Wearable Sensors: A Self-Assessment Tool for the Emotional Well-Being of Police Officers

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The police profession is noble and courageous, requiring mental and physical toughness. Many police officers make it through a lengthy career physically unscathed, but the traumatic incidents they endure throughout a career along with the overall demands of the profession can take a toll on their psychological well-being. Officers who are mentally incapacitated cannot adequately serve their communities and can be a danger to their partners and themselves.

Job-related stress in policing is directly correlated to increased sick days off due to physical health and various mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Stress disorders among police officers are becoming a national epidemic.

Police officers tend to refrain from expressing their feelings which causes them to choose unhealthy coping mechanisms such as abuse of alcohol or participating in risk-taking behaviors (Levenson, 2016). According to a 2018 IACP advertisement for the course “Bulletproof Mind” the unmanaged stress of police officers has a number of adverse outcomes: Suicide is the #1 cause of death for officers; 20% of officers will have at least one addiction; 25% of officers have stressed-based health issues; 40% of officers have serious sleep problems. These outcomes have a direct impact on an officer’s agency and the community.

There is a code of secrecy around mental illness in police agencies, a code that is difficult to break through (O’Hara, 2017b). Although their job is to help others and encourage people to open up to them, police officers have a hard time seeking help and typically keep their personal problems to themselves. In a job that creates cynicism in the streets, there is more reluctance to trust the internal culture of one’s department. Fortunately, there is a newer and younger generation of police officers that are more open to seeking help and the stigmas and fears about discussing mental health are gradually eroding (O’Hara, 2018). As the willingness of the newest generation of officers to explore ways to enhance their mental wellness rises, technologies are emerging to help facilitate just that.

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The Future Is Now

Throughout their careers, police officers train and mentally prepare for high risk and dangerous calls. Officers are trained and equipped to respond to a critical request for help out in the streets. Once the call is handled, then it’s back to duty and on to the next call for service. Some calls linger with officers even after they are completed, and the aftermath causes anxiety, sleeplessness, stress, and emotional strains on their physical and mental health. There are officers who will cry out for assistance, yet the majority won’t. Their training didn’t prepare them for this part of the job, and they are often reluctant to request psychological help because they are too proud to do so or don’t realize they need help. There already technologies, though, that can help officers help themselves control their stress and the illnesses it may cause. In fact, many are already commonly seen in policing.

If you were to attend a roll call at a police department, you would notice that today’s officers are wearing a biosensor of some sort. Whether it a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, modern-day police officers have adapted to and are accustomed to wearable technology. These devices are usually used by the officer to provide insight into their physical state by monitoring their heart rate, steps taken, or calories consumed. While these commonly used devices are used to monitor physical outcomes, wearable sensor devices are now available, though, that are designed to monitor emotions, and can monitor how those emotions directly relate to physical reactions while in the field. These devices provide an opportunity to introduce a wearable device for this purpose into the law enforcement culture, and to use the data to enhance police officers effectiveness, while also improving the outcomes officers experience in any encounter with the public.

Introducing wearable sensor devices into the police culture as a self-assessment tool to monitor police officers’ emotional well-being and stress would provide real-time feedback to police officers. Police officers thrive on information and will react to information that is factual rather than assumed. Wearable devices can provide police officers with feedback of their emotional well-being and make a notification if the officer needs assistance. This notification may save an officer’s career and maybe his or her life. Rather than merely allowing them to be worn, agencies should consider ways to use what is already occurring to create a system for better management of stress in ways that will benefit not only the individual, but also the organization.

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Police Officer Stress and High-Risk Behaviors

Police officer candidates spend six months in a police academy learning how to do the job of a police officer. During this time, they are instructed on how to be safe, and the term “officer safety” is embedded in them throughout the training program. Of the forty-three learning domains required by the California Peace Officers Standards and Training, only 1, Learning Domain 32, briefly touches on emotional health and well-being (CA POST, 2018).

