Police officers in the U.S. are assaulted less often than in earlier decades, yet 93 percent of cops surveyed recently by the Pew Research Center said they were more concerned about their safety after high-profile incidents involving African Americans.
A group of experts gathered yesterday near Washington, D.C., to discuss “keeping police officers safe and well,” a subject that already has the attention of President Donald Trump.
The session was organized by CNA, a nonprofit research organization that works with the U.S. Justice Department on policing issues.
The consensus was that today’s police need not only better training and equipment but also support services that help them deal with managing the stress of the job.
Police in the U.S. “encounter tragedy and chaos on a routine basis,” said CNA public safety director James (Chips) Stewart, a former officer who later headed the National Institute of Justice. He described police as typically outnumbered and vulnerable, both physically and emotionally.
One police chief, Will Johnson of Arlington, Tx., argued yesterday for a comprehensive approach to police wellness, including such elements as “reality-based training,” more community engagement,” and sufficient equipment, such as heavy body armor and rifles.
Getting out more in public is important for officers despite all the conflict they must deal with, because “the majority of people like us,” Johnson said.
Brandi Burque, a staff psychologist for the San Antonio Police Department, said officers need better training in “stress management” and dealing with personal issues such as nutrition and sleep.
Police reformers have been campaigning for law enforcement agencies to adopt “de-escalation” techniques when dealing with tense encounters involving mentally ill persons, minorities, and others. Burque contended that such training won’t be effective unless officers are able to deal with their own stress. She runs a “cop and doc” program in her city that aims at producing officers with a “winning mindset.”
While many police observers have focused on problems such as ambushes of officers, which have not markedly increased in recent years, what is typically ignored is police suicides, said Jim Baker, former director of the Vermont State Police now on the staff of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Of 64 officers who were shot to death last year by firearms, including 21 shot and killed in ambush-style incidents, says the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. During the same year, 108 committed suicide, according to one study.
Two speakers, James Coldren of CNA and criminologist Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, traced some police woes to a lack of “internal procedural justice” in police departments.
If officers were treated better in disciplinary proceedings and other personnel matters, “they would do a better job in the community,” Coldren said. “If we take care of police officers, they will take care of you.”
One bit of good news for police is that recent U.S. presidents have given an unusual amount of attention to their problems, said CNA’s Stewart.
After the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Former President Obama appointed a Task Force on 21st Century policing that issued a report in 2015. One of the group’s six main conclusions dealt with officer wellness and safety, finding that “physical, mental, and emotional injuries plague many law enforcement agencies.”
On February 9, President Trump issued an executive order on preventing violence against law enforcement officers. In addition to creating new federal crimes and expanding penalties for attacks on police, Trump ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recommend legislation or more federal aid “to adequately support and protect Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.