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Opinion: What Salt Lake County is doing to assure deputies are physically, mentally well

It is unacceptable that officer suicides annually outnumber officer deaths in the line of duty in this country. We owe it to our men and women in uniform to do something.

The handcuffed hands of an arrested gang suspect.
The hands of a gang suspect remain temporarily handcuffed while Salt Lake area police and Salt Lake County Sheriff investigators search his car. Officers face many stresses each day that threaten their physical and mental health.
Mark DiOrio, Deseret News

Officer wellness is more important than ever. As sheriff, I oversee the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake. In the last two years we experienced the effects of the pandemic, national criticism of our profession, had two deputies shot on duty, and lost a deputy to suicide.

“Officer wellness” is an umbrella term for programs and other interventions designed to help those in uniform cope with the mental and physical consequences that come with the badge, like trauma, chronic stress, long hours, insufficient sleep and punishing physical exertion.

In May, the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing, which I participate in, released a brief on officer wellness detailing the value of supportive programs to officers, their families, and the communities they serve. A recent national study found that 12% of police officers said it was “quite likely” or “very likely” that they would attempt suicide one day, while another found that 15% of officers showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

We know that compromised mental health affects not only individual officers, but also their families. One study suggests that common sources of police stress — such as exposure to violence and job burnout — increase the likelihood of domestic violence at home.

As sheriff, I have a front-row view of the impacts police work has on our officers, and this research validates my personal experience.

Rookie officers understand they are entering a career where they will likely experience trauma and face risks on the job. But they also rightly expect that their organization will provide support if they need it.

We are striving to give our officers the tools to handle these challenges and increase their emotional resiliency. Our wellness program, funded through a federal Department of Justice grant, focuses on: mental health, physical health, sleep hygiene and peer support.

Therapy is a key component. After a critical incident, our officers are required to attend two sessions with a clinician experienced in working with first responders. Many of our officers voluntarily attend more sessions and are promoting the service through word of mouth. This endorsement combats the reluctance many officers feel about seeking help, who fear being perceived as weak, stigmatized, ridiculed, ignored by their department or forced to face job-related consequences for disclosing mental health problems.

In addition to exposure to trauma, sleep deprivation due to long shifts is proven to exacerbate officer stress. Research shows that sleep-deprived officers are not only more likely to doze off behind the wheel, but also draw more citizen complaints and are more likely to make serious administrative or safety errors.

In response, our department adopted a Restorative Rest Policy. With a supervisor’s approval, the policy allows an on-duty officer up to 60 minutes of sleep in a place designated by the department. The officer must keep his phone on and be ready to return to duty immediately, and only one officer in a division may rest at a time.

Similarly, given the importance of physical well-being, the department’s workout policy allows employees to exercise while at work, up to one hour a day, three days per week.

Radio communication with dispatchers must be maintained at all times, and contact sports are prohibited due to the risk of injuries.

As jurisdictions continue to debate how law enforcement should evolve, officer wellness must be part of the mix. It is unacceptable that officer suicides annually outnumber officer deaths in the line of duty in this country, and we owe it to our men and women in uniform to protect not just their physical health, but their mental health as well. Lives depend on it.

Rosie Rivera is the sheriff of Salt Lake County.