Officer Wellness and Safety (Pillar 6 in Pillars of Justice Series)

By Christine M. Norton

Pillars of Justice is a six-part series covering the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The full report can be viewed here.

The recent high-profile deaths of American police officers are grim reminders of the dangers law enforcement professionals face. Poor physical and psychological health can plague police and impair their judgment and capabilities. Police suicide is also a serious problem. A national study recently revealed that officers died from suicide 2.4 times as often as from homicides, further heightening concern over this issue.

When the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing focused on officer wellness and safety, they considered issues such as physical, mental, and emotional health; vehicular accidents; officer suicide; and shootings and assaults. They also sought to foster partnerships with social services and other organizations that can support long-term solutions and bring positive change to the culture of law enforcement.

The Task Force made eight recommendations for research, action, and further study to support safety and wellness, suggesting that the U.S. Department of Justice enhance and further promote its multifaceted officer wellness and safety initiative. This includes Congressional funding of a national “Blue Alert” warning system to enlist the public’s help in finding suspects after an officer is killed in the line of duty.

The Task Force also suggested that the Federal Government establish a team to study mental health issues among law enforcement officers and create a national toll-free hotline specifically for police to get confidential advice whenever they need it. This is especially important, since law enforcement culture has historically deemed mental health problems a sign of weakness. Likewise, the government should support implementation of a wider range of mental health strategies for law enforcement, such as examining the efficacy of annual mental health checks for officers.

Ultimately, the responsibility for promoting safety and wellness lies with each law enforcement agency, though the Federal Government can support many programs and practices. For example, Task Force members argue that the U.S. Department of Justice should fund additional research into scientifically supported shift lengths for law enforcement, because long shifts in a high-stress or high-risk environment can have serious (even deadly) consequences. The Task Force also recommended that all law enforcement officers be given antiballistic vests and individual tactical first aid kits and training, as these kits would save lives by controlling blood loss.

A nationwide database for law enforcement officer injuries is also needed for medical providers to improve care, training, tactics, and equipment to prevent or reduce injuries and make the job of policing safer. Other recommendations include promoting policies that require officers to wear seat belts and bulletproof vests, enacting peer-review error management legislation, and exploring new technologies such as vehicle collision prevention systems. A non-punitive peer-review error management program gives officers an opportunity to openly and honestly discuss their own mistakes or those of others without fear of legal repercussions.

Support for officer wellness and safety needs to permeate law enforcement culture. This support could be expressed through administrative changes in policies, procedures, attitudes, and behaviors. The members of the President’s Task Force believe that these recommendations will bring long-term improvements in the ways law enforcement agencies approach officer safety and wellness and support public safety.

Christine M. Norton is a senior staff member with CSR, Incorporated. She has more than 6 years of experience reviewing and analyzing large datasets and identifying trends and gaps in performance data for criminal justice programs. Christine has a master’s degree in criminal justice from Buffalo State College.