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VALOR Initiative Pilot puts Character at the Heart of New Resilience Training for Law Enforcement

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The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC.

Positive reviews from Norfolk and Lincoln, part of ongoing BJA effort to address officer wellness

Character, gratitude, service: words many of us grew up with, were taught led to a life of meaning, to a life well-led. To the field of psychology, however, they've held little currency in recent years. The path to self-esteem, it has taught, lies in self-discovery, self-evaluation, lots of self-hyphens.

They—those old words—may have some life left in them, it turns out.

A new resilience training program for law enforcement officers, now in the pilot stage, is finding resonance for its ability to wed an emerging openness among police to discuss mental health with an approach that views optimism, character, and gratitude as skills that can be developed and meaningful connections to those around us as tools that can help manage stress.

Seventy-seven police officers in Norfolk, VA, and Lincoln, NE, received the Bureau of Justice Assistance's (BJA) VALOR Initiative resilience training this past winter, the product of a joint effort between the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center (Penn), and BJA. A third agency, the South Dakota Highway Patrol, will have trained almost 30 troopers to round out the pilot stage by spring.

The goal of the program is a multiplier effect: build resilience among officers in the pilot agencies who participate in the initial training, then designate ten officers from each to undergo an additional train-the-trainer session later in 2019 so that they in turn can deliver the training to more officers in their departments and to surrounding agencies.

For BJA, the training is the latest in the VALOR Initiative's ongoing effort to provide law enforcement officers with the skills necessary to manage the heavy stress loads they face daily, which result in high rates of officer suicide, depression, other mental health problems, and myriad impacts on their families. Central to its success to date is VALOR's partnerships with national organizations such as IACP, and respected research centers such as Penn. It was precisely such coordination that enabled BJA, IACP, and Penn to develop a resilience training program curriculum tailored to the unique needs of law enforcement officers.

"Raising the issue of officer health and wellness to the level of attention it deserves is a priority not only of BJA but the entire Department of Justice. There are few higher priorities, in fact. Given the primary role they play in keeping our communities safe, America's law enforcement deserves nothing less," said BJA Director Jon Adler. "Training programs such as this potentially represent a big leap forward in getting law enforcement officers the tools they need to strengthen their resilience and perform their duties as best they can."

IACP President, Chief Paul Cell of the Montclair State University said, "Law enforcement officers face unique challenges both on and off duty. Officer resiliency is important to help officers thrive when faced with difficult situations. The IACP is proud to lead efforts to build more resilient agencies and officers through the VALOR Law Enforcement Resilience Training Program. Through this project, officers are improving their capacity to deal with stressors both on and off the job. We are also helping agencies to enhance their overall culture of officer safety and wellness."

Initial reviews of the pilot from the first two sites are very positive.

"This training is about developing skills to enhance resilience and increase the well-being of law enforcement personnel, both at work and at home. The program teaches skills to strengthen the ability to think productively in stressful situations, to manage one's energy, and to communicate effectively," said Dr. Judy Saltzberg, who is overseeing the pilot for the Penn Positive Psychology Center.

Different cities, different challenges

BJA and IACP carefully selected the pilot agencies to reflect the diversity that exists across U.S. law enforcement agencies. Specifically, they were chosen based on their capacity to meet the pilot training and evaluation expectations, as well as their commitment to officer safety and wellness and interest in informing the development of this important training resource for the field.

The fact that it's been received so positively in two such different cities is a testimonial in itself. Beyond their similar size, Norfolk (pop. 244,703) and Lincoln (pop. 284, 736) have little in common.

Despite the city's slightly smaller population, Norfolk's police department is two-and-a-half times bigger than Lincoln's –757 sworn officers to Lincoln's 300. The crime rate in Norfolk has been trending downward in recent years; in fact, in 2018 the city celebrated it lowest crime statistics in over 33 years. Even with the recent lower crime trends, in 2016, just as in other large metropolitan areas across the U.S., Norfolk's crime rate was slightly above the national average.

 Norfolk (VA) police officers received VALOR Initiative resilience training in December 2018
Norfolk (VA) police officers received VALOR Initiative resilience training in December 2018.

For Sergeant Rich Creamer, who serves as Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)/Peer Support Team Officer for the Norfolk PD, combatting crime in the city exacts a daily, cumulative toll on officers. When he heard about the VALOR Initiative's resilience training, he jumped at it.

"Officer stress manifests itself over time, and those officers who seek assistance from the peer support team seem to have high levels of stress," he said.

Daniel Hudson, Public Information Officer for the Norfolk PD, cited an example from last year.

"Norfolk police responded to a critical incident in which a woman killed herself and her two children and wounded her husband. Think about that, arriving at that scene. I saw the officer who had reported the incident, and I could see that he had gone through a critical incident, but when I asked him how he was doing, he just said 'I'm fine.' So I contacted the CISM Team and they spoke to the officer."

