Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Officers need breaks, too

You surely have heard about a Texas police officer who has now resigned over the way a cell phone video depicted him treating a teenage girl too roughly at a pool party. If his lawyer is to be believed, there are previous incidents that contributed to his actions at the pool party. That same day, the officer purportedly had responded to a suicide in which a man shot himself in front of his children. He tried to console the man’s wife and then had to take pictures of the body. Also that day, the officer is reported to have talked down a teenage girl who threatened to commit suicide by jumping off a roof. His lawyer said, “He allowed his emotions to get the better of him.”

I don’t know whether that’s true, and if it is, I can’t say whether it exonerates anything he did. But if all that is true, it is a recipe for disaster. Expecting officers to go from traumatic call to traumatic call leaves them emotionally unhealthy and thus unable to perform as we expect them to: with professionalism and integrity.

Our officers see the worst society has to offer, and I’m making it a priority to give them time to decompress from that. I’ve heard about too many officers who have been involved in a critical incident, get three days off, and then they’re thrown back into work and left on their own to deal with everything. Then a few years later they get medically retired because they’re suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That’s no way to treat your people. The Kansas City Missouri Police Department is focusing on whole-person wellness now more than ever before.

I want to make sure officers tap each other out if they’ve handled a stressful call, and I want our supervisors to encourage that.

One simple change we can make is ensuring our officers get time to eat. Too often they run from call to call to call for 10 hours straight. We’ve got to stop trying to be superhuman. We need nourishment and rest, not only for our health but also to serve our community well.

When I was an officer, we got in trouble for having too many police cars parked outside one restaurant. I'm now sharing with staff and other segments of the community my desire for officers to be and feel safe while taking breaks, so there will no longer be emphasis placed on the number of vehicles at any given location. Officers eating together provides them an excellent opportunity to decompress. They get the chance to talk about what they have experienced and what’s bothering them. They can give each other support. Of course call volume will continue to be considered. But increased ambush-type incidents on officers have emphasized the old adage that there is safety in numbers. Many of you reading this get the chance to go out to eat with your coworkers. Officers should be able to do the same. Or simply have the chance to sit down at the station and eat the meal they brought.

We have sometimes put public perception above officers’ well-being. We worried what people might think if they saw four or six officers eating together instead of responding to a burglary call. We’re doing things differently now. Officers’ health needs to be a priority.

Community needs will of course be paramount, and officers always will respond to emergencies in a timely fashion. (Our median response time to Priority 1 calls was about 7 minutes, 50 seconds in May.) But we need to do more public education about our call prioritization. Although we understand how scary a home invasion can be, if there are no suspects in the home or nearby, we often must prioritize other calls before that. This blog I did about call prioritization two years ago still holds true: Actual or potential harm to people always will be the first thing to which available officers respond. And if there are several of those calls, it could be hours until we get to the burglary call. We have finite resources, and we use data and intelligence to deploy them as effectively as possible.

And amid all those calls, our officers may need to grab a bite to eat. And I’m going to encourage them to do so.

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