Police being called to a scene

Officer Wellness – Is it the Elephant in the Room at Your Agency?

The life expectancy of a police officer is 20 years less than his or her civilian counterpart. The average age of a law enforcement officer who has suffered a heart attack is 49 years, compared to 67 years of age for the general population – Cops Alive, August 31, 2015

Police work can be very risky, but one of its biggest dangers is often overlooked by the mainstream, and that’s the exorbitant amount of stress that often comes with the territory. First responders often have to witness some of the most tragic events that most people couldn’t fathom experiencing. According to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 1 in 4 police officers have had suicidal thoughts at some point in their career, and in 2017 there were an estimated 140 law enforcement suicides. NAMI also reports that compared to the general population, law enforcement officers have significantly higher rates of depression, PTSD, burnout, and other anxiety related mental health conditions.

There’s also addiction. Psychology Today reported in March of 2018 that 1 out of 4 police officers on the street has an alcohol or drug abuse issue and substance abuse disorders are estimated to affect between 20% and 30% of the police officer population, as compared to under 10% within the general population.

Clearly, it’s critical for all agencies, whether big or small, rural or urban, to take proactive steps in developing a resilient policy to help prevent a mental crisis. Noted as one of the six pillars of the 21st Century Policing Task Force, officer wellness and safety must be a priority, though many agencies have struggled to rollout wellness initiatives due to cost, staffing, cultural buy in, and often a lack of local resources capable of supporting of supporting officers’ needs. In the long run however, the costs of having a high percentage of illness and burnout in an agency can be detrimental on many fronts. This is simply something that must not be overlooked.

The Great Falls Police Department has been a shining example of an agency being on the right track in ensuring greater officer health and wellness. They’ve implemented a 3-part wellness program that involves physical and mental wellbeing and it has seen great success. Hear from GFPD Captain John Schaffer discuss how his department is successfully working through these hurdles.

Great Falls Police Department has implemented a program

What is cumulative stress?

In the video above, Captain Schaffer explains cumulative stress by giving a great metaphor called “Cop Stew” – a career in law enforcement can be like a pot on a stove with the flame on high and every traumatic call, crash, or trauma-related event can cause that pot to boil over if you’re not careful.

What some warning signs that an officer might be struggling with cumulative stress?

It can be difficult to recognize because everyone has different experiences but sometimes it’s most effective just to ask simple questions like “I’m noticing some little behavioral changes in how your conducting yourself on the job, is everything ok?” or “how are you sleeping?” and other questions that are relevant to the officer’s character.

How is the Great Falls Police Department dealing with cumulative stress?

Great Falls Police Department tried to take a proactive approach. Education is an important piece of this and building an awareness of how an officer can go through changes as they go through their career. Nobody in law enforcement is the same now as when they started, so there are going to be different things that people are going to experience. Getting the spouses and significant others involved as part of the solution is very important as well because they’re usually the first to know that something is not right.

What is the Great Falls Police Department doing to build a solid wellness program?

There are three areas that they focus on: physical fitness, physical health, and mental health.

Keeping yourself in good condition is crucial, not just to the job but to life in general. Having an insurance plan that provides incentives to use cancer screenings, blood pressure checks, and other important check-ups is helpful in ensuring that officers are taking care of their physical health. Finally, encouraging mental health check-ups is a very proactive way to safeguard an officer’s well-being.


Captain John Shaffer has shared his expertise on officer wellness, recruitment and retention with attendees of past Insight Exchange Network conferences. See what current events IEN is producing in Public Safety and Government.

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