I have a proposal for effectively addressing the physical, emotional and psychological damage that police work does to human beings. The model is our fleet management programs. In recent years departments have throughly modernized their preventive maintenance and repair programs for the motorized fleet. We can apply the same principles to maintain and care properly for the fleet of humans who drive the cars and do this uniquely complex work.
This improved approach is based on squarely facing the reality of the effects of police work on humans. Historically we’ve ignored it. It’s absent from our recruit and in-service training regimens. Research is slim. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin’s 2000 book is still the best current training text. You can’t find human maintenance in the Policies and Procedures. Bosses have no expressed responsibility for the maintenance of the human beings. (Read your department’s P&P on vehicles and you’ll see spelled out lots of supervisory responsibility for cars). As often as not accepting help is experienced as vaguely punitive. People get “sent” to the “stress unit.” The onus is on the individual. The signals come from everywhere, from the locker room to the TV screen. Instead of everyone getting regularly scheduled preventive tune-ups of the emotional, psychological and physical systems, we wait for the crisis. And when all is said and done the crisis is seen as the individual’s failure and responsibility.
We know that the miles on the police vehicle odometer represent much more punishment to the vehicle than the same number of miles on a civilian vehicle. (Only the cheap or the desperate buy used police vehicles at auction.) The same is true for the humans. Gilmartin and others have demonstrated plainly that physiological hypervigilance affects EVERYONE who puts on a police badge. Cops must maintain a state of hypervigilance because if the ever-present unknown risks that define policing. Many professions are more lethal than policing. But the risks are known. In policing the risks can and do come from anywhere. No one escapes the effects. The brain automatically shifts to a hypervigilant state when the human pins the badge on his or her chest and goes to work. That’s because the brain has been trained by evolution over many millennia to get you home after the shift.
The new program in Human Fleet Maintenance could be the most far-reaching strategic intervention that a leader can make in comprehensive organization health . By effectively addressing what Gilmartin calls the “emotional survival” of our personnel we might improve health; support emotional and spiritual well-being; and boost productivity. I wager that we can reduce labor mistrust of management; reduce sick leave abuses; and address emerging problems before they spiral out of control. We can improve espirit de corps and that elusive concept, morale.
When a vehicle is damaged in the course of a shift, we assess the problem and decide when to get it fixed. The onus in not on the vehicle. No one judges the car as individually deficient because when the perp’s car smashed into it, the front end sustained damage.
Only the most backward — or wealthiest — would expect our vehicles to go 10,000 miles with no preventive maintenance and to forego repairs when trauma strikes. We would never say. “The job is tough. Our vehicles are just gonna have to absorb the damage and keep going.” We would not wait until our vehicles break down under extreme conditions of cold, heat or operation at high speed.
The stuff that adds stress are experiences like the DV calls with scared and injured women and children. Officers report the emotional damage they incur from a sense of helplessness in the face of human suffering. That wears on the physical, emotional and spiritual/psychological systems of our personnel. The effects accumulate. It strikes hardest at the veteran in his or her 30’s with 10+ years on. Remember, it’s with this young veterans cohort that we see the greatest concentration of suicides, in a profession whose suicide rate is very significantly above the national average. Cops commit suicide almost at what everyone acknowledges is the hideously high rate of suicide among military service personnel.
So. Here are the outlines of a program for maintaining the human fleet.
Start educating our personnel about hypervigilance in the academy and build maintenance into in-service training and periodic roll call reminders. Teach them that the hypervigilance effects come simply from the act of putting on the badge and going out on the street. Anger, impatience, fatigue. These are normal reactions to living in a hypervigilant state 8 hours a day. It’s hard to turn off at the end of the shift. We need to build in resources that facilitate healthy management of these normal reactions to abnormal workplace stress. We cannot change hypervigilance. We need it for street survival. We can change how people respond to the EFFECTS of hypervigilance.
Gilmartin found that while suicide is on the upswing, fewer officers are getting killed in the line of duty now than in the 1950’s. Over time, police leaders saw a crisis and trained personnel how to make safe car stops. We changed the norm. No officers would approach a car by slapping his two hands on the roof and presenting his stomach to the driver. Similarly, no officer would leave the station house without a portable radio, which their forebears resisted mightily in the 1970’s.
We can change things. We have to find the will.
Let’s start at the beginning and keep it simple. Let’s begin through our normal set of teaching and training opportunities to help personnel in these areas. (AND WE HAVE TIME TO DO THINGS. We just need to analyze how we use abuse that most precious of resources – time – and use it more strategically.)
Establish a Human Fleet Management Unit in Patrol. Work out the details as you learn. Make the building of TRUST the Numero Uno, A-Number 1, Job 1 VALUE that guides everything. Never, ever, never damage its credibility. Within this philosophy, here are a few starter tactics to consider.
The internal web site. A place to present the thousands of links you’ll find.
The Friday Crab Club. The legendary August Vollmer did this as chief In Berkeley CA way back in the early 20th century. Not exactly new and radical. Weekly bullshit sessions where you can process stress with your buddies in the unit but have to put a buck into a kitty every time you blame another sworn member for your issues. Use the money to give to charity, have fun or do something else that makes people feel good about themselves, spiritually and emotionally.
Encouragement. If all it took was education, we’d all be skinny. We need encouragement to take action. Develop campaigns. Put up electronic and paper signage. Make stuff easy to find in locker rooms and guardrooms. Tie it all into the negotiation with the health insurance provider. ‘FREE FAB SNEAKERS if you do just one thing.’ Bring in notable guests to do demonstrations at roll call, AND ETC., ad infinitum.
Rest and Relaxation techniques. Getting in the car and turning on opera music is not relaxing. It’s just listening to music. Let’s offer lots of easy-to-access programs for meditation, every kind of legitimate yoga, therapeutic massage and injury rehab class.
Let’s link up with every moderate exercise program within a 15-minute drive of the station house. Let’s make connections with ice skating venues, dance classes, basketball and hockey leagues, equestrian programs, martial arts, softball, recreational jogging and walking AND ETC., ad infinitum.
Let’s link up with every hobbyist opportunity in the same radius. Woodworking, model railroading, hunting and fishing, sports coaching clinics, travel clubs, stamp collecting, quilting, AND ETC., ad infinitum.
Sleep. If we REALLY loved them we would put a humane limit on the number of work hours permitted in a work week. We would cap detail and OT hours. Ever wait for a flight because the crew passed its FAA limit for hours without rest? Let’s do a similar rule for cops. Get everybody reviewed for sleep disorders — which abound in policing — every year at in-service. The review could be a brief questionnaire. We have to stop self-imposed sleep deprivation. Remember: sleep deprivation is used as an interrogation technique universally and is seen a form of torture by many.
Recovery. We have alcoholics and drug addicts and gambling addicts. Put links to AA and NA and GA on the internal website. Make literature available and make it OK to seek help.
Nutrition. Help people to avoid managing stress by eating too many calories and too many unhealthy calories. Help people make heart-healthy, weight-healthy choices.
We can make these changes in culture. We just have to want to make them.