Police officers are operating in a new and heightened state of hyper-vigilance. Not only are they feeling attacked and scrutinized for the action of others by the media, the public, and sometimes even family and friends, officers are also responding to an unprecedented amount of civil unrest all during a widespread pandemic. These factors have all taken a major toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of officers and led to an exodus of officers leaving the profession. In this episode, AMU’s Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to Rhonda Kelly, Executive Director of the All Clear Foundation, about resources and training to teach officers how to manage cumulative stress, self-regulate, and control their nervous system. Also learn about resources to help law enforcement families, including ways to address rising anxiety and depression in spouses and children.
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Read the Transcript:
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Hello everybody. My name is Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, today we’re discussing the important topic of police stress as well as the impact of 2020 on first responders. Our guest today is Rhonda Kelly from the All Clear Foundation. Welcome.
Rhonda Kelly: Thank you so much, Jarrod. It’s pleasure to be back.
[Listen to her previous episode, Providing Support for First Responders during Stressful Times]
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. Thank you very much for your time. This has been a tough year for law enforcement. Unfortunately, the actions of a small handful of officers and some unfortunate disheartening incidents earlier in 2020, obviously resulted in mass protests and demonstrations against law enforcement.
The civil unrest and inaccurate narrative that paints police officers as all bad, but really had an adverse impact on hundreds of thousands of officers who do their job honorably and with integrity each day.
There was a study by the Major Cities Chiefs Association that did a study of 69 large police agencies in the United States. And they found that there were over 2,000 officers injured just in the first weeks of protests and unrest in the middle of 2020. Between May 25th and July 31st, there were 8,700 protests nationwide with 574 being declared as a riot with violence and various criminal acts.
This, coupled with the pandemic, has really put a strain on our first responders. Toward the end of 2020, there was at least 101 officers that have died from COVID and that is more than any other deaths in law enforcement. So with that, and you being an expert in first responder and first responder care, how would you explain the impact of the pandemic as well as the civil unrest on law enforcement?
Rhonda Kelly: I think the term you and I have discussed before is relentless. 2020 was just nonstop from March through the rest of the year. I think my favorite description of the year is the year in which each month one-upped the one before it. Every time we thought we reached a new threshold for challenge, we found that threshold exceeded in the following month.
I think law enforcement, to your point, the majority have performed incredibly well have been meeting the oath to protect and serve, have been continuing to support the community, which is why most officers and most responders enter the field in the first place is to help people.
And I find that they’ve been doing it in an increasingly challenging time. With the COVID restrictions, unfortunately, many of us have been inadvertently robbed of the self-care practices that keep us recharged, that keep us replenished, that keep us healthy and strong. Social gathering, sporting events, going to the gym, going to church, family events, holidays, vacations, all of those things have gone by the wayside.
We find officers now coming into work with a new state of hyper-vigilance, feeling attacked publicly in social media, feeling attacked publicly in person at the demonstrations, and even just in the course of their daily activities. And even feeling like they’re under increased scrutiny from their family members and from their friends—members of the community who fail to recognize the bias in the media and some of the unfair broad brush approach that’s been taken to law enforcement. Where concerns are truly more based in the system based in some changes that could be made, but the public and the media at large have been holding individual officers accountable for the state of the system.
And it’s been a tremendously unfair operating field for law enforcement officers across the country and continues to be so. I know many of us hoped that once we got 2020 in the rear view mirror, things would be better. Even though we knew logically there was nothing magic about turning midnight on the 31st and this year has been every bit as odd and every bit as challenging as last year was to date.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Those are great points. You’re absolutely correct. So 2020 certainly had an impact on police morale and to build on that, there was a study that involved anonymous surveys to an agency in the Midwest that found that 80% of officers have considered leaving their police agency and the 40% have felt that morale is the lowest it’s ever been. Would you say that represents law enforcement nationwide?
Rhonda Kelly: Absolutely. I can’t speak to the specific statistics, but that is generally the trend that I’ve been seeing. There’s been an exodus of officers out of the profession across all years of service. We have officers who are, as you know, two or three years on the job and officers who were planning to retire in the next few years, leaving precipitously.
And oftentimes, and I think one of the most damaging things, is that these officers, regardless where they are in their career are now leaving with a sense of victimization. And with a sense, perhaps even of shame that “Why did I invest so much time or energy in this for a community that doesn’t appreciate what I did?” And feeling unfairly vilified, which is just an awful way to go out and really predisposes officers at being a human to an increased sense of demoralization.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. Those are, those are excellent points. I was reviewing the All Clear Foundation website today, and I found that there’s some resources that your organization provides for first responders during the pandemic. Can you elaborate on some of this support?
