“Another brick in the wall” of police work: COVID-19
The important role of leadership to psychologically guide frontline law enforcement officers
June 4, 2020 By Sgt. Beth Milliard & Dr. Konstantinos Papazoglou
Based on research outcomes, as well as anecdotal evidence of police practice, it has become commonly accepted that police work is both challenging and stressful. Police officers are broadly accustomed to the exposure of threat, trauma, stress, drama, and so forth. Therefore, because crisis is endemic to police work, unlike the general population, officers historically and currently deal with said crisis in a fairly systematic manner. To this end, police officers are among those frontline professionals who are trained and expected by the public to respond to crisis and resolve the situations effectively, despite the omnipresent danger in the line of duty.
The COVID-19 crisis impact in police work
The beginning of 2020 was accompanied by the advent of a global threat — COVID-19. Humanity started to realize this threat was omnipresent, and unity and community were some of the integral components that could help them handle this crisis. For police officers, COVID-19 has become one more threat that jeopardizes their health and lives, a reality which is outlined in a CNN report from April 19.
In this report, CNN reveals that in New York City alone, 29 members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) have died due to COVID-19 (Waldrop, 2020). The graphic reality is the number of officer deaths will probably keep increasing over the months to come. There is a plethora of COVID-19 related issues experienced by police officers at this time.
Police officers do not belong to the category of professionals who have the option to work remotely from home. They have to be present in order to serve and protect their communities. As part of their work, police officers encounter a large number of civilians and peers during their shift. As expected, those civilians and peers have interacted with many others before they come in contact with an officer. Therefore, officers are very likely to engage with individuals who are COVID-19 symptomatic or even asymptomatic. Despite the fact that personal protective equipment (PPE) is available, the risk for infection is still prevalent.
Nevertheless, police officers are trained to respond to danger and crisis; potential death is an understood risk in the realm of police work. Officers are cognizant of the fact they may be exposed to life-threatening situations. However, one of the main stressors for police officers is the fact COVID-19 is an insidious and invisible threat that may even infect others without them experiencing the development of symptoms (CDC, 2020). Taking into consideration that police officers have families, it means at the end of the shift, officers return to their homes and live with their family members. Some of these family members may already have prior health issues or they may be elders who are vulnerable to the egregious impact of the COVID-19 infection. This then becomes another stressor in officers’ lives. Instead of finishing their shifts and getting back home to spend time with their families, they face the debilitating fear of potential COVID-19 infection that may, in turn, put other family members at risk. Consequently, this current crisis may lead officers to further isolation (physically and emotionally) from family members.
How leadership plays a crucial role
The role of leadership in any company is important to its success; but, in times of flux or turmoil, leadership becomes vital to an agency’s survival. For police organizations, it is no different. COVID-19 has brought forth a different set of challenges that have tested even the most seasoned and well-respected leaders. The constant change of information and procedures, being short staffed, last minute schedule changes, and the overall concern about dealing with the general public have created a huge amount of anxiety for even the most composed and collected people. As a result, this crisis reminds us that strong leadership is critical to ensure that law enforcement can continue to provide the services the community needs, while at the same time ensuring police members remain safe and healthy.
Officers must be able to trust their leadership to provide guidance and clear expectations for each member under their command. Also, leaders should be able to lead from a place of inner calm. This means being able to keep emotions in check, leading with compassion, being honest and candid about the challenges and setting out clear expectations for team members.
While leading from a place of inner calm may sound like an easy task, it has proven to be difficult for some of even the most respected leaders. During times of crisis stress is elevated and, as a result, some people may have low capacity to process information and make the right decisions effectively due to biochemical changes in the human body and brain. During these situations their focus may become too narrow; as a result, individuals may solely concentrate on the worst-case situations and get into threatening thinking patterns that often prohibit their ability to empathize, listen, and comprehend the concerns of others (Birk, 2020).