This Learning Domain covers “Lifetime Fitness” and mainly focuses on physical fitness. A very small portion of the learning domain requires a brief facilitated discussion regarding illnesses associated with the law enforcement career, including emotional stress and the short- and long-term effects of using or abusing alcohol, tobacco, or others enhancing supplements (CA POST, 2018).

The avoidance of the issue regarding emotional reactions and survival continues when officers get to the streets, during field training and ultimately goes on throughout their career. They are issued a bulletproof vest, a gun, Taser, and other tools to keep them, other officers and the community safe. Police officers are well equipped to do their jobs as crime fighters in the community but they are not well equipped to handle the emotional roller coaster the career takes them on.

This rollercoaster is one that can sometimes lead to self-destruction and even suicide. The Badge of Life Organization places the rate of police suicides nationally amongst active duty police officers at 125 to 150 per year (Roufa, 2017). A study by Blue H.E.L.P which is an organization that tracks officer suicides found that 158 police officers died by suicide in 2018. By comparison, 144 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty. Of the 2018 officers who died as a result of suicide, 150 were male and 8 were female. The average age was 41 years with an average length of 15 years of service (“Research Shows That 158,” 2018). The number of police officers who died by suicide is nearly more than triple that of officers who were fatally shot in the line of duty, yet departments mandate bullet resistant vests with no mandate for mental health protections (Heyman, Dill, & Douglas, 2018).

In the hallways of some police departments are posters that serve as reminders of the number of officers killed in the line of duty from years prior. The reminders show totals for those who died by gunfire, vehicle accidents or other violent acts. The number of officers who committed suicide isn’t addressed; yet it’s the leading cause of death each year.

John Violanti, a professor of public health at the University of Buffalo, suggests that police academies should spend as much energy preparing officers for the stress of the job as they do on firearms, driving, self-protection, and self-defense (Weiss,n,d). Violanti’s suggestion could not only enhance performance in their field, but literally save an officer’s life.

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A Proactive Approach to Mental Wellness

According to Andy O’Hara, a retired California Highway Patrol Sergeant and the founder of the Badge of Life Organization, the fears that officers have is whether information they share with others who are connected to their department about their mental health will be kept confidential (2017a). Police agencies have implemented wellness programs to ensure officers have somewhere to go when they just aren’t feeling right emotionally. There are peer support programs, employee assistance programs, and chaplain programs set up within departments that are geared toward helping officers. Even with all of these options and interventions, the rates of suicide have gone unchanged. Technology doesn’t yet have a role in the current support programs, but it should.

A Path Forward

Having the ability to utilize technology to gauge feelings and emotions can make a big difference in allowing police officers to work on their psychological well-being independently and take a proactive approach to emotional wellness. Available wearable devices that monitor emotion and stress include sensor integrated wristbands and headbands that monitor breathing patterns and heart rate to provide users with information about what may be happening with their emotional responses to stimulus.

There are devices that can read brain waves to measure and monitor cognitive health and well-being. Also, clip-on devices that attach to clothing are now available. In fact, Apple’s new iWatch 4 has an integrated ECG monitor the wearer can use to assess atrial fibrillation, even printing out a report they can take to their medical provider. Agencies should consider ways to formalize opportunities for their staff to monitor and care for their physical and mental health. In addition to readily-available commercial devices, there are wearables that can do much more than track one’s calories burned.

For instance, Spire, a company that launched in recent years, has introduced a wearable device called the Health Tag. The device attaches to clothing and is the size of box of tic tacs and tracks the users breathing patterns, activity, stress, and anxiety levels (Cakebread, 2017). It connects to a smartphone app and tracks data from the Health Tag device. The Health Tag uses a breath tracker that monitors the rhythms of a person’s breathing and It can show when someone is stressed, tense, calm and focused (Lappe, 2018). The device will send reminders throughout the day to the user to work on breathing if the nervous system puts out a fight or flight emergency. The Health Tag can help establish patterns and evaluate what triggers stress, so the user can get to the root of the problem (Cakebread, 2017).

