In a classroom at Santa Monica College, police officers are learning something the academy didn’t teach them.
Standing at the front of the room, Joe Collins, a police chief from Wisconsin, asks the officers if they have a saying they use to anchor themselves.
One raises her hand.
“Lead with love,” she says. The officer from El Monte, Calif. says she repeats the phrase to herself to remember her purpose both as a cop and a mother.
Collins, who is also the co-chair of the Officer Safety and Wellness Committee (OSWC) for the FBI National Academy, tells the officers that repeating such a phrase while undergoing stress or trauma can lend a sense of calm and focus.
Collins is part of a new national program that aims to help officers cope with the inevitable trauma that results from working as a cop. The program came to Santa Monica this week to train officers from departments across California, including the Santa Monica Police Department, on how to handle their mental health.
“We’ve failed at providing the tools officers need to take care of themselves,” he said. “It’s about breaking down the walls of stigma around mental health.”
The problem is severe both locally and nationally. Los Angeles Police Department officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the field, a trend consistent in departments around the country. Nearly one in four officers have thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives and report far higher rates of depression, traumatic stress and anxiety than the general population.
Mental health issues affect not just officers, but their families. The profession has a high divorce rate and several studies have found that the romantic partners of police suffer domestic abuse at rates significantly higher than the general population.
“Some of these officers see more trauma in a given week than many people do in a lifetime,” said Dr. Michael Genovese, medical director of OSWC and chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare. “The point is to help these officers build their resiliency, which is the ability to withstand, recover and grow in the face of stressors. We look at it as preventative medicine.”
Collins said officers find it hard to ask for help because they think think they can’t take care of others if someone needs to take care of them.
Johnnie Adams, chief of the Santa Monica College Police Department, said he knew of one officer who responded to the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista and wouldn’t talk to his wife about it after he got home.
“He just shut down,” Adams said.
Part of the training involves training officers to identify their support system. Collins asked officers to identify their “Board of Directors,” or people who inform their deepest beliefs and can serve as a lifeline during times of adversity.
Most put their families and friends on their Board of Directors. One officer included her dogs.
“They teach me to let go, be silly and love unconditionally,” she said.
The training Collins held Thursday was focused on a spiritual approach to mental health, which Genovese said has to do with core values and purpose as well as religion. The other three domains of the training are mental, physical and social.
“The mental approach has to do with awareness, adaptability and positive thinking,” Genovese said. “The physical part is more to do with exercise and diet, while the social includes communication, connectedness, social support and teamwork.”
Adams said the hope is that training officers how to cope with trauma and stress will not just help them, but the communities they work in. Poor mental health can contribute to police misconduct, he said.
The program has held 14 trainings around the country since May 2017 and is planning to hold about a dozen more in 2019, Genovese said. Each officer trained becomes an instructor who can hold the training for their own department, and there are now more than 200 of them.
While many departments have employee assistance programs (EAPs) to prevent and treat trauma and stress, many programs take officers out of the field for the duration of treatment. Genovese said that approach disincentivizes officers from seeking help.
“In general, the culture in law enforcement has been that you don’t talk about this stuff,” he said. “The fact that Santa Monica has requested this training means they’re a step ahead of a lot of departments. This is survival training for the 21st century.”