Lincoln faces its own challenges. Whereas its property and violent crime rates are well below national levels, its police staffing levels are among the lowest in the nation for a city of its size, a ratio of 1.14 officers per 10,000 residents, due in part to the fact that they're not prescribed by city ordinance, unlike most cities. To meet the national average for staffing, Lincoln would have to hire an additional 200 officers.

"As a result, the Lincoln PD is extremely busy and staff members are overworked, which results in a lot of overtime and staffers doing work well above their pay grade," said Management Services Officer Luke Bonkiewicz, who coordinated the VALOR training for Lincoln.

Bonkiewicz counted three types of stress facing Lincoln police officers: occupational – trying to meet the needs of residents, but not having the staff to do so ('We want to handle each incident with a personal touch, but there's always the tension of other calls holding'); dealing with emotionally-charged incidents such as deaths, accidents, and child abuse; and internalizing the impact on personal relationships of working overnight or holidays, and missing family events.

Police 'expected to have all of the answers but none of the problems'

For all involved in the development of the training, none of this was surprising. The IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness and Police Psychological Services Section have long been on the cutting edge of understanding, assessing, and meeting the mental health needs of law enforcement officers; similarly, Penn's Positive Psychology Center has been at the forefront of efforts to develop tools that can assess sources of stress and help people in a variety of jobs develop the resilience needed to manage it. BJA's equally steadfast commitment to the health and wellness of law enforcement, a top priority for the Department of Justice, ensured that the initiative would proceed with the necessary funding support.

"Stress levels vary by profession, and law enforcement is more stressful than most fields," Dr. Saltzberg said. "For police, stress manifests itself typically in sleep deprivation and increasing suspicion of others. That's why good relations with the community are so important, because it has such a critical impact on officer wellness."

Working in the favor of both Norfolk and Lincoln, however, is a changing regard for mental wellness.

"Previously, there had been a stigma attached specifically to mental health and police officers – they're expected to have all of the answers but none of the problems. And so they've tended to keep all their problems inside," said Sergeant Creamer of the Norfolk PD.

"But we've been crossing a bridge in recent years with regard to mental health. Younger officers in particular don't have a problem coming forward to share their problems and talk about the pressures they face. Since we started the CISM Peer Support Team in 2015, I can see a difference among officers: they're either getting peer support or going outside for support," he said.

The Lincoln (NE) Police Department was a pilot site for a VALOR Initiative resilience training in January
The Lincoln (NE) Police Department was a pilot site for a VALOR Initiative resilience training in January.

Similarly, Lincoln PD has created an Internal Resource Officer Committee, which reaches out to officers after incidents such as assaults to conduct briefings. "Officers are open to talking now; dealing with the issue of mental health has become more acceptable," said Officer Bonkiewicz.

Once Norfolk and Lincoln had been selected as pilot sites, the challenge facing the BJA/IACP/Penn team was leveraging that openness to facilitate real change in officers' lives – that and shrinking a ten-day curriculum originally developed for the U.S. Army into seven days, and adapting it to meet the needs of law enforcement.

The team did so by visiting both police departments before the trainings, speaking with leadership, detectives, and line-level officers, and going on ride-alongs. With input from the IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness staff, an IACP advisory group of law enforcement leaders and mental health experts, and guidance from BJA on tailoring sessions for a law enforcement audience through use of scenarios, delivery mechanisms and appropriate terminology, the team was able to narrow the focus of training and adapt the curriculum.

The positive psychology approach

The rest would depend on the strength of the training's approach to resilience and stress management: positive psychology.

Championed by Professor Martin Seligman, director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, positive psychology holds that well-being comprises five elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Whereas positive emotion is roughly self-explanatory, engagement is defined as the daily deployment of strengths and virtues such as kindness, social intelligence, courage, integrity, and humor to meet the challenges of the world.

For most people, however, the pursuit of engagement and positive emotions such as pleasure is not sufficient to generate real fulfilment – they crave meaning and purpose in their lives, as well. A meaningful life, according to Seligman, consists of serving something that one believes is bigger than the self.

Put another way: according to modern theories of self-esteem, life is only genuinely satisfying if we discover value within ourselves. Yet it has been shown that that self-discovery is often best realized by using our unique strengths to contribute to the happiness of others. Therein we find meaning. Or, as Seligman's well-being theory would have it, deploying one's highest strengths leads to more positive emotion, to more meaning, to more accomplishment, and to better relationships.

Accordingly, Seligman found that the most satisfied, upbeat people were those who had deployed their unique combination of "signature strengths," such as humanity, temperance and persistence, as they engage with the world.