Rhonda Kelly: Absolutely. You know, we’ve been really focused, you and I in our discussions, on the impacts of the occupation of the job on law enforcement professionals. But we know that 2020 was a challenging year for everybody where it was the time of great uncertainty, a time of destabilization. As we talked about, it was a time where we were restricted from a lot of the things that gave us a sense of rejuvenation and recharging.
And in addition to those, law enforcement officers, emergency responders and people across the country, we’re faced with new challenges. Things as diverse, as remote learning for their children, many times significant who lost their job, suffering economic impacts on the family.
There have been challenges with rent payments, mortgage payments. There have been challenges in those who’ve left the profession, how they provide for themselves financially when they’re too early to collect retirement. Or conversely, when they want to change professions and aren’t quite certain—and this is something that we see reflected also in the veteran community—how to translate their occupational skills into something that is valued and employable in the civilian world.
So, we recognize that all of these additional stressors also need to be addressed. It’s not just relegated to the direct occupational stressors. And that’s been one of the big focuses of the All Clear Foundation is we are seeking to support emergency responders and their families in overall wellness. So all of the sub-domains: mental, emotional, physical, and medical, relational, social, financial, spiritual. And we’ve recognized in the course of our work that Google and Siri are oftentimes not the most effective means for responders to identify resources, to help them in these other domains.
So we set out to intentionally, seek out organizations we’re doing good work in all of these domains, vetting that they’re active in their service provision, vetting that they’ve been effective in the past. And then collecting those for easy access for law enforcement professionals, emergency responders and their families to seek expert and vetted information and resources in all of these different sub-domains, to help relieve some of the stress and some of the pressure in those other aspects of life.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. And there’s never been a more important time for the support and these resources. Looking over 2020 in terms of the civil unrest, I’ve got some statistics here of some of the violence that law enforcement encountered.
For example, by June 1st, the first half of the year, Chicago had 132 police officers that experienced different injuries and multiple incidents. By the middle of the year, the year by June 1st in Florida, Jacksonville police officer’s neck was slashed during a riot. Las Vegas a police officer was actually shot in the head during a protest on June 1st and was on life support and in critical condition, 12 other officers were injured in that riot in Las Vegas. There have been 27 police officers in Los Angeles that were injured in multiple riots, one of which that experienced a fractured skull.
And as we get into 2021 to your point, the unrest is continuing. And unfortunately the stressors for law enforcement appear to be continuing. Let’s talk about the coronavirus from your perspective, what is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on policing and what are some resources for first responders during the pandemic?
Rhonda Kelly: Oh, that is a fantastic question. And I have to say, I’m always struck by the thoroughness of your analytic evaluation of the scenario. I love hearing those statistics, how up-to-date you stay on the research, and how you really keep your perspective relevant to the time. And this has been a rapidly evolving year.
I absolutely agree. The threats to personal safety have really shifted over the past year. Law enforcement professionals were trained from the beginning to protect themselves from violence. You know, the body armor, the situational awareness, partnerships. There are many ways for officers to have protected themselves from physical violence.
That is escalated. And I think for all the reasons we’ve talked about has overwhelmed each individual officer’s ability to maintain the vigilance that they need with the threat of physical violence increasing, and now being more unpredictable for them.
But I also think the virus has really been a bit of a mind game for everybody in the emergency response world and law enforcement in particular, we’ve all been trained to protect ourselves from the visible, the known threats, the physical threats. And now we have this invisible opponent. We can’t see it. We don’t know where it is.
I know, especially early in the coronavirus response, so many responders were exposed because they didn’t think to wear PPE on, say, an auto accident or on an auto versus ped, or on a domestic violence complaint only to find out later that the citizens the responders were responding to, actually were COVID-positive. And then the responders ran the risk of contracting the virus themselves, whether they got sick or not.
And then potentially there was this new aspect. In the past, it was very rare for responders to have to fear not only for their own personal safety, from something that they can’t see and that we’re not quite sure how to best protect ourselves from, but now responders have had to worry about, “Am I going to contract this virus and take it home to my family? Maybe making my family sick, or even inadvertently leading to the death, contributing to the death, of somebody that I love?”
So the fear has definitely increased the uncertainty and not only has it increased in responders and law enforcement themselves, but it’s increased among their family members. And we’ve heard across the country, so many law enforcement, significant others in particular, and other family members, parents, children, have really encouraged the officers to leave the profession out of fears for their safety and for the safety of the family. And this is just a whole new level of challenge for officers to grapple with this year.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Yeah, absolutely. And as a police officer in my prior career, I recall bringing something home, especially if I was at a crime scene, if I was exposed to blood, bringing something home to my wife and children was really probably one of my greatest fears. And with something, such as the virus, which is known to be up to 40% asymptomatic in some carriers, it really is a serious concern.
