A 7-point approach to developing a culture of wellness in law enforcement
Being proactive is key to this California agency’s employee wellness program
In the early morning hours of May 2, 1993, I was woken by the jarring sound of the phone ringing; on the other end was a friend of mine and fellow squad member.
Sounding distraught he declared, “Asher is dead!” He was referring to another squad member of ours and an academy classmate and friend of mine. Immediately my thoughts turned to Asher being shot and killed in the line of duty. Police suicide never crossed my mind. Why would it? This man was a six-year veteran of our agency and a decorated U.S. Marine.
Just before sunrise, Officer Asher Rosinsky had parked his cruiser along the edge of the Florida Everglades and, alone in the darkness, held his .40-caliber semiautomatic duty weapon to his chest, and pulled the trigger. A fellow officer and friend of mine observed the parked cruiser and found Asher dead with one bullet hole center mass.
How could this have happened? Why didn’t we see the red flags that upon reflection were right in front of us? What could I have done to prevent this from occurring? Why didn’t he just reach out before taking this drastic and devastating action? This man was married and had two young sons; one was three and the other just 18 months.
What ensued in the days after had the most profound impact on my career. What occurred immediately afterward that was so impactful? NOTHING. Asher was buried the next day and, as in any traditional Jewish burial ceremony, we all took turns grabbing a shovel and literally proceeded to bury our brother in blue, by shoveling the dirt onto his casket. No big fanfare, no publicized police memorial service, NOTHING. When we returned to work it was business as usual, “25 Alpha 4, I’m 10-08.” We are mentally tough warriors, sworn to protect and serve, what would we need? NOTHING!
Back in those days, peer support, critical incident stress debriefings or EAP programs weren’t really part of the law enforcement landscape. If you needed assistance or wanted to speak to someone, you were considered weak, or maybe even unfit to be an officer. We took EAP to mean “Expose and Punish.” None of us wanted to get labeled or sent to the “Rubber Gun Squad.”
Fast forward to 2019 where there is a lot more awareness about mental health issues in law enforcement, yet more officers still die by suicide than other line-of-duty deaths combined. The numbers are staggering, with experts estimating they are being underreported by up to a factor of 2.5. These numbers fail to even address suicide among our retired brothers and sisters, or support staff such as dispatchers, crime scene techs, etc. Something drastic needs to be done to stop this epidemic.
LE suicide symposium
In April, I traveled to New York City to attend the Police Executive Research Forum Symposium on Law Enforcement Suicide, hosted by the NYPD. The symposium was well attended with over 350 attendees from around the world, from subject matter experts to practitioners to law enforcement executives.
Finally, conversations are being brought out from the shadows and into the open. There were many takeaways from the symposium; the most impactful for me is the need to have a multifaceted approach where innovative, action-focused problem solvers start to focus on solutions to the problem.
Multifaceted approach to the police suicide epidemic
At the Pinole Police Department in California we developed the “Asher Model – A Seven Point Approach to Creating a Culture of Wellness.” Here are the seven points of our approach as it relates to creating a culture of wellness:
1. Awareness: Police agencies need to create an environment where, “It’s OK to not be OK.” We have open and honest discussions with our employees bringing difficult conversations out of the shadows and into the open.
2. Solution-focused approach: We must spend more time focusing on solutions, not the problem. For example, our employees have access to the CordicoShield Officer Wellness App, which provides wellness resources with total anonymity and confidentiality.
3. Peer support: We created a peer support team and implemented a CISM and police therapy dog program.
4. Resiliency: We educate our employees on resiliency, mindfulness, emotional intelligence and signs of PTSD, as well as practices such as yoga and breathing exercises.
5. Healthy habits: Agencies must encourage physical fitness and healthy eating habits. Departments can allocate budget funds to build or update a fitness facility and discourage candy and unhealthy snacks around the department. Remove unhealthy choices from vending machines and substitute with healthier options.
6. Spirituality: We developed a police/clergy coalition and chaplain program, as well as community outreach programs such as “Pray with the Police.”
7. Family: We involve the families from the orientation process forward, providing access to books on key topics such as Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin. We also provide relationship, financial wellness and retirement preparation resources. All these are also available through the CordicoShield app.
We hope that our model represents one way to create a culture of wellness for police officers; hopefully our efforts will ultimately save one of our brothers or sisters in blue.