April 23, 2020

In this webinar hosted by the Sociology Department, former Baltimore Commissioner Kevin Davis in Maryland and Joe Smarro, CEO of SolutionPoint+ in San Antonio, addressed how the COVID-19 pandemic poses new mental health challenges for policing.

Both speakers began the discussion pointing out that everyone has not only been affected by this pandemic but are also learning to adapt to the changing times. This includes police officers as well. As essential personnel, they are facing different sets of challenges and it is important to acknowledge the struggles and issues they are called to tackle. 

Police departments must address the self-care and mental health of officers. As Davis put it, “The leaders of our profession are being tasked with properly maintaining a level of service to the communities, recognizing that their police officers have their own fears and anxieties and apprehensions. So how do we protect them?” Smarro added that from an officer’s perspective, their daily protocol is constantly changing in response to the pandemic; this sort of change can be very taxing. Mental health needs of officers are a concern especially during the heightened uncertainty of our times: “not knowing day-to-day what’s going to happen: Am I going to be infected? Am I going to have to do something on a call today where I’m not going to have a choice and then I’m sick and my family’s sick,” etc. 

The audience asked the speakers whether this crisis poses new challenges for the future of policing and for the future of relationships between civilians and the police. Davis replied that fundamentally, the mission of police departments remains the same, regardless of COVID-19. When there is an emergency or crime, an officer must still be on the scene, responding and interacting. “We have to be careful that the most vulnerable communities don’t see their police departments and their police officers as retreating from them. They need to see us, they need to be able to interact with us . . . We really have to be careful that we’re interacting thoughtfully, but interacting nonetheless with vulnerable communities.” Effective community responses would require a more prominent role for Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trained officers who are adept at de-escalating conflict and reducing use of force.

Another question was raised regarding how police departments might address officers’ concerns for their safety and wellness in dealing with encounters with the public during this pandemic. Smarro raised an important distinction here between safety and wellness. Safety refers to physical as well as emotional and psychological safety. “Better PPE equipment is super important, but we need to find a way to get creative to address wellness.” 

Smarro pointed out a striking paradox regarding police officers’ mental health. “Right now, we have more services available for first responders than we’ve ever had in the history of our profession, yet our suicide numbers are higher than they’ve ever been in the history of our profession. How do those two things coexist? As access to resources increases, the number of suicides increases… We’re not doing a good enough job collectively of redefining the way we train and prepare our young police officers to really deal with what the realities of this job are.”

In contrast to the high-octane recruitment videos that help recruit police officers, the lion’s share of the work of a police officer is community engagement. Now that most interaction with the public has been shut down, it poses new challenges. “Officers are struggling right now more than they ever have,” Smarro said. But most officers, he noted, “will not stand up and voluntarily ask for help.”

The webinar ended with a question about how the policing and mental health crisis response might look like in 20 years. Both Smarro and Davis are very positive about the present and the future. They are hopeful that  we will see growth in wellness among officers-- and especially, an end to police suicides. If police academies continue to focus on community involvement, and and recruit more diverse and non-traditional students with backgrounds in humanities and behavioral sciences, the “us vs. them” mindset can be abolished even in the toughest communitiesand civic trust in the police can grow.

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