Berkeley police address mental health, wellness issues

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Content warning: suicide

When Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White first started his job, he felt gratified knowing people got home safely because of him.

White initially enjoyed the camaraderie between himself and the other officers. After years had elapsed, however, he found that the long hours and stresses of the job had taken a toll on him.

“When I was younger, 16 hours didn’t feel like it would be a problem,” White said. “It’s just, the extra bulk that you’re carrying weighs on you after a while. All of this really adds up, and sometimes it can be a bit tough to get through and deal with.”

For a beat officer working a normal Saturday evening shift, the day begins at 11:30 a.m. Over the course of the next 13 hours, officers write multiple police reports and respond to people causing public disturbances.

They also witness and resolve difficult and disturbing events, such as cases of domestic violence and incidents of methamphetamine overdoses. Lunch and dinner typically take place at work, and an officer is finally able to return to their family after midnight.

With long and demanding hours comes a great deal of stress, according to White.

“We’re human and we have a human response to things, and there’s just a mutual respect between our officers and the community,” said Sgt. Jennifer Tate, who is also the wellness and resilience chair for the BPD Wellness Group.

While BPD officers have peer support groups and individual therapy services available to help process stressful events, they continue to deal with the impacts of understaffing and disrupted sleep schedules.

“One bad day isn’t really going to hurt you, but for police officers, there is constant stress,” said Aaron Fisher, a UC Berkeley associate professor of psychology. “The regulatory system of the body can start to shift. The orientation of the body shifts from the long term to survival in the short term.”

‘Do more with less’

In April 2019, Mayor Jesse Arreguín announced that staffing within the BPD had steadily increased over the previous year. Prior to a large recruitment campaign, the BPD faced understaffing issues that saw its lowest point in May 2018, which was in line with national trends of staffing difficulties.

While tackling the issues surrounding understaffing are a work in progress, according to White, the department now has more than 170 officers, with two more officers planned to be sworn in. He added that the recent staffing improvements will help mitigate some of the negative effects of being understaffed.

“Any time you have to do more with less, it has a negative effect on morale,” White said. “I really believe that it allows us to be more proactive because right now, we’re responding to whatever is in front of us. We are reactive.”

One of the immediate impacts of understaffing on police officers is a lack of collaboration and loss of camaraderie within the department, according to White. Although there is some investigative work that officers do on their own, White added, many officers enjoy working in pairs and having others to help them.

BPD officers are assigned to one of four shifts, which can begin as early as 6 a.m. or end as late as 6:30 a.m. on a weekday, according to the BPD website. On Fridays and during the weekend, some shifts begin at 6 p.m. and finish at 6:30 a.m., affording little time to sleep.

The average shift for an officer lasts 10 hours a day when they work Mondays to Thursdays and is nearly 13 hours long on a given day between Friday and Sunday, according to the website.

“When you work these 13-hour shifts, it really leaves little other things to do in the day,” White said. “Before, I would eat at home. Now, I know I’m going to be eating at work instead. Your whole life is going to be at work.”

BPD is not alone 

Many of the struggles that BPD officers face are common in police departments across the nation.

Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among police officers are reportedly as high as 18%, more than double the nationwide population average of 8%, according to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience.

The study also reported that 60.1% of men and 46.4% of women in law enforcement had witnessed five or more different police-specific traumatic events over the span of one year. According to the study, these events include armed conflict, providing assistance to victims of severe accidents and witnessing abusive violence. 

According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1999, researchers found that the rates at which police officers were admitted to hospitals were much higher than those for the general population. Officers can develop habits such as repression, isolation of feelings and displacement to cope with the stresses of the occupation, according to Laurence Miller, the report’s author.

The most severe consequence of the stress police officers face, Miller added, is suicide.

“Police officers can be an insular group, and are often more reluctant to talk to outsiders or to show ‘weakness’ in front of their own peers than are other emergency service and public safety workers,” Miller said in the report.

Congressional intervention

In January 2018, Congress signed the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, or LEMHWA, into law. The law established guidelines for helping federal, state and local law enforcement agencies adopt mental health practices and services, in addition to creating resources for officers seeking support.  

The annual LEMHWA report to Congress, published in March 2019, outlines 22 recommendations that would improve the services and resources available to law enforcement officers. The recommendations include expanding crisis lines that are available to officers, hiring mental health professionals in law enforcement agencies and increasing access to mental health check programs.

“Increased information and educational materials for agency leaders and clinicians combined with increased support for peer support, crisis lines, mental health checks, and training as described in this report will greatly improve the health and wellness of the men and women who dedicate themselves to the public safety of all our communities,” the report reads.

In addition, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Office, was established under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Since then, the office has invested more than $14 billion across different areas of community policing, including multiple programs focusing on officer safety and wellness.

According to a report published in 2017 by the National Officer Safety and Wellness Group — formed by the COPS Office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2011 — the mean life expectancy of a police officer is 21.9 years less than the national average. Some factors that contribute to the lower lifespan, according to the report, are health habits, stress and witnessing and experiencing critical events.

In response to the report’s findings, members of the group developed points for the DOJ to review, including the need for mandatory annual mental health checkups, improved physical fitness requirements and a more developed family support program. Efforts to prioritize the safety and health of police officers should also focus on officers’ families, according to Dianne Bernhard, executive director of Concerns of Police Survivors.

“The culture permeates that family and we know that when things don’t go well in the family, things won’t go well for that officer,” Bernhard said in the report. “The only way to approach the overall wellness for the officer is also to involve the family heavily in any of the things that we did to intervene.”

Addressing mental health in BPD

Alongside national efforts to improve the quality and availability of mental health services to officers, members of the BPD and the city of Berkeley have also worked to address challenges that come along with the occupation.

One element that can place considerable stress on police officers is the heightened scrutiny they face, according to Tate. She added that professionalism is an important part of police work.

“Our officers are professional and out there to do a job and protect our community. And we do the right thing even if there’s a climate where people can be slightly antagonistic,” Tate said. “We have to put that aside and do our job.”

It can also be challenging for officers, especially those who haven’t worked long shifts before, to adjust and balance work with their personal lives, according to White.

“If you think about it, you’ve got at least 10 hours of the day spent at work,” White said. “You go home, you eat if you can. You sleep. You wake up. You go back to work.”

To help officers deal with stress or challenging calls to service, BPD’s peer support team, composed of 10 people, provides an outlet for discussing and processing tough events, according to Tate. One of the Wellness Group’s goals is to expand the peer support team to ultimately have 20 to 25 members available to officers, Tate added.

In addition to receiving support from peers, officers are able to go to individual counseling with a group of therapists as part of the city of Berkeley’s Employee Assistance Program. Tate added that officers also have access to resources from the COPS Office and the DOJ, which are critical to dealing with different types of trauma.

The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit — developed by the DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime, or OVC — is a recommended tool for groups of officers to address emotional distress. One protocol the toolkit suggests is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, which helps organize how officers are able to discuss and work through difficult events, according to the OVC website.

Maintaining physical fitness and mental health is an integral part of law enforcement and being able to properly serve and protect the community, according to Tate. White added that working in a supportive, collaborative environment reduces some of the stress on officers and is key to helping the community as effectively as possible.

“We’re looking at the total officer approach, how people are sleeping and eating,” Tate said. “Hurt people hurt people, and if you’re not taking care of yourself, if you’re not well, then you can’t take care of people.”

Aditya Katewa is a crime and courts reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @adkatewa1.