Leaders need to be mindful of the fact COVID-19 not only causes fear of susceptibility to get the infection but it also creates increased opportunities for mental health effects. The constant worrying, anxiety, and depression are real issues that may plague law enforcement and their families. These issues need to be recognized and managed by leaders through constant check-ins, active listening, and displays of empathy and compassion towards members. Lastly, leaders need to be cognizant of their own emotions and how to incorporate self-care into their routines.
We provide the following list of recommendations for police leaders to incorporate into their work with officers during times of elevated uncertainty and crisis:
- Knowledge is power – Educate and, in turn, update your team using valid knowledge from established organizations such as the Center for Disease, Control, and Prevention (CDC). The following weblink refers to COVID-19 information specifically for law enforcement personnel: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-law-enforcement.html.
- Look internationally – Look to recognized law enforcement organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), which provide valuable information about law enforcement information on COVID-19: www.theiacp.org/resources/document/law-enforcement-information-on-covid-19.
- Be aware of changes in your members – COVID-19 may see multiple psychological effects manifested in officers’ physical health and bodies. For instance, tight muscles, chest pain, migraine headaches, and disrupted sleep are some examples of the impact of elevated, crisis-related stress on officers’ mental and physical health. It is essential for police leaders to be aware of the relevant literature and to collaborate with experienced health professionals in order to teach their officers how to monitor themselves. In this way, if any concerning reactions are experienced, leaders will be able to encourage their officers to seek professional help.
- Educate your members on healthy coping strategies – It is often enticing for some officers to self-medicate using alcohol or any other types of substances as a way to better manage their stress-related symptoms. However, police leaders need to be aware of these issues and be empathetic and supportive of their police personnel. Leaders could provide guidance for seeking professional help or allow them to have additional breaks such as taking extra days off or vacation time, if necessary.
- Provide an environment for open & honest communication – Police leaders should take the initiative to maintain open and frank communication with their officers and explore any challenges officers face during the current crisis. For instance, officers who have family members who are vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 infection are more likely to experience elevated stress. In this regard, police leaders may develop channels of communication with their staff in order to identify those who are experiencing high levels of concern or stress due to the COVID-19 crisis.
- Create forms of support for your members – Police leaders may want to establish a social support network in their agencies as a way to help police officers feel interconnected and part of a police brother/sisterhood. Nobody should be left alone or in isolation.
- Recognize your members’ achievements – It is vital that officers’ accomplishments be praised and highlighted by police leaders themselves (e.g., during line-ups or other meetings). This enables leaders to tangibly acknowledge their officers’ contribution and valuable work. To this end, collaboration with community agencies to promote officers’ accomplishments is also integral. In this way, officers’ valuable work is promoted not just in the realm of the police department, but also in the communities where officers serve.
Remember strong leadership and leading through a sense of calm will assist any organization to weather the storm. Our members are our best asset and after the dust settles it will be clear who the true leaders are. Lastly, many thanks to the police officers who are on the frontline, your dedication and altruism is truly remarkable.
Birk, M. (2020). Why Leaders Need Meditation Now More than Ever. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from hbr.org/2020/03/why-leaders-need-meditation-now-more-than-ever
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, April 23). Clinical Questions about COVID-19: Questions and Answers. URL: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/faq.html
International Association of Chiefs of Police. (2020, April 23). Law Enforcement Information on COVID-19. URL: www.theiacp.org/resources/document/law-enforcement-information-on-covid-19?utm—source=Informz&utm—medium=email&utm—campaign=Informz+Email
Warldrop, T. (2020, April 19). New York City Police Department has Lost 29 Members to COVID-19. CNN. URL: www.cnn.com/2020/04/19/us/new-york-city-police-covid-19-deaths/index.html
Beth Milliard, PhD, has been a police officer with York Regional Police for 18 years. She is also an adjunct professor with Georgian College and Simon Fraser University. She continues to write articles and speak internationally on police wellness.
Dr. Konstantinos Papazoglou, a former police captain with the Hellenic National Police in Athens, Greece, is a Postdoctoral Scholar at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., and has collaborated as an expert with law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Print this page