And you brought up a great point, in terms of police families. It was something that I really wanted to talk about today because the stress of what officers are experiencing as we look at the protests, the unrest, as we look at the pandemic that spills over into police families, it’s likely that it increases divorce. It certainly increases stress within the family. Can you speak to how the year 2020 and now here at the beginning of 2021 is impacting police families?
Rhonda Kelly: Absolutely. And I do want to quickly circle back to your point about fears in the past of bringing bloodborne pathogens home and that’s across all emergency response branches. But I think one of the unique differences between the bloodborne pathogens and the coronavirus is we knew if we were exposed to blood, we knew if it was a needle stick, or if someone bit us, or if somebody was shot or stabbed and there was co-mingling of blood or other body fluids.
This, I think the fear is heightened because we can’t see when we’ve been exposed to the virus. And we don’t know, I find that’s an additional significant stressor for law enforcement and also for their family members. One of the other things and to your point about stress, we know that the chronic cumulative stress over the course of an emergency response career, particularly in law enforcement leads to some pretty significant physiologic impacts.
And when we look at the law enforcement community in particular, we see very high rates of early onset cardiac disease. We see that many times the first cardiac event is often fatal and the officer had no idea he or she had an underlying cardiac issue.
We see high rates of metabolic diseases that are directly related to high levels of cortisol, diabetes being one in particular. We also see high levels of central adiposity that weight gain around the midsection that is resistant to healthy eating that is resistant to exercise and is directly tied, again, to the chronically elevated levels of cortisol.
And when we look at coronavirus, we know the predisposing factors that lead to a more significant infection and a more lethal outcome are these very diseases: diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease. So it seems to be a catch 22 for officers. The chronic stress increases the vulnerability to the disease, the vulnerability to the disease increases the chronic stress.
And we see that, to your point, reflected also in the family who are concerned for the wellbeing of the loved one. And oftentimes, and I’ve heard this amplified quite a bit over the past year, we know in the past, there’s been a bit of a first family, second family conflict. Where the family by marriage, the significant other, the children, the extended family feel like sometimes the officer in his or her devotion to the cause to serving the community and to protecting the community oftentimes the first family can feel like they take a secondary seat. They’ve now become the second family and are not as important as the officer’s mission.
And I’ve seen that definitely amplified this year, where the family now is struggling to say, why would you continue to do this job when you’re being publicly vilified for it? Where I, myself speaking from the family members’ perspective, are having to address concerns from my parents, from my cousins, from my sisters, from my brothers, from our neighbors, and I’m having to defend you.
And where the family members are really expressing this stress, how come you’re still the job and serving the community ahead of us. And really amplifying that pressure on the law enforcement professional to leave the job. If you love us, you’re going to stay here, you can do something else.
And I think it’s been really challenging, not only for the law enforcement professional to balance priorities and values like that, especially when law enforcement activities are a large part of their meaning and purpose in life. But I also think it’s really a challenge for the family to understand how can you have this devotion to something that outwardly doesn’t seem to appreciate you and that goes to the extreme definitely doesn’t seem to appreciate you and why are you inflicting this stress on us.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. Those are some great points and the family members are seeing it. They’re seeing television where protestors are in the faces of police officers without masks that are screaming. And the level of risk, not just to mention physical violence, but with the pandemic is so extremely high. I have to imagine that really does come into the home once the officer’s out of work.
And we already know that many police officers, with cumulative police stress, sometimes have difficulty in turning off the switch whenever they leave work. And they often bring police stress home with them, which currently in this climate, I could see having a major impact on police families. How can support for police families be improved?
Rhonda Kelly: I think the first step as it is in solving any problem or addressing it effectively is awareness is really acknowledging to the families. What you’re feeling is real, it’s a very normal response. And validating it for them to remove some of the shame or the belief that I’m not supporting my officer well enough really understanding of the family’s concerns are valid.
I think one of the other big things is in addressing the family’s stress the same way we do the officers. They’re experiencing different stressors, but the body responds the same way. We all have the same physiologic response. And we’ve long known to your point about the cumulative police stress that law enforcement professionals in particular really suffer from hyper-vigilance, from chronic nervous system activation. And this is part of the reason why the hypervigilance is maintained. It’s part of the reason why officers very seldom feel like they’re at peace, or at rest, that they’re safe or they’re in a sanctuary.
