Officer Wellness and Safety: An Intentional Priority

A preview article from the Spring 2016 edition of Minnesota Police Chief. To see the full issue: click here for .pdf or here for the web portal

By Chief Michael S. Goldstein, Plymouth Police Department

There is an old military adage that directly correlates to contemporary U.S. law enforcement: “You must take care of your troops if you want to carry out your mission.” In this vein, it is no mistake that officer wellness and safety was highlighted as a major pillar within the report released by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.1

For many leaders, the importance of officer safety and wellness is not a novel concept; over the decades, enlightened organizations have understood the empirical studies professing the necessity for enhanced officer wellness and safety practices. Yet, the seminal report by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing legitimizes this focus in a new manner with a direct call to action. For the first time, the idea of caring for law enforcement personnel, as they navigate their way through these disquieting times, is not an afterthought—it is considered an essential factor for success.

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The Plymouth, Minnesota, Police Department has long-recognized the need to care for its officers. Mandatory seat belt use and bullet-resistant vest wear policies were established more than 30 years ago, along with the introduction of scenario-based training exercises and the procurement of leading-edge technology to help keep its officers safe. But it was not until 2005 when a new vision for officer wellness commenced.

At that time, the chief of the department, Michael Goldstein encountered a cardiac-related health scare that certainly impacted his lifestyle; as a result, a commitment to helping change his officers’ lifestyles emerged with vigor. Today within the department, a total health care system, including specifically dynamic physical, mental, and spiritual health programing for all personnel, exists, but that did not happen easily nor overnight.

The 10-year journey started with a simple idea that has led to a robust department-wide initiative. Beginning with the recognition of how accumulative stress can negatively impact an officer’s well-being, the department loosely encouraged physical fitness activities and provided training on how to best manage the mental and emotional drain that are some of the profession’s unfortunate byproducts. Nationally renowned speakers like Kevin Gilmartin, Bobby Douglas, Bobby Smith, and Gordon Graham were contracted by the department and, in several cases, met with the department’s personnel, along with their significant others, to discuss critical issues that impact both officers and their family members.

Stress awareness services were also encouraged for the officers and their families through an online local resource created by the Law Enforcement Family Support Network. In addition, command staff personnel were trained by Concerns of Police Survivors regarding available services for line-of-duty deaths and significant injuries, and one department member became trained as a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) facilitator.

The department’s Chaplain Program was altered to include internal services for its personnel as part of and parcel to the long-standing external services the chaplains offered to the Plymouth.

community in times of need. Furthermore, the chief of police became a founding board member of Public Safety Ministries, Inc., a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing spiritual health care services to law enforcement leaders. Through this association, the department’s police chaplains enjoyed the good fortune of enhanced training opportunities; thereby, they have developed strong, yet not overbearing, relationships with the department’s personnel. Plymouth officers have at their disposal an immediate outlet to share their thoughts, concerns, and experiences with these appropriately trained professionals in a confidential setting that has received outstanding reviews.

While this cultural transformation was starting to take shape, even more change was desired and needed. In 2012, a physician with a specialty in rehabilitation medicine and a registered nurse with a unique emphasis in occupational medicine approached the department and offered to develop a standardized physical fitness program as part of an advanced degree research project they were seeking through the University of Minnesota. Their research and support were crucial in the formation and justification of the department’s evolving Wellness Program.

This effort led to the establishment of a thoroughly coordinated voluntary physical fitness program that allowed officers and civilian personnel to exercise while on-duty in lieu of taking a meal break, which was ultimately approved and supported by the Plymouth City Council. Funds were appropriated to assemble a fitness center within the Public Safety Building; health waivers were drafted and approved by our city attorney for employees to have signed by their personal physicians; and evaluation standards, through the Cooper Institute, were implemented to provide

participants with a validated baseline and future goals that coincide with mandated annual assessments.

In order to implement the Cooper Institute’s standards, two officers attended the Institute’s Personal Training Education 40-hour course. As such, the department’s Wellness Officer Program was also launched. Today, the department has three wellness officers who manage the Wellness Program under the supervision of a police captain. The wellness officers work to motivate personnel, research and recommend related training opportunities, complete the annual fitness assessments, write articles for the department’s bimonthly newsletter, coach and mentor program participants, and help maintain the fitness center

For obvious reasons, most departments appoint range instructors, field training officers, defensive tactics instructors, and the like. The Plymouth Police Department has taken that practice one step further with the creation of a wellness officer assignment that is solely focused on the well-being of its personnel. This is an ancillary role to the officers’ other assigned police duties. With this program in place, the desire to provide fitness opportunities to the department’s employees is not allowed to fall to the proverbial “back burner” as other competing priorities demand attention and resources. Wellness, which directly correlates to enhanced safety practices, is a top department priority, and the wellness officers are assigned to hold the administration accountable in this important regard.

In addition, the department’s Wellness Program is now introduced to all newly hired personnel as part of their in-house three-week orientation prior to beginning their field training experience.

These new probationers receive a clear understanding that it is the department’s priority to keep them physically, mentally, and spiritually fit from the day they start until the day they retire. To reinforce this concept, a formal policy memorializing the department’s commitment to this essential program was adopted. Also, at the new officer’s swearing-in ceremony, the chief meets with his or her family members to address the Wellness Program and the need for those close to the officer to encourage the spirit of this program and to communicate that they, too, are invited to participate in the program on a certain level.

The department’s experience has been overwhelmingly positive and reaffirming thus far. Taking care of personnel encourages them strive to carry out the department’s mission. The program helps officers understand that they are valued and that their well-being is paramount to the department’s collective success. In order to appropriately meet the various professional demands and evolving expectations, a well-developed health care system for U.S. law enforcement officers is not a “nice-to-have” notion; rather, it is a “must-have” priority, especially today.

By caring for their personnel and making their well-being a top priority, police agencies will meet their mission. Now, law enforcement leaders are faced with both the opportunity and challenge to lead their organizations in one of the most tumultuous eras of modern policing. As the 21st Century Policing Task Force report illustrates, developing a roadmap to lead departments through these challenging times is certainly possible and motivationally intriguing. However, as the report also suggests, it is improbable to establish transparent, legitimate, well-trained, and properly aligned policing organizations without an adherence to their personnel’s wellness and safety—healthy police officers will make for healthy law enforcement organizations. Meeting the report’s recommendations under its sixth pillar is in the charge, and quite frankly, the duty, of police leaders.

1. President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), 61–68, (accessed January 5, 2015).

Reprinted from The Police Chief, Vol. LXXXIII. No.2 pages 12-13, 2015. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc., 44 Canal Center Plaza, Ste 200, Alexandria, VA 22314. Further reproduction without express permission from IACP is strictly prohibited.