When looking at ways to keep officers safe and healthy, many law enforcement agencies are now taking a holistic approach.
The 2021 Destination Zero conference, hosted by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, brings together thought leaders to discuss successful programs. Two of the speakers, Linn County, Iowa Sheriff Brian Gardner and Sydney, Ohio Police Chief William Balling, lead agencies that have won Destination Zero National Officer Safety and Wellness Comprehensive Safety awards.
Gardner has implemented a wide range of general, traffic, pandemic and wellness programs to ensure the health and safety of both his deputies and his staff. Balling has created a culture of safety at his agency, proving that smaller agencies, such as his, can implement and maintain officer safety and wellness programs even while working with smaller budgets.
Evolution of officer safety
Gardner has been with the Linn County Sheriff’s Office since 1978, first as a volunteer sheriff cadet before being hired as a civilian communications operator. He was appointed as a special deputy in 1981 and was hired as a full-time deputy in 1982. He continued to work up the ranks and was elected sheriff in 2009.
“I understand when my employees have complaints or concerns about their jobs because chances are pretty good that I performed their jobs in the past,” he says. “I’ve always been concerned about officer safety. Back in the early 1980s, I was one of our first officers to attend the Calibre Press Street Survival seminars that came into our community. From that moment on—being a brand-new deputy—I was concerned about officer safety. Not only mine, but also my coworkers’.”
As he continued to work up the ranks, officer safety became even more important to Gardner and when he became sheriff, he had to ensure that his supervisors, commanders and staff knew that he would do everything to help keep them safe. One of the first changes he made was a switch to custom-fitted body armor. Before he was sheriff, there were vests in the jail that the deputies shared. They used thee vests when they left the building to perform outside duties such as prisoner transportation or perimeter security. After returning, they would hang up the sweaty vest for the next person. This made little sense to Gardner, who ordered to have all employees outfitted with custom body armor.
The Sydney Police Department was ahead of the curve in creating wellness programs for its officers. In the late ‘90s, the department began promoting physical conditioning to keep its officers fit and able to perform their duties. They began by partnering with the local YMCA and other fitness centers to provide a place for officers to work out. Since then, a complete fitness facility with a cardio room and a hand-to-hand training area has been added to the headquarters building.
The department further expanded the initiative to include a yearly physical fitness test. Officers are required to take the test annually and those who achieve the highest fitness level can earn up to a $1,700 bonus. Officers who fail the test are given benchmarks to encourage them to improve. Balling was happy with the success they had with keeping officers healthy, but soon realized that a much more well-rounded program was need. In 2017, the Sydney Police Department implemented a holistic approach within the agency. “It was a little bit more than just physical fitness,” he says. “We wanted to look at different aspects of programs like mental wellness. What were we doing to take care of our officers? What were we doing medically to take care of our officers? How could we keep our officers safe on critical incident calls and active shooter calls?”
After hearing about Destination Zero, officers asked the chief if they could apply for an award. “Even being a smaller department, I was very proud of what we had,” says Balling. After receiving a runner-up award, members of the department traveled to the conference in Washington, D.C., and spoke to other departments about their programs. They learned about programs like magnetic microphones to keep their officers safer when driving and other programs that touted physical fitness and aspects of financial fitness. “These were ideas I had never heard of before. We started introducing those programs within our own department and we reapplied in 2018.” That year, the Sydney Police Department received the Comprehensive Safety award.
“This was a credit to my staff and the culture that they established,” he says. “It wasn’t just from me being taught down. It was really everybody involved.”
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office won the Comprehensive Safety award in 2020 in large part due to the equipment it provides its deputies. Patrol units contain an all-inclusive medical first aid kit that includes Narcan, an AED and a down deputy kit. The equipment is stored in one bag so deputies can grab it and go when arriving at a scene. Deputies also carry mass casualty bags that contain large quantities of tourniquets, QuikClot and first aid supplies. Ballistic shields with tactical lighting are carried in deputies’ patrol cars and the agency purchased an armored tactical vehicle to protect first responders and allow them to safely approach deadly situations to retrieve wounded officers and citizens.
“As a law enforcement leader, it’s really incumbent upon you to make sure you do everything in your power to keep your employees safe,” he says. “Some of these things unfortunately cost money; others don’t cost us any money at all. Sometimes it’s just letting our people know that we’re supportive of them and that we’ll do whatever we possibly can do in order to make their jobs safer and their jobs better.”
Balling says that cost of protecting officers is something law enforcement must be aware of and get behind. “If you look at the overall cost of protecting your officers, and a lot of times we like to say: ‘Mission first, people always,’ part of it is taking care of them. Part of it is making sure they have the equipment that’s needed.”
He says that training also is a must and that through partnerships, departments can obtain training for free. “You can get local businesses to come out and bring people with experience to come in and help your officers,” he says. Sydney has had local nutritionists and a financial advisors speak to officers, not as a sales pitch, but to give them advice for life. “Start looking at what is the risk in your department and see where you can provide that training throughout your agency.”
Selling the program
With law enforcement agencies throughout the country having issues recruiting and keeping officers, Balling said that caring for them is a must. “You’ve got to make sure that they understand coming on board that this is a lifestyle that they are going to have to be involved with and we want to help them live through that lifestyle.”
He stresses that the stakeholders include more than just the officers. “When you are looking at mental wellness, fitness programs and really your overall holistic approach, your stakeholders will also include the family members, the officers, the admin, the city; it’ll include your community.”
In order to implement a comprehensive safety and wellness program, he says law enforcement leaders first must buy into the program themselves. “You’ve got to just want to do it and get people passionate about it and explain the ‘Why.’ When you start your program, again, don’t just come in and say ‘Hey, I want to do this program because I saw it worked somewhere else.’ Tell your story, work with other groups. When I was the chief starting these programs, I really needed help with my officers so I got other people involved and formed that collaboration, both internally and externally.”