Police Officer Training: What Departments Can Do to Improve Officer Safety and Well-Being
Chief David Moore of the Martin Police Department in Tennessee was passionate about law enforcement even when he was still a student at the University of Tennessee at Martin. While taking classes and cramming for mid-terms and finals, he worked as a dispatcher for the department. He eventually became a patrol officer in 1990 and worked his way up through the ranks to become chief 13 years later. Along the way, he has made officer safety and wellness a high priority. He intends to continue this mission even after his retirement from the department on April 10, after which he will be starting a new career as Vice President of a division of Savant Learning Systems where he will spearhead a training platform for law enforcement called V-Academy.
In a recent interview, he stated, “We need to identify our weaknesses and openly and honestly address them. There are questions that I think are important that departments ask. Are we losing officers to job-related injuries? If yes, what are the contributing factors to those injuries? How, as leaders and managers, can we mitigate those factors? Does fitness play a role? Do we encourage fitness through wellness programs? Do we create positive peer encouragement for wellness within our ranks? Do we have early warning systems in place to indicate when officers may be depressed? These are all issues that department leadership has to be at the forefront of.”
When asked what are the biggest threats that today’s police agencies face, he was quick to respond with the first and most obvious one. “Threats associated with violent acts by others has always been and will always be of primary concern to police officers. We know that this is an inherent part of our job. During my career, rates of assault on police officers have trended both up and down, but the potential is ever present and must be accounted for in equipping, training, managing, and leading our officers effectively on the job.”
Moore continued, “Vehicle operation is another high-risk area for police officers. What we call ‘distracted driving’ in the civilian world, we call ‘multi-tasking’ for police officers. I think it is important for us to recognize that mentally and physiologically, we’re all human. We can only do so many things at one time. The more things we put into our cars, the more distractions we give to our police officers. It’s no wonder that we have the crash rates that we do. Add on to that the occasional pursuit and the emergency responses, and the stage is set for crashes resulting too often in injury or death for both ourselves and the public at large. We place an enormous amount of expectations on our officers to split their concentration in so many ways. But to take a step back and look at that, we need to recognize that most of us are not at the top of our driving game when we have so many distractions going on. What we have to do is plan for that, plan our policies accordingly.”
Moore’s passion for the job and care for his officers came into play when he served five years as the state association of chiefs of police (SACOP) representative for Tennessee with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). He is currently the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police’s immediate past-president, and he applauds the IACP for making safety and wellness such a high priority. To him, the two go hand in hand. “Officer safety depends first and foremost on a person being healthy to begin with,” he stated. “The healthy officer faces enough challenges throughout the course of a law enforcement career. Add to that the stressors associated with obesity or lethargy, and the risks are certain to increase. From a holistic view of officers’ wellness—mind, body, and spirit—all are enhanced through a physical fitness priority.”
Moore, who likes to paint himself as a cagey veteran from the old school, applauds the number of young male and female officers coming up now who are displaying such a strong commitment to their physical fitness. “More so than I was and those who came in with me were back 27 years ago!” he cracked.
To this end, he believes that buy-in by all of the members of a department is key for any fitness or wellness program to be successful. Acknowledgement and a clear statement by administrators that fitness is important is only the beginning. “Putting our money where our mouth is can help develop the buy in,” he added. “If your budget allows, that may come in the form of providing no-cost or low-cost gym membership if you don’t have the ability to build out a facility within your agency; promoting good-natured healthy competitions and encouragements; and finding a champion or champions within the ranks who will carry those fitness programs forward as informal leaders. Those are all critical components.”
His department participated in a SACOP/Safeshield year-long study on officer injuries a few years ago. “One of the factors the study considered was the overall health of the agency at the beginning, which gave us a benchmark,” he said. “One of the things we did was a Body Mass Index (BMI) for our entire police department. It was all voluntary, but everybody volunteered. What was surprising was that overall rates were pretty high. So, something as simple as getting everybody to do a Body Mass Index, get some averages, and see where you’re at and then have some healthy departmental competition to try and reduce that BMI is one example of something you can do to improve. Best of all, that doesn’t put the onus on one person. It doesn’t single one person out. You have a group rating, a group goal, and it makes it all a team effort.”
Getting the ball rolling can be as simple as bringing someone in from a local fitness facility. In many instances, leadership may even find such a professional who is willing to donate his/her time and expertise for the benefit of public safety. “Beyond that, in my opinion, it takes encouragement and not penalty,” Moore insisted. “I am all about building buy-in rather than building out mandates. I consider myself to be an environmentalist. Creating a positive opportunity for self improvement will have desired effects. My role is to create that positive environment for those within the agency to get the very best out of themselves. If you approach it with that mindset, then micro-management becomes unnecessary. I didn’t hire you to raise you.”
He concluded, “Much is said about generational differences in the workforce. I see officers coming into my agency that are conscious about their fitness, conscious about their well-being, about hydrating, and about making a healthy lifestyle more a part of their daily routine. It will certainly be easier to make fitness a directive if everyone already buys into it. The mindset that we’re forcing officers to do something that is against their best interests is something we have to get away from. Perhaps generationally, at least in this arena, we’re changing in a positive direction.”
Reprinted from IACP on Officer Safety and Wellness, March 2015. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc., 44 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314. Further reproduction without express permission from IACP is strictly prohibited.