Agencies should promote officer and employee well-being, including by developing policies, training, and programs that protect their physical safety, support their mental and physical health, and reduce the stress on them and their families that results from performing their job.
a. Significance of officer well-being. Officer well-being is critical to sound policing. As noted in § 1.04, in pursuing the goals of policing, agencies have the obligation to minimize the harms of policing for officers as well as for members of the public. This alone would justify agency commitment to programs that protect and promote the health and well-being of officers. In addition, however, officer well-being is a component of enabling officers to meet agency and legal directives. Officers cannot comply with rigorous standards of conduct if they are stymied by injuries, physical and mental-health problems, or the effects of stress, or if they fear these outcomes. Nor can officers who suffer physically and mentally develop and thrive in their work. Moreover, physical and mental-health problems and stress can affect how often officers use force, whether they treat individuals in a fair and impartial manner, how long they stay in the job, and the financial costs of policing to municipalities. For all of these reasons, agencies should make officer well-being a priority and institute programs designed to protect officer safety and minimize threats to officer health. Although this principle focuses primarily on the needs of officers, agencies similarly should tend to the well-being of other organizational members, especially those, such as dispatchers and crime-scene investigators, who face special stress and trauma because of their duties.
b. Understanding threats to officer well-being. Promoting officer well-being requires that agencies develop an understanding of the occupational threats to safety and well-being that most officers face—a task that should be facilitated by state and federal programs focused on officer wellness. It also requires that agencies assess the distinctive agency- and officer-specific threats to health and safety, such as the increased time rural officers may spend in cars, or the additional stresses female officers and officers of color often face in the line of duty and as a result of marginalization inside some agencies.
c. Protecting officer safety. Officers’ physical safety can be compromised by job-related injuries, including automobile accidents, assaults, and exposure to infection. In developing a comprehensive approach to protecting officers, agencies should consider three avenues for increasing safety and reducing injuries and death during the line of duty. First, agencies can help educate officers about—and help officers to avoid—situations that pose a risk to their safety, when doing so is consistent with sound policing, such as by restricting some pursuits or teaching de-escalation techniques. Second, agencies can adopt equipment and programs that prevent injury in high-risk situations, for instance by encouraging officers to wear seatbelts to reduce crash-related injuries. And third, agencies can adopt training, equipment, and policies to prevent death and reduce the seriousness of injuries when they occur, for example, by ensuring that officers have life-saving tools and basic medical skills to aid other officers as well as members of the public.
d. Tracking injuries. Agencies cannot easily adopt policies and practices to prevent common injuries if they do not understand how, how often, and why, these injuries occur. Thus, agencies should track injuries suffered by officers in the line of duty.
e. Protecting physical and mental health. Mental- and physical-health interventions similarly should take three forms. First, agencies should offer training and support to prevent physical and mental-health problems, and to assist officers and their families in coping with them when they arise. In this vein, agencies should seek to educate and support healthy behaviors for officers—both on duty and off—focusing on issues such as proper nutrition, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising for fitness and to prevent injury, and getting sufficient sleep. The efforts should include programs that address health considerations that affect many officers because of the nature of their work, such as strategies for building strength to support the additional weight of duty belts and equipment, eating well on duty, and addressing sleep made irregular by schedule changes. Prevention programs also should support officer mental health and stress reduction. Given the emotional demands of police work, officers need resources to prepare for stress and adversity, such as resilience training and relaxation techniques.
Second, agencies should identify officers at high risk of physical and mental-health issues through screening programs and intervene to ameliorate harm, such as through mandatory debriefings of critical incidents or by allowing officers to take advantage of employee-assistance programs and access to counseling.
Third, agencies should offer support to officers suffering physical or mental-health issues through programs that help in injury recovery or that address post-traumatic stress and substance abuse; and agencies should take measures to help officers and supervisors identify symptoms of these difficulties. Agencies also should engage in efforts to reduce stigma around utilizing available mental-health, substance-abuse, and physical-recovery services and address officer concerns about professional repercussions of receiving help, so that officers seek and receive the support they need.
