For Cops, Stress May Be the Biggest Danger. This City Is Trying New Ways to Improve Their Mental Health.

Stockton’s wellness network focuses on coping with years of trauma to prevent police violence—and stop suicides.

SAMANTHA MICHAELSFEBRUARY 19, 2019 6:00 AM

On the dimly lit second floor of Stockton, California’s police headquarters, Lieutenant Brad Burrell addressed a room full of recent cadets: “Please come into this with a very open mind,” he told the seated officers, who had just signed up to patrol one of America’s most dangerous cities. Burrell, a tattooed combat veteran, was leading a daylong training intended to help the city’s next generation of cops talk about their feelings and cope with stress. “I sat on these very seats many, many years ago and thought, ‘I don’t need this junk,’” he said. “I was very wrong.” 

In 2014, after the killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York sparked nationwide protests over police violence, Barack Obama created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The committee would develop strategies not only for building trust between cops and communities, but also for addressing mental health problems among law enforcement. Nationally, more active-duty officers die from suicide than from shootings and traffic accidents combined—about 11 or 12 per month, according to some studies, and at least 27 so far in 2019, according to Karen Solomon, president of the group Blue H.E.L.P. And an estimated 150,000 cops show up to work with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that’s often linked with heightened vigilance and could potentially affect their decision-making in fast-moving, high-pressure encounters—like when a suspect on the street reaches into a pocket for what may or may not be a gun.

The science is new, but as researchers begin to explore how trauma might affect cops on the job, more police departments are paying attention to their officers’ emotional wellbeing. They’re trying out everything from meditation apps to napping protocols to more traditional resources like counseling and chaplain programs. Last year, 115 agencies applied for a national awardrecognizing innovation in officer wellness and mental health programs, up from 10 agencies the year before. 

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