It’s why in a public setting, officers will usually choose to sit with their back to the wall. It’s why officers carry guns on their off-duty time for fear that they might need to protect themselves or their family or others publicly and all of these are really valid concerns.
But then officers wonder why am I gaining this weight? Why do I never feel like I’m resting? Why do I feel like I can’t sleep? And we know it’s because that nervous system is still being activated. We’re in sympathetic overdrive. During that time, our digestion is slowed down. There’s a lot of GI complaints among law enforcement officers.
We know that many times, even if an officer is able to spend eight hours in a bed, he or she wakes up, not feeling refreshed, feeling just as bad as they did before they went to sleep. And many times that’s because the nervous system is still active. They weren’t allowed to drop into deep states of sleep because of the areas of the brain that are performing in a hypervigilant fashion.
And now we see that these things that used to be relegated to the officers themselves, they’re showing up in the kids and in significant others. We’ve seen incidences of anxiety and depression go up across the country. We’ve seen among children, especially of law enforcement professionals, anxiety is definitely on the rise.
Kids are experiencing feedback from their peers at a rate that is higher than what they used to on social media and other platforms, which allow people to say and do things they wouldn’t do if they were face-to-face, that perception of anonymity being attacked for what their parents’ profession is. We know it’s having an adverse effect on children in a time when they are not getting good, healthy face-to-face time with supportive friends.
So I really see the impact on the family as being the same physiologic response, just attributed to slightly different causative factors. And the good point in all of that is that we can teach the families the same way we’re reaching out to teach officers how to control the nervous system, how to self-regulate, how to prioritize self-care and recognize, it’s not a frivolous thing. It’s not something that you can just neglect it’s part and parcel. In fact, it’s probably the most important self-practice for overall life satisfaction and for longevity in the job and with our personal relationships, to your point earlier.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent points. You’re absolutely right. It really drives home the impact of police stress, not just on the officer, but also on their family. So, Rhonda, I wanted to ask with your expertise in law enforcement are things improving in terms of agencies understanding police stress and providing more support and addressing police stress within their officers?
I think nationally, from my perspective, we are seeing more recognition of the officer stress. We are seeing agencies that recognize they have an issue and that this issue needs to be addressed immediately. And that not only is this issue impacting the morale and the wellbeing of their officers, but it’s impacting the agency in terms of retention and in terms of staffing, in terms of job performance and job satisfaction.
So I see a lot of agencies are recognizing this, but I also see that they’re scrambling to try to find a solution while they are also trying to address all of the other issues that are demanding the agency’s attention and limited resources at the moment.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point. And before the pandemic occurred, I had attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia. And it was definitely a discussion that was going on amongst the police executives about police stress. It was really probably the theme of the conference itself. So I was glad to see that some attention is being drawn to this, but as you had mentioned there’s budgetary concerns. Currently the police are in practically, a state of emergency in many places around the country. So it is something that could easily get overlooked. So can you discuss All Clear Foundation’s partnership with FirstNet in terms of supporting first responder wellbeing?
Rhonda Kelly: Absolutely. It’s been my experience, and I’m sure you have experienced this yourself over your career, is that many times we can create solutions, it’s really challenging to disseminate them effectively, to make them accessible geographically, financially. To promote them in a format that integrates effectively with an agency’s existing training structure that can be tailored to fit the often short-time periods that are available to fit into a training calendar, into roll call or to other opportunities to connect with officers.
And that’s a big advantage of our partnership with AT&T FirstNet is with FirstNet being the dedicated emergency responder/public safety, broad brand channel, they recognized early on that wellness is part and parcel of the essential support for emergency responders.
And one of the discussions we’ve had with them early on was they were talking about communications from AT&T’s perspective and talking about dead spots in cities. In high rises, in target hazards that oftentimes result in the loss of radio communications between public safety personnel: police, fire, EMS, and dispatch, and central command and how damaging this can be to the safety of our public safety personnel.
And what we discussed with them is the most frequent form of loss of connection we see among responders is self-imposed isolation as a result of a trauma or stress injury that leads a responder to cut themselves off from their coworkers, from their friends, from their family members, suffering and struggling in silence.
And really seeing this juxtaposition of we do need to increase communication, not only on the radio channels and on the broadband communications, but we need to increase connectivity and communication delivery of these effective methods for law enforcement and other public safety professionals to take care of themselves, to take care of their families, and to empower them to make healthy decisions for themselves. Not only in regards to mental and emotional health, but to physical health and the other sub domains that we spoke about.
