Improving Resilience among Law Enforcement Officers

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Brian Miller

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Law enforcement officers in the United States are at the forefront of the homeland security enterprise, and their physical and mental well-being are key to our nation’s security. Officers are exposed to high levels of stress every day, and over time, that stress exacts a toll on them. In 2017, more police officers committed suicide than were killed in the line of duty, and that trend continued into 2019.[1] Agencies have programs to mitigate stress and assist officers after a critical incident, but help after the incident is not enough. Preventative techniques are needed to mitigate stress and pre-expose officers, so they may better handle stress. This thesis investigates what stress management and psychological resiliency tools are most promising and how their inclusion in academy and periodic training might improve resilience and reduce stress among law enforcement officers, and it offers recommendations on implementing these.

Central to this thesis is stress, and for police officers—who hold positions of authority and make life or death decisions daily—the deleterious effects of stress can have a significant, negative impact on their performance.[2] The methodology for this thesis involved a qualitative, prescriptive research design with a comprehensive review of existing programs and models to answer the research question, starting with a review of literature involving stress and stress mitigation techniques. It identified and evaluated pre– and post–critical incident programs and techniques; some of these included employee assistance programs, such as the San Diego Police Department’s Wellness Unit, and the use of critical incident stress management, psychological first aid, and peer support.

Stress affects our physiology, and this thesis examined mindfulness techniques such as controlled breathing, meditation, and yoga that can have a positive effect on our physiology. Also discussed is the use of guided imagery and visualization, coupled with biofeedback, which may improve performance and reduce stress and anxiety. Some studies have suggested that the use of mindfulness techniques such as meditation has resulted in the downregulation of certain genes related to stress; that is, practice reversed some effects of stress.[3] When the body is physiologically taxed through stress, calming breaths can reduce stress. Likewise, yoga has been shown to be good for the mind and reduce anxiety. Guided imagery involves forming a mental picture to induce feelings of relaxation, and the related technique of visualization focuses on mentally rehearsing events to improve performance. Similarly, biofeedback can help monitor the physiological effects of stress. These techniques have been shown effective in reducing stress.

Because these stress-mitigation techniques have worked well in other high-stress occupations (e.g., the military, the medical field, and competitive sports), they have applicability to law enforcement. For example, doctors who employed breathing techniques improved their success rate for certain medical procedures, and professional athletes use visualization techniques in preparation for an important sporting event to hone their skills.[4] If there are physical and psychological benefits to using mindfulness techniques, perhaps they should be employed in the law enforcement arena. In one study, officers trained in mindfulness-based resilience showed improvement in their resilience and mental and physical health, not to mention significant improvement in regulating their emotions. The officers also displayed reduced levels of stress, fatigue, anger, and burnout.[5] In another study, officers who used guided imagery and visualization techniques during scenario-based training exercises showed reduced perceived stress levels and displayed better, more effective performance under stress.[6] Improving the self-regulation of emotions may lead to more effective policing and a healthier, more productive officer.

This thesis concludes with a discussion about reducing the stigma of mental health in law enforcement, the need to acknowledge occupational and organizational stress, and the means to mitigate it over the course of a career. It also recognizes that doing so requires a cultural shift, which will come about slowly. Recommendations include introducing stress-reducing mindfulness and breathing techniques for recruits in academy training and including these in wellness programs throughout the officers’ careers. Tactical psychological training, which provides officers with stress-mitigation techniques prior to stressful events, involves the use of scenario-based training coupled with biofeedback to assess officers’ stress levels. Agencies should make better use of technology, such as wearable technology that tracks officers’ physical conditions and smartphone applications linked to agency wellness programs. The final recommendation is for ongoing and preventive stress care, which may include periodic mental health screenings.

 

 

[1] Miriam Heyman, Jeff Dill, and Robert Douglas, The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders (Boston: Ruderman Family Foundation, 2018), http://rudermanfoundation.org/‌white_papers/police-officers-and-firefighters-are-more-likely-to-die-by-suicide-than-in-line-of-duty/; Joel Shannon, “At Least 228 Police Officers Died by Suicide in 2019, Blue H.E.L.P. Says. That’s More Than Were Killed in the Line of Duty,” USA Today, January 2, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/‌nation/‌2020/01/02/blue-help-228-police-suicides-2019-highest-total/2799876001/.

[2] Michelle Beshears, “How Police Can Reduce and Manage Stress,” PoliceOne, March 30, 2017, https://www.policeone.com/stress/articles/322749006-How-police-can-reduce-and-manage-stress/.

[3] Ivana Buric et al., “What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices,” Frontiers in Immunology 8 (June 2017): 14, https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670.

[4] L. Grubish et al., “Implementation of Tactical Breathing during Simulated Stressful Situations and Effects on Clinical Performance,” Annals of Emergency Medicine 68 (2016): S115, https://doi.org/10.1016/‌j.‌annemergmed.‌2016.08.311; Tracy C. Ekeocha, “The Effects of Visualization & Guided Imagery in Sports Performance” (master’s thesis, Texas State University, 2015), 1, https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/‌10877/‌5548.

[5] Michael S. Christopher et al., “A Pilot Study Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention on Cortisol Awakening Response and Health Outcomes among Law Enforcement Officers,” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 31, no. 1 (2016): 15–28, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-015-9161-x.

[6] Bengt B. Arnetz et al., “Trauma Resilience Training for Police: Psychophysiological and Performance Effects,” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 24, no. 1 (April 2009): 5, https://doi.org/‌10.1007/s11896-008-9030-y.

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