Officer Wellness Is Officer Safety
It’s time we understand, on a profound level, that stress killsBy Jeff Shannon | Feb 24, 2015
Besides courage, there’s nothing more valued in law enforcement than safety. Courage is a given, but safety is learned. One simply can’t be too safe: firearms training, searching and cuffing techniques, defensive tactics, vehicle stops, pedestrian stops—all have “office safety” as cornerstones.
Most of us are exposed to the Cooper Color Code system as well, which applies not only to being at work, but when we’re sitting in our living room watching television: “The only time you should be in white is when you are sleeping.”
“Be safe” is probably the most common salutation for law enforcement officers anywhere. Going home safe to our families is the most important priority for each and every tour of duty. This is as it should be. After all, we don’t get to pick the time a car stop is going to be a fight for our life. They do.
Here’s what I submit about our current emphasis on officer safety: It’s both necessary and insufficient. It’s necessary for all the reasons we already know. How’s it insufficient?
Safety, Narrowly Defined
Safety, as we currently use this word, applies only to the parts of our bodies we can see. Gunshot wounds, bruises, broken bones, etc. There is, however, a dawning awareness with law enforcement that coming home fully safe to our families at the end the day, we need to consider more than fat lips and gunshot wounds.
Like STRESS. Many people think of stress as feeling “stressed out,” but there’s much more to it than that. Every time you drive Code 3 your body dumps cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream. These are the hormones all animals release when they may have to fight to the death.
Ironically, other animals are smarter than us when it comes to managing cortisol. For example, after the zebra escapes the lion, within seconds he’ll put his dumb head back down in the grass and graze. His cortisol levels will be back to normal in a matter of minutes. As humans, we’ve become too smart for our own good. After we clear the code 3 run we keep thinking about it.
And those thoughts keep the cortisol flowing. Lying in bed stewing over the boss you hate or your mortgage payment will also produce the same toxic hormone dump—and we’re not even in physical danger. The net result is that cops generally have higher cortisol levels than the general population.
Because of our chronically elevated cortisol, LEOs suffer in two ways. First, if cortisol isn’t burned off (primarily through exercise and drinking lots of water) it stores in the body as a particularly deadly type of belly fat: the type associated coronary heart disease.
Second, having the fight or flight response active for longer periods of time, over years and decades creates wear and tear on our bodies (e.g., heart and arteries). This wear and tear goes all the way to the cellular level.
Another example: If you come home “safe” at the end of the day, but proceed to consume a twelve pack of beer to numb out and fall asleep, are you really safe? How about if you go through a can of dip a day or a prescription of Vicodin a week? These fall into the realm of “coping.” How we cope with stress matters. It really can be the difference between coming home safe at the end of the day—or not.
If we don’t get at least seven hours of good sleep, we’re not coming to work safe. Again, this is not included in the notion of “officer safety” as we currently employ it. The list goes on, but I think you get the point.
There’s now a small of army of law enforcement instructors, mental health professionals and researchers advocating for wellness and stress management for law enforcement personnel. There are organizations (e.g., www.BadgeofLife.com) and books (e.g., Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responders Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart by Capt. Dan Willis of the La Mesa, Calif., PD) dedicated to this topic. As part of this army, I’ll share my biggest frustration: getting LEO’s to really understand—on a deep level—that the way we take care of ourselves will be difference between living lives filled with meaning, joy and good health, and living lives, as Henry David Thoreou put it, of “quiet desperation.”
The parolee at large with a gun under his seat and nothing to lose is a potential cop killer. We need to train every single day with him in mind. Post-traumatic stress disorder, type-II diabetes, depression and alcoholism are also potential cop killers. They may not make the headlines of your favorite law enforcement news website, but they’re just as real. We need to work just as hard to ensure they don’t end our careers, or our lives, prematurely.