Agency programs to promote physical and mental health should be evaluated regularly and updated to determine whether they adequately support well-being and assess whether officers and supervisors are aware of those programs and resources and are willing to use them. Agency programs on well-being should be informed by the best available research.
f. State laws. Officers and agencies cannot adequately support officer well-being if states impose inappropriate obstacles to seeking mental-health, substance-abuse, and physical-injury treatment. Thus, state laws imposing professional consequences for officers seeking treatment should be examined to ensure that they are consistent with this Section and sound policing.
g. Suicide prevention. Tragically, in recent years, officers may have more often lost their lives at their own hands than in the line of duty—a fact that reflects the immense toll policing can take on the individuals tasked with protecting the public. Agencies and federal and state governments should devote resources to suicide prevention as a component of protecting officer well-being, including increasing awareness and dialogue about suicide-prevention efforts.
Policing puts officers and sometimes other agency employees in physical harm’s way; it taxes their physical and mental health and generates ongoing stress that erodes personal well-being. As a matter of respect of and fairness to those who serve their communities, every agency should embrace the goal of ensuring the well-being of officers and other law-enforcement personnel. In addition, protecting officer well-being and repairing the physical and emotional tolls of police work serves important instrumental functions. Unwell officers miss work and need costly medical care. Moreover, as one member of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing said, “Hurt people can hurt people.” Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing 61 (2015). In order to ensure that officers engage with members of the public in ways that minimize harm, adhere to law and policy, and engender trust and cooperation, agencies should attend to the physical and mental health of their officers.
In recent years, the federal government has indicated a national commitment to officer wellness. Both houses of Congress unanimously passed the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) before it was signed into law in 2018. See 163 Cong. Rec. H9449-54 (daily ed. Nov. 28, 2017); 163 Cong. Rec. S8279 (daily ed. Dec. 21, 2017). That act requires the U.S. Department of Justice to draw on other federal agencies in developing and reporting on programs to address the physical and mental health of officers. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice administers several grant programs designed to promote officer health and safety, including the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program, the Officer Robert Wilson III Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement Officers and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability (VALOR) Initiative, and the Law Enforcement Safety and Wellness Research and Evaluation grant program.
Nevertheless, federal occupational-safety and health laws do not apply to most law-enforcement officers. Federal law-enforcement agencies are subject to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which commands that federal agencies “provide safe and healthful places and conditions of employment,” provide and require the use of safety equipment and personal protective equipment for employees, and report occupational accidents and illnesses. 29 U.S.C. § 668. However, OSHA does not apply to state and local law-enforcement agencies. Moreover, only 22 states apply their state occupational-safety and health standards to state and local law enforcement officers. See Elizabeth L. Sanberg et al., Police Exec. Rsch. F., A Guide to Occupational Health and Safety for Law Enforcement Executives 6 (2010). Even if more states extended occupational-safety and health laws to officers, such laws maybe inadequate to produce a comprehensive approach to officer well-being.
Addressing officer wellness requires that agencies first, identify and collect data on threats to physical and mental health; second, seek to prevent conditions and events that threaten officer safety and well-being; third, prevent or limit harm when such circumstances are unavoidable; and fourth, ensure that harm to officers is mitigated when it occurs. For example, motor-vehicle-traffic crashes are the leading cause of accidental deaths for officers. Nearly two-thirds of officers accidentally killed in the line of duty between 2015 and 2019 were killed in automobile crashes. See FBI: UCR, 2019 Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted, https://ucr.fbi.gov/leoka/2019/topic-pages/tables/table-67.xls. To prevent deaths and injuries, an agency might assess officer conduct with respect to making traffic stops and responding to calls for service; change vehicular policies to restrict unsafe pursuits; improve driver training; strengthen supervision and policy around wearing seatbelts; and equip officers with tactical first-aid kits and prepare them to provide medical assistance in the case of an accident. See, e.g., President’s Task Force, supra, at 66 (recommending every officer be provided with individual tactical first-aid kits); id. at 67 (recommending agency policies that require officers to wear seat belts); Hope M. Tiesman et al., The Impact of a Crash Prevention Program in a Large Law Enforcement Agency, 62 Am. J. Indus. Med. 847 (2019) (finding that crash and injury rates could be reduced by an agency crash-prevention program).