So I really see the huge advantage for public safety personnel in this partnership is AT&T’s capacity to disseminate information effectively. We all have little smartphones in our pockets that’s usually the place, that’s our easiest go-to for information and for connection. And I see our ability to use AT&Ts communication platform as a disseminator for effective mental, emotional, and physical health information as being a huge advance in our outreach to responders and their families.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Oh, that’s great. What are some specific resources that are available through FirstNet?
Rhonda Kelly: One of the big ones to that point about connection, human connection, is the responder relate tool, which was created by All Clear Foundation in conjunction with the iRel8 group. It is a confidential anonymous peer-to-peer chat app for emergency responders across the country.
Due to very generous donations, to the All Clear Foundation, this tools available free of charge for emergency responders regardless of their branch across the country right now. Eventually it’ll resume a 99 cent a month subscription fee for maintenance of the platform. But right now we recognize it’s really imperative that responders feel they have somebody who understands who will listen with a non-judgmental ear and offer them support in times of just distress or when moving towards personal crisis. So we’re really happy to promote this tool and AT&T FirstNet have been promoting it throughout their wellness channel.
That one I’m really excited about for the human connection. For the family itself we also have another tool that’s being promoted through FirstNet called the Responders Strong Wellness Tool. As you know, the ResponderStrong initiative was the initial program I was involved with in creating better mental health supports for emergency responders and their families.
ResponderStrong is now the mental health unit for All Clear Foundation. We recognized in 2020 with that restriction of our common self-care practices with the increasing challenges that we’ve talked about extensively, that many responders are suffering from burnout and their families are suffering from that too. And we know that burnout is a direct result of the challenges and stressors in our lives, overwhelming our coping skills and our capacities to respond in healthy ways.
So this tool is free of charge to all emergency responders, frontline healthcare workers, and their families to create a private account that allows them to do their own private assessments. We know many people recognize something’s off, but they don’t know what it is. This tool allows them to assess themselves across all the domains of wellness and identify the areas where they’re doing really well, encouraging them to keep it up. But also identifying the areas where they’re struggling I might not have realized that.
Through the tool, which is a self-navigating system, the more a user seeks specific content, the more content with those tags rises to the top. We get them to vetted information that’s not only occupationally specific, but is also broadly applicable to the human behind the badge and the uniform and the family behind that human to get guided to normalizing, empowering information.
And we’ve also been populating it with state-level resources for every state across the country to allow responders in their families to access help when they choose to reach out for it. So there’s another great tool that’s also being promoted by FirstNet. And, again, we really appreciate the power of that platform to disseminate tools and resources.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s excellent. And I encourage everyone to go to your website, https://allclearfoundation.org, to learn more about the different resources that you offer for first responders and their families. What can you share with us in regards to the initiative to create a national day honoring all first responders?
Rhonda Kelly: Ah, great question. So All Clear Foundation has been collecting signatures on a petition to make October 28th National First Responder Day. And to our discussion earlier about the first step in a successfully solving any problem in, especially the problems of scale that we’re referring to is awareness.
Emergency responders we understand the struggles and the stressors. First Responders Day is a way to have national recognition for the challenges and to humanize the individuals behind the badge and behind the uniform. I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges we’ve seen in the attacks on law enforcement, in particular, is that a lot of the population whipped into a frenzy by the media, in their own state of hyper-vigilance due to the stress of 2020, have really effectively in their minds dehumanized law enforcement.
And I think that’s part of the significant reason why there’ve been so many attacks on law enforcement professionals over the past year is that people are not recognizing that these are humans. These are humans who are very dedicated. These are people who are well-intentioned and got into this job with the intention of helping other people and protecting and serving the community.
And I think that having a nationally recognized day is another way, it’s not the solution on its own, right? But it’s another way to help spread the understanding and the awareness that emergency responders are not superhuman. They have taken on a gargantuan task, they trained for it, but they are ultimately human and they can oftentimes suffer as a result of the job. And these are ways that we can effectively support them as a community through either our personal engagements with them or with our funding, our donating to projects that are designed to help support officers and other public safety members in their roles and their wellbeing.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s excellent. And I encourage everybody again, to go to your website and to learn more about how they can support the national day honoring all first responders, which I think is excellent. I think it’s timely and I think that’s really awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing this information today. Are there any final thoughts?
Rhonda Kelly: No. Just thank you so much for the opportunity to connect again with you and with your listeners. I really appreciate everything that you are doing to promote overall wellness, emergency responders, particularly law enforcement. And I look forward to continuing to stay connected and to collaborate on ways to improve that support.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time and for sharing this valuable information.