A police officer’s job can often contribute to physical and emotional stress, which can compromise the officer’s ability to serve and protect effectively (IACP, 2018). Very often police officers are not aware of the prolonged emotional wear and tear that they experience during their career, and don’t know when they may need help. The first step of realization is with data that can be measured and reacted upon with services and resources to meet the officers’ needs. Promoting wearable sensors within the police culture will lead to greater self-awareness that allows police officers to be more effective in their jobs thus providing better service to the community.

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Conclusion

With the future workforce being reliant on technology, there will be an expectation for law enforcement agencies to provide innovative tools to meet the needs and expectations of employees. The progression of biometric technology provides an ultimate tool for police officers to self-monitor their activity levels and have factual information about their emotional well-being that will trigger the need for them to redirect adverse reactions and seek resources that support positive behavior.

Exploring the option of outfitting police officers with wearable technology in the workplace is another step to assist them in maintaining psychological wellness in a demanding and challenging career. The cost-benefit side of this issue is very clear, as a few hundred-dollar tool is well worth the life and career of a police officer. The cost of a wearable device, along with data storage/software and replacement would be far less than the price of a bullet restraint vest, yet agencies rarely consider vest optional lifesaving equipment. Studying the available technology and incorporating new tools in existing wellness programs will provide the future generation of law enforcement the opportunity to enjoy a long and prosperous career and potentially erase the long-standing stigma of discussing psychological wellness.

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REFERENCES

Cakebread, Caroline. (2017, November 17) “A San Francisco Startup Is Offering a Health and Fitness Wearable for People Who Forget to Charge Theirs or Put Them On.” Retrieved from https: // www.businessinsider.com/the-spire-health-tag-is-a-wearable-that-you-dont-have-to-put-on-2017-11.

Heymann, M., Dill, J., & Douglas, R. (2018, April). Study: Police Officers and Firefighters Are More Likely to Die by Suicide than in Line of Duty. Retrieved from http://rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/police-officers-and-firefighters-are-more-likely-to-die-by-suicide-than-in-line-of-duty/

International Association of Chiefs of Police (2018).  Retrieved from https://www.theiacp.org/projects/mental-wellness-of-police-officers

Lappe, M. (2018, October 16). This Tiny Device Attaches to Your Clothing and Tracks Your Stress Levels. Retrieved from https://gearpatrol.com/2018/10/15/review-spire-health-tag/

Levenson, R., Jr. (2016, June 27). Why departments need to develop mental health programs for cops. Retrieved from https://www.policeone.com/health-fitness/articles/192899006-Why-departments-need-to-develop-mental-health-programs-for-cops/

O’Hara, A. (2017a, April 02). Police Suicide – And The Solutions. Retrieved from http://lawofficer.com/special-topics/suicide/police-suicide-and-the-solutions/.

O’Hara, A. (2017b, October 3). It’s Time We Talk About Police Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/10/03/it-s-time-we-talk-about-police-suicide

O’Hara, A. (2018, January 01). 2017 Police Suicides-A Continuing Crisis. Retrieved from http://lawofficer.com/exclusive/2017-police-suicides-continuing-crisis/

“Research Shows That 158 Police Officers Died by Suicide in 2018.” Police Magazine, 1 Jan. 2019, www.policemag.com/500813/research-shows-that-158-police-officers-died-by-suicide-in-2018.

Roufa, T. (n.d.). Enforcing Health: The Importance of Wellness Programs for Police. Retrieved from https://www.thebalance.com/wellness-programs-for-police-officers-974884

State of California Commission. (2018). Retrieved from https://post.ca.gov/Home

Weiss, J. (n.d.). The toll of duty. Retrieved from https://apps.bostonglobe.com/true-crime/toll-of-duty/

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– Sam Arroyo, investigations commander, Ventura Police Department

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