Building a Resilient Police Force
A growing body of research has emerged about officer resilience. Resiliency is defined as the officer’s ability to “bounce back” from a stressful or life threatening event, or the ability to adapt to a significant event or trauma (Paton, Violanti, and Smith, 2003). The concept has also been referred to as “hardiness, “ that is, the individual characteristics, personality traits, and past experiences that help shape how officers handle stress. Some qualities are learned through social interactions with peers while others come as natural behaviors and tendencies. Regardless of its orientation, emotional hardiness is an indicator of how we successfully manage stressful events.
There are also many environmental and organizational aspects of resiliency to explore such as the existing work environment and perceived organizational barriers. An officer’s perceptions of his or her current environment will either support or undermine his or her ability to handle stress. A positive work climate influences perceptions of self-worth and makes employees feel supported and valued. A positive working environment also enhances an officer’s ability to make stressful events more meaningful and manageable (Violanti, 2010).
Building resilience starts with a commitment from the organization and must extend throughout the organizational process at all levels. Its ideology begins at the pre-employment and selection process and must continue throughout an officer’s career. Factors that contribute to resiliency should be considered when hiring new officers. Having the ability to understand candidate’s past experiences with traumatic events and their ability to deal with stressful events will help departments select more qualified, productive, and resilient police officers. At the same time, building resiliency training into the organizational process will assist officers as they progress through healthy and productive careers.
Resiliency is also supported in another ways through the physical environment. A supportive and positive work environment is a space where officers can feel safe and secure while providing privacy when needed. These settings allow officers the opportunity to better manage the cumulative effects of stress and handle the acute nature of critical incidents. Too often, officers tend to isolate themselves when experiencing levels of distress. Without a safe and supportive space within the organization, officers tend to isolate themselves in their cars, either alone or in groups. The isolative approach to managing stress symbolically distances the officer from the organization. The decision to deal with stressful events in private and away from co-workers and supervisors can cause negative feelings and thoughts to ruminate forcing officers to internalize their stress as opposed to sharing those events with others. This exacerbates the stress response and diminishes their ability to further cope with the professional demands of the job.
The following is a check list that can help build resilience In your department:
Work Space: Having a space suitable for officers to congregate in private where they can process critical events…preferably away from the public eye and equipped with desks, chairs, etc.
Work Station: Having a secure and private space to display and keep personal effects (pictures of family, appropriate mementos, etc.) that reflect their commitment to themselves, their family and to their co-workers….preferably a desks or other suitable structure.
Private Space: Having a private space to complete paperwork, reports, search warrants, etc.
Gathering Space: Having a space where co-workers and supervisors have the ability to meet and debrief events and to process thoughts and ideas in private.
Sonny J Provetto, MSW, LCSW
Retired State Police