Deputy Chief Daniel V. Flippo
I recently found myself standing in line at a local grocery store, grabbing a few items on my way home from a long day at work. As I stood there next in line, I heard the cashier tell the customer ahead of me, “Yup, there are no bad days.”
She agreed, replying, “Yes, it’s all about your attitude.”
No bad days. It must have been one of those days, or perhaps it was that I was tired and had been contemplating the loss of eight officers within one week across our nation. I couldn’t let it go …
I moved forward in line as the customer ahead of me left. As the cashier grabbed the first of my items, I told him, “I have to disagree.” His brow wrinkled and he seemed confused. I clarified myself and said, “No bad days—I have to disagree. There are bad days that affect us all in very real ways.”
The cashier seemed confused and then proceeded to challenge me. It’s all about perspective on how we face the challenges of life, etc.
I agreed with him and told him that attitude has a lot to do with it. “I tend to be a cup is a half full type of guy,” I admitted.
And then I got real. I told him that I had been a cop for almost 28 years and that there are things such as bad days. The murder of an eight-year-old girl, that’s a bad day. Watching the life fade out of 15 year-olds eyes after he had been accidentally shot by his friend—bad day. Discovering that the two girls who had been killed in the DUI crash were the daughters of people you attended church with—bad all over. I told him that I have seen bad things happen to good people. I also asked him to remember all first responders who serve and realize the trauma that we face and the impact it has on us.
Here’s why I did this.
Too often, the community thinks of the physical risks of our jobs as only the physical harm we face. That is a reality, but all of us are also impacted by the traumatic stress we are frequently exposed to throughout our careers. I left the now-befuddled cashier and told him that like him, I believe every day is a gift and we do have a choice regarding our attitude. But life is much more complex than a simple positive slogan.
But the real tragedy—the point of this article, if you will—is that we, as a profession and community of first responders, are failing each other and ourselves. We are failing at preparing each other for the realities of cumulative stress. We aren’t educating the next generation and the current generation on the impacts of traumatic stress on our lives and identifying the skills needed to cope with, prevent, and deal with the traumatic stress that will be a part of our lives once we don the badge. We’ve improved on educating ourselves regarding diet, exercise, limiting the consumption of alcohol, and maintaining a balanced life. However; we have not done an adequate job of identifying the effects of cumulative stress as a result of frequent exposure to trauma.
We can be much better prepared for the times in our lives when this stress will rise to the surface and demonstrate itself through a lack of sleep caused by vividly realistic horrific dreams, unaccounted mood and emotional swings, and the display of mental images that come out of nowhere—images that have us relive an event with a vivid photographic snapshot of a horrific event or scene on the screen of our mind.
As an industry, we have gotten better through the use of critical incident debriefs, peer support teams, employee sponsored counseling, and medical referrals when needed. We have not however changed our culture regarding what Jim Glennon calls the Number One occupational hazard of this work: stress.
The unspoken rule is that there are still things we don’t speak about. We still have to suck it up, shake it off, and suppress the emotions of the event and focus on our job. We can get help, but others will still wonder if somehow the person who needed the help still doesn’t have the grit to hack the job.
This sentiment is not out of spite. It is instead a lack of understanding of how stress impacts each individual at different levels and in different ways. We often still question why one officer is impacted by an event when the others involved seem totally unaffected.
Thankfully, we are beginning to change this culture. Wellness programs are on the rise. We are starting to highlight and address the issue of the high rates of suicide, and, yes, we are beginning to talk to one another about the things that impact us. I believe we can still do more.
As a member of executive management, I see that we as department heads often forget about the wellbeing of our biggest asset, our people. Agencies need to create a culture where we are focused on the physical and mental health of our men and women. Focused efforts should address the simple steps that can help reduce stress. Stay hydrated, eat healthy snacks, establish healthy resting and sleeping habits, exercise (even if it means just doing a park check on foot), focused breathing, and talking about incidents with a trusted confidante rather than bottling it inside.
Agencies also need to budget for it. Yes, we budget for so many things to keep an agency running and most departments have lean budgets or face reductions. However, the truth is, we also budget for what we value. It’s rare that executives are championing the need to maintain a highly trained and healthy workforce when we are discussing budgets to our city councils, city managers, or board of supervisors. Are we willing to champion work out space, nutritional guidance, health screenings, and other wellness programs? I believe agencies have been making great strides in this area. But this is not yet infused into the law enforcement culture, especially at the top.
This truth was exemplified to me recently when I signed up several of my officers to attend a week-long trauma retreat. Previous attendees have shared with me that this retreat was life-changing and provided them with the tools they needed to cope with the traumatic stress that had impacted their lives. The coordinator was surprised that my department and administration was willing to send and pay for so many of our staff to attend. She advised that the majority of departments are unable to send their staff due to the cost despite its effectiveness.
We budget what we value, or what we are willing to fight for. The value of our employees should be within the line items of our budgets. Executives need to champion for the programs that will help our officers remain healthy both mentally and physically, which will result in a more effective and successful officer on the streets.
We are making small steps as an industry but we will need to continue to forge new ground as we change our culture. As an industry, we need to better prepare our current and future men and women on recognizing, preparing for, and living with the stress of the job.