and officers themselves are increasingly recognizing that the psychological challenges of the profession are just as real as the physical risks and, in many cases, potentially more challenging to find solutions to address.
21st Century Solutions
As a result of this awareness, a new approach to officer wellness is now being discussed to protect officers in the same way their gear, equipment, and even community support can. Recognition of its importance reaches the highest levels, being discussed as one of the six pillars of policy recommendations the President’s Task Force made on 21st Century Policing in its 2015 report.
“The wellness and safety of law enforcement officers is critical not only to themselves, their colleagues, and the agencies but also to public safety,” Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015.
This section of the report offers several research-based recommendations for holistically addressing officer wellness to meet the challenges of a new era of policing. Action items address tangible needs, with calls for every officer to be provided with anti-ballistic vests and tactical first aid kits, smart car technology to reduce vehicle collisions, and reforms to pension plans to cover both duty and non-duty disability events. Notably, it also prioritizes calls for funding for accelerated research into all facets of officer wellness, specifically the study of officers’ mental health challenges.
The urgency to better understand the needs of officers and how policy recommendations can improve their sense of wellness has only increased with the added stress of recent high-profile incidents as well as a global pandemic that has created unforeseen demands on police departments. The effects of occupational stress and mental health are well documented, and new research aims to grow the understanding of how that impacts the bigger picture of officer well-being. In recent years there have been many studies and surveys that have created much-needed data to not only help law enforcement leaders anticipate officers’ needs, but also to create new and far-reaching policies that will make meaningful differences in the way they do their jobs.
Research into Officer Wellness
An officer’s work can often involve traumatic and intense situations during a shift. Although it is difficult to know a precise figure, the Department of Justice estimates in a recent publication that roughly 15% of officers nationwide experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, which have the potential to impair decision-making and officer’s ability to do their job. The paper highlights scientific research looking at the effects of PTSD on brain function, notably studying police officers themselves and not a general population sample group.
Another manifestation of trauma-induced stress is burnout, which is defined by chronic exposure to these stresses. It can manifest as excessive cynicism, detachment from one’s work, emotional exhaustion, and feelings of low professional achievement, to name just a few of the most prominent examples. A newly conducted review from 2020 analyzed 108 research studies to better understand operational stress and burnout among officers. The need to increase understanding of officer burnout is evident, with 56% of officers reporting in Pew Research Center’s 2017 Behind the Badge survey that they have become “more callous” since taking the job. The same study found that the feeling of burnout is linked to generally negative feelings toward the job.
The stresses of policing have historically been challenging to address due to a workplace culture that does not always prioritize, or conversely can even tacitly penalize, an officer needing help. It is often said that no one understands a police officer’s work like other police officers, and when a network of peer-support is suppressed due to cultural norms, it can compound the stress officers are feeling. To help research a body of work to understand how officers and their departments can support stress reduction, the National Institute of Justice is funding a strategic research agenda, taking a multifaceted approach to fighting stress among law enforcement officers.
Building and Using a Body of Research
Common in the new studies, surveys, and literature reviews are calls for further academic research. Ramped-up funding for research, spurred in part by the President’s Task Force on 21st Policing, is creating new data, which allows researchers to contribute to the body of knowledge and ask new questions that will shed more light onto the conditions that impact officer wellness, but will also aid policing leaders in crafting solutions that address the issue.
Implementation of research findings is seen in projects like Northeastern University’s Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice’s Vicarious Trauma Toolkit (VTT). This multidisciplinary project, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and many other institutional partners, refocuses responses to officer wellness from individual actions and “self-help” to address the issue to a systemic approach leveraging agency resources to assist officers in need.
Policing will likely always carry specific risks not seen in most other professions. With the physical and mental hazards that officers face on the job, the need for more research into how organizations and leaders can best support their officers is clear. Through continuing research, data analysis, and recommendations based on this expanding body of knowledge, academics and police leaders are at the forefront of advancing officer wellness as a vital issue in policing.
Look for our next blog exploring how agencies are putting this research into practice.