FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
Should agencies be able to impose fitness requirements on cops? Not just physical, but emotional? Perhaps just as challenging a question: How much responsibility do officers and agencies bear for the areas of physical and emotional fitness for duty? Even more complicated: How intertwined are the physical and emotional fitness factors for police?
Do You Know this Guy?
Consider this scenario. A 10-year officer begins to suffer shortness of breath during routine tasks like getting in and out of a patrol car. When this officer came out of the academy, he was in the best shape of his life. Just short of 6 feet tall, he weighed in at a solid 180. During his first two years on the job, he seldom lost a foot pursuit. Somewhere around the five year mark, he noticed his body armor no longer fit properly and his uniform pant waist was now an uncomfortable size 40.
At seven years in, he was divorced and drawing more than his share of complaints. He rationalized that others just didn’t understand what he had given to the job and he began to find comfort in alcohol and anti-depressants. Sleep became elusive and back to the doctor he went, quickly becoming reliant on medication that clearly warned against long-term use or combining with alcohol.
Reaching the 10-year mark, he was recognized for his “dedicated service” along with other tenured employees. He missed the ceremony because he was dead to the world after a swing shift followed by intense self-medication. Now carrying the equivalent of seven bowling balls of extra weight, he’d given up on any semblance of physical fitness. Foot chases were a distant memory. He hated his life. He hated his job and, most of the time, he hated himself. It seemed like the only thing he could depend on was the temporary solace offered by a friend named Jack Daniels. No one else seemed to understand.
Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon scenario. Too many of us have looked the other way for too long. So whose “job” is it to fix this? Can it be fixed? These are tough questions. There isn’t a simple, singular answer. The reality is that cops don’t get this way overnight and, once in this condition, they don’t pull out of it overnight. Some of you will see yourself in the above scenario. Most of you will know someone who’s in a similar situation. This type of condition is an absolute threat to officer safety, to the person suffering and the people they work with. It’s also a hazard to the community.
What about emotional fitness? Did you know that we lose more than three times as many active-duty cops to suicide every year as we do to bad guys? According to a national study (www.PoliceSuicideStudy.com), there were 141 suicides in 2008 and 143 in 2009. (There were 41 and 48 murdered those years, respectively, according to the FBI.)
As Bullethead said in last month’s column, “Cops need to stop caring about what the head shed does—we can’t change it! We need to do our best at work, and then go home and love our families and enjoy our hobbies.”
Can it really be that simple? For some, it can. But for others who start the downward spiral, intervention in one form or another is an absolute. Whether it’s self-initiated (ideal), informal peer counseling or mandated therapy and follow-up, none of us can shirk our basic responsibilities to our personnel and the public. The time to get a plan is now—not when faced with a crisis. Many officers will seek help if they think they can do so without fear of losing their job or suffering other career ramifications.
If you find yourself on this slippery slope, you can stop the downhill momentum by engaging in a physical routine. Find something that works for you and pursue it with a passion. The key is to choose something that you enjoy and then work like your life depends on it, because it does.
Finally, for those who need help and need a safe place to call, there’s a wonderful organization called Safe Call Now (www.SafeCallNow.org; 206/459-3020). It’s free and it’s confidential. Use it.
Maintaining fitness—physical and emotional—is an essential part of officer safety and none of us can afford to act otherwise.