Not only that, Seligman seized on findings that show that the skills of resilience and well-being can be taught and learned. That is, resilience is an attribute that an individual can enlarge and train through learning, practicing, and using skills that enhance one's ability to navigate adversity.

Practically speaking, positive psychology thereby provides practitioners a mental toolkit to think constructively about the past, gain optimism and hope for the future and, as a result, gain greater happiness in the present.

'Hunt the good stuff'

For the IACP/Penn team, adapting positive psychology to the VALOR training meant showing police officers that resilience can be built up by seeing concepts such as optimism, self-awareness and strong relationships as skills that can be developed. Absent from the training are any of the esoteric terms one usually associates with psychological study.

"The training includes a set of empirically-validated skills that have been shown in other settings to decrease anxiety and depression and increase optimism and well-being," Dr. Saltzberg said.

The program targets three areas:

  1. Mind: Skills that help a person to think actively and productively even in difficult situations. For example, officers learn to challenge "thinking traps" which can interfere with well- being and performance, and learn skills to cultivate an optimistic mindset by focusing on what one can control and what purposeful action one can take.
  2. Energy: Skills that help law enforcement to manage their energy in the short term as well as across their careers. For example, building positive emotions, reducing the fight-or-flight response, and engaging in activities outside of work that contribute to their sense of well-being.
  3. Connection: Strengthening relationships, both at work and at home, to enhance resilience and well-being. For example, law enforcement personnel learn a model for creating trust and a sense of belonging during difficult conversations, as well as a communication model for enhancing connection when discussing positive experiences.

One technique to foster a sense of gratitude among trainees is known as 'hunt the good stuff' – seeing gratitude as a skill that can be developed in order to get around the negativity bias.

"Research shows that the emotion of gratitude facilitates people's ability to handle stress and contributes to healthy relationships. 'Hunt the good stuff' is a simple technique in which law enforcement personnel learn to notice and reflect on positive experiences, which is critically important for people in a profession in which you are exposed to significant stressors," Dr. Saltzberg said.

For both Norfolk and Lincoln, the approach hit home.

Positive feedback

During the first week of December, 38 officers from Norfolk PD, ranging from frontline officers to a deputy chief and Sergeant Creamer, received the VALOR resilience training.

"In the first hour of the training, I could sense some apprehension in the officers; by the end of day three, every individual who participated thanked each instructor. They [the instructors] made it very easy to talk about and implement," Creamer said.

"It came down to this: what does resilience mean for law enforcement? We have a tendency to become cynical. The point of the training was to become more optimistic.

"Toward that end, 'hunt the good stuff' was the most valuable session. Now I'm incorporating it into my daily routine. It's about integrating more self-aware behavior into my life, taking it home and vice-versa. The instructors had a good ability to apply the approach to realistic situations and implement it. They really taught us to take that extra breath and assess the good in our lives," he said – a game-changing tool for a profession which exposes officers daily to stressful, dangerous and tragic events.

Norfolk (VA) police officers received VALOR Initiative resilience training in December 2018
Norfolk (VA) police officers received VALOR Initiative resilience training in December 2018.

For his Norfolk PD colleague Daniel Hudson, the training's impact was more personal.

"I've been married for 20 years, but this course truly allowed me to see things from my wife's perspective and to give her time to speak about them. I've been talking to her ever since. It's literally changed our relationship," Hudson said.

For Officer Bonkiewicz of the Lincoln PD, initial reservations similar to Norfolk's were also overcome by the end of the late January training in Nebraska, in which 39 officers participated.

"Yes, participants understood that they were serving as [a] pilot site. But instructors were very good at helping officers to identify their strengths and weaknesses. After a mixed reaction at first, it went very well," he said.

"What we jumped on was the idea of learned optimism and resilience skills," he said. "The idea of 'hunt the good stuff' resonated with the officers, not only for their work lives, but even more so for their personal lives: identifying what each of us is good at, and what we can be grateful for.

"Avoiding 'thinking traps' is a concept that stuck with me. You're trying to be more cognizant of why you're thinking a particular way, so that you can stop feeling that way," he added.

"I would absolutely recommend this training – it's a very valuable framework for caring about the emotional wellbeing of officers."

For the BJA/IACP/Penn team, the response was encouraging, and gratifying. Since the initial trainings, few changes have been made to the curriculum.

Dr. Saltzberg said, "One thing I saw was officers learning how to build their character strength, and noticing and appreciating the strengths in others. That led to some powerful questions and powerful conversations."

With the first pilot trainings completed, the team is preparing to develop the first wave of VALOR resilience trainers to implement the training agency-wide. Said BJA Director Adler, "It is our goal to help make our nation's law enforcement as safe and as healthy as possible. This VALOR resilience training is helping to do just that."

Are you a recipient of BJA funding? If so, let us know how the funds have impacted your community and efforts.

Date Published: May 9, 2019