Of course, traffic accidents are only one occupation-induced threat to officers. Indeed, officers face an occupational fatality rate nearly three times that of an average U.S. worker. See Brian J. Maguire et al., Occupational Fatalities in Emergency Medical Services: A Hidden Crisis, 40 Annals Emergency Med. 625, 629 (2002). Officers face injury and death from intentional assaults. They suffer from irregular sleep, inadequate exercise, nutrition challenges, and chronic stress, all of which can lead to increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Officers face post-traumatic stress, depression, and substance abuse, more so than the general population. See R. Nicholas Carleton et al., Mental Disorder Symptoms Among Public Safety Personnel in Canada, 63 Can. J. Psychiatry 54 (2018); Elizabeth A. Mumford et al., Law Enforcement Safety and Wellness, 18 Police Q. 111, 122-123 (2015). They sometimes are exposed to infectious diseases and dangerous substances. Tragically, suicide is a national crisis among police officers, who may be more likely to die by their own hands than by the hands of a criminal suspect. See Ian H. Stanley et al., A Systematic Review of Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Police Officers, Firefighters, EMTs, and Paramedics, 44 Clinical Psych. Rev. 25 (2016).
Agencies may be able to mitigate many of these risks, and some research indicates the value of agency action to promote officer wellness and reducing officer stress, including programs to prevent suicide, encourage and enforce the use of seatbelts, provide, mindfulness training, and prevent car crashes. See, e.g., Scott Wolfe et al., Predicting Police Officer Seat Belt Use: Evidence-Based Solutions to Improve Officer Driving Safety, 23 Police Q. 472 (2020); Tiesman et al., supra; Brian L. Mishara & Normand Martin, Effects of a Comprehensive Police Suicide Prevention Program, 33 Crisis 162 (2012); Rollin Mcraty and Mike Atkinson, Resilience Training Program Reduces Physiological and Psychological Stress in Police Officers, 1 Glob. Advances Health & Med. 44 (2012). Nevertheless, high-quality studies of agency interventions are rare, and departments that embrace officer well-being as a goal are hampered by inadequate research. Some common strategies, such as mental-health interventions and debriefings after critical incidents, lack adequate empirical support as to their value. See, e.g., Gregory S. Anderson et al., Peer Support and Crisis-Focused Psychological Interventions Designed to Mitigate Post-Traumatic Stress Injuries Among Public Safety and Frontline Healthcare Personnel: A Systematic Review, 17 Int’l J. Env’t Rsch. & Pub. Health 7645 (2020), Deborah L. Spence et al., Off. of Cmty. Oriented Policing Servs., Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act: Report to Congress 26 (2019). Similarly, a systematic review and meta-analysis of police-focused stress-management interventions found that they did not seem to reduce stress outcomes. See George T. Patterson et al., Effects of Stress Management Training on Physiological, Psychological, and Behavioral Outcomes Among Police Officers and Recruits, 8 Crime Prevention Rsch. Rev. (2013). Although studies on non-law-enforcement populations offer some guidance about what might work for officers, clearly, more research is needed on what types of organizational changes and interventions can improve officer wellness. See Cynthia Lum et al., An Evidence-Assessment of the Recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing–Implementation and Research Priorities 40-41 (2016).
Officers also fear the stigma and employment consequences of taking advantage of programs designed to help their well-being. In developing programs devoted to improving officer well-being, agencies therefore also should cultivate policies and a culture of mental health and wellness that help officers take advantage of such services. See John Stogner et al., Police Stress, Mental Health, and Resiliency during the COVID-19 Pandemic, 45 Am. J. Crim. Just. 718-730 (2020) (describing “promising” active-bystandership program piloted in New Orleans Police Department that “focuses on wellbeing to encourage prosocial coping mechanisms and active bystandership” to help reduce alcohol abuse and other unhealthy habits); Jonathan Aronie & Christy E. Lopez, Keeping Each Other Safe: An Assessment of the Use of Peer Intervention Programs to Prevent Police Officer Mistakes and Misconduct, Using New Orleans’ EPIC Program as a Potential National Model, 20 Police Q. 295 (2017). Still, in developing officer well-being programs, achieving a balance between maintaining confidentiality and protecting the public can be challenging. Officers may be reluctant to take advantage of programs that they believe can threaten their employment. Yet some problems may make officers unsuited for field duty. State law may be helpful in balancing these concerns. A few states offer privacy protections to officers who use mental-health programs. For instance, Washington makes confidential all records related to law-enforcement communications with crisis-referral services, Wash. Rev. Code § 43.101.425 (2019), and Indiana protects communications with certified service providers who help officers manage stress caused by critical incidents. Ind. Code 36-8-2.5-2 (2017). States may wish to consider adopting additional privacy legislation to encourage officers to take advantage of mental-health services.