April 13, 2024

PERF webinar series highlights agencies’ wellness programs


PERF members,

We recently concluded a five-webinar series on wellness programs in police departments and sheriffs’ offices, and recordings of all five webinars are now available on PERF’s website. The series is an extension of recent officer safety and wellness research PERF and NORC at the University of Chicago conducted with support from the National Institute of Justice.

This work is particularly important at a time when the policing profession is facing a staffing shortage. In a survey conducted last year, PERF found that a sharp increase in retirements and resignations, combined with a decrease in hiring, led to a nearly five percent decline in sworn staffing over the three-year period from January 2020 to January 2023. This is almost certainly due in part to the added stresses of the job, particularly greater public scrutiny of officers’ actions. Policing has always been stressful, but officers are now more concerned about losing their jobs or being prosecuted for decisions they make under difficult circumstances.

Fortunately, police executives are now more cognizant of their employees’ health and wellness needs. At our 2019 conference on preventing officer suicide, many attendees emphasized the important role a chief or sheriff plays in establishing a supportive work environment where resources are available and employees are comfortable seeking help. I hope these webinars provide police leaders with new ideas about how they can support their workforce.

Each webinar focused on a different topic and began with a NORC summary of research on that topic. I’d like to briefly summarize the webinars to identify those that may interest you.

The first webinar, Fostering Holistic Health and Wellness in Law Enforcement, explored programs that address officers’ wellness in its entirety.

Our partners at NORC highlighted a key finding on this topic: Overall, two-thirds of officers are healthy, while one-third have pressing health concerns. These concerns include high cholesterol, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and risky drinking behavior—all of which require different interventions. Our panelists came from agencies that are taking a holistic approach to wellness—addressing physical and mental health along with financial, spiritual, and other kinds of health. The holistic approach allows agencies to address a range of wellness issues at the same time.

The panelists were:

  • Vera Daniel, Director of the Fairfax County, VA Police Department’s Health and Wellness Division;
  • Indianapolis Metro Police Officer Justin Toussing;
  • Miami Beach Police Lt. Elise Spina Taylor; and
  • Reno, NV Police Sgt. Jerry Hallert.

The NORC-PERF research on Police Perceptions of Their Work and Its Impact on Their Health revealed that officers overestimate the level of negative public sentiment toward police. Almost two-thirds of officers felt that most people have no or limited respect for the police, and almost 70 percent of officers felt the media treated the police unfairly. While our survey only collected data from officers, from prior work we know that the public views policing more positively than the police themselves do.

Panelists on this webinar discussed programs that build resilience among law enforcement officers, strengthen relationships with members of the community, and promote positive aspects of police work. The webinar featured:

  • U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jeff Albanese;
  • Henry Liu, a Strategic Advisor for the Seattle Police Department;
  • Brandi Burque, Ph.D., a Staff Psychologist for the San Antonio Police Department; and
  • Louisville Metro Police Major Bryan Edelen.

Our research on Promoting Health and Wellness for Women in Policing identified concerns that are more salient for female officers than for their male counterparts. Female officers experience higher rates of stress, lower rates of emotional well-being, and higher rates of gastrointestinal disorders. A member of Police Scotland talked about her agency’s program to support menopausal women’s health, a unique example of an agency addressing women’s health and well-being. The panelists’ work also highlighted the need for agencies to pay attention to specific health concerns of any special population—including female officers and others.

The panelists were:

  • Lubbock, TX Police Corporal Kimberlee Jones;
  • Minneapolis Police Sgt. Keia Boyd;
  • Kym Craven, Executive Director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE); and
  • Police Scotland Training and Development Officer Jackie Agnew.

Our research on Supporting Officers After a Critical Incident: Model Programs found that at least one-third of officers use ineffective coping mechanisms like substance use, risky behaviors, self-blame, self-harm, and isolation. These behaviors can lead to addiction, depression, and anxiety. The webinar presentations demonstrated that critical incidents are key points when agencies should attend to officers’ stress and trauma. However, issues also arise from the compounded effects of repeatedly responding to traumatic calls. Checking in with officers regularly—whether or not a major critical incident has recently occurred—helps build a culture of wellness in an agency.

We heard from:

  • Sergeant Shaun Heath and Behavioral Services Coordinator Matthew Ford with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department;
  • Ben Haiman, who until recently served as Chief of Staff at the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department; and
  • Dallas Police Assistant Chief Reuben Ramirez.

The final webinar, Managing Officers’ Everyday Health Issues, featured agencies that have implemented wellness programs to address the everyday health concerns of officers. Research findings identified negative impacts of shift work, including sleep issues, hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol, as a common everyday health concern. Our panelists’ agencies are offering resources like nap/sleep rooms for officers and changing physical fitness standards—like using a rowing challenge instead of running—to better support overall health and wellness.

The panel included:

  • Colorado State Patrol Lt. Col. Joshua Downing;
  • Herndon, VA Police Chief Maggie DeBoard;
  • Division Chief April Morse from the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake; and
  • Vernon Herron, Director of the Baltimore Police Department’s Officer Safety and Wellness Section.

Videos of all five webinars are available on PERF’s website, along with timestamps for each speaker.

It’s an extremely challenging time for policing, and police leaders are trying to figure out how to better support officer wellness. I hope this webinar series helps you identify programs and approaches you may not have previously considered. Please let me know what you find useful and any changes your agency makes as a result of this series.

Thanks to PERF’s research team for organizing these webinars, and I’m grateful to all the panelists for sharing their experience and expertise. For more PERF resources on wellness programs, see our recent reports on Promising Strategies for Strengthening Police Department Wellness Programs and Building and Sustaining an Officer Wellness Program: Lessons from the San Diego Police Department. We plan to discuss this issue at PERF’s Annual Meeting on May 29-31 in Orlando.