Officer wellness and safety main focus for Chief Landa as past president of the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police

by Chief Rene Landa - Chief of Police, South Miami Police Department - Past-President, Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police

“This initiative has the potential to change policing across this country. But we have to focus first and foremost on the police officer.”

 

I know everyone says the same thing, but I became a police officer because I wanted to help people. I wanted to make a difference. That was really important to me. Making a difference in someone’s life, being there for people who have been victimized, people who need assistance in some way.

I came from a family of attorneys. My father, my mother, my younger sister – all became attorneys. The thing in our family was to go to law school and that’s what I started out doing. I was going to college studying criminal justice and my goal was to go to law school. But in 1978, before my last two years of college, I started taking classes with law enforcement officers.

We had a special program in Miami where if you were a law enforcement officer, you would get most of your education paid. So I took classes with them. I would watch them. I'd talk with them about the stories that really interested me. And then I did a ride-along.

I always told my father, “The first day that I stepped in that car, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

It’s been 42 years. And for me, it’s still about helping people. It's about being there. Being there through a pandemic. Being present to let people know, “It’s going to be okay. We’re still here. We’re responding to your calls. We’re responding to you. How can I help you?”


A passion for the job

But being a cop comes with a lot of the stressors – many from within the organization. You're trying to prove to other officers that you're a top cop – that you’re a good cop. You can be trusted. Because tomorrow when I'm going through that door and there's a guy on the other side who wants to kill me, he's got a gun, I can’t turn around to my partner and ask, “Are you okay? Are you ready to go for this?” I have to trust and know that they’ve got my back and they’re not going to let anything happen to me.

Cops are really passionate about the job itself. So, it’s very difficult for us to balance between work and home. When you love your job, you want to be there all the time. You want to be with your partners. But you also have a family that you have to go and take care of and they're asking, "Hey, give me some time too. We want to go on vacation. We want to do something."

So the real big stressor is balancing between work and your personal life.

Life is a struggle. But when you don that uniform and you put on that badge, you take on an entire other stressful part. You don this uniform and go out on the street and now you’re dealing with other people’s struggles. 

Sometimes those struggles are very much like our own.  


When a call hits home

When my son was eight months old, we responded to a call about a lady in the middle of the street screaming. When we got there, she was out on the street, holding an eight-month-old baby. The baby was blue.

She hands me her baby, and tells me, "Make him breathe." And we're trying to do everything we can – we’re calling rescue. We’re trying everything we can to make the baby breathe again. And that didn't happen. We couldn’t help her.

So now I'm taking it personally. I'm thinking of my son who’s eight months old. What do I want to do? I want to get off the job and go straight home and hug my son.

The mother was not in a good financial situation. So all the officers in the crew were able to go to the funeral home and take care of everything for her. That's another way of releasing that struggle. We come back and we do something to try to help.


Number one priority

My No. 1 priority with my officers is making sure they’re safe at the end of the day and that they can go home to their families. How do we do that? We do that through training – like the Boulder Crest Struggle Well program. We do that through conversations. We do that through responding with each other to make sure we’re not alone.

And we make sure we're doing the job the way we're supposed to be doing it. You’ve got to be watching what you’re doing when you’re talking to someone. If you make a traffic stop. There’s a time to focus and make sure that what we're going through is per training, what we’ve practiced and what we’ve done.

With every single door you go through, every traffic stop you make, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. You don’t know what that other person is thinking about. You don’t know what they’ve been through in their life. So it's really important to be very sharp in what you're doing.

That’s why we have to learn how to grow from those struggles. And that’s why this Struggle Well training from the Boulder Crest Foundation is so important.


Implementing Struggle Well

When I became the president of the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police last May, I got with all the chiefs in the Dade County area – 37 of them. I told them I wanted to focus on one goal for the entire year. And that goal was officer wellness.

I was thinking of so many aspects – the nutritional part, the physical part, the financial part and the mental wellness.

Within five days of being sworn in, I got a call from a retired chief of Miami-Dade County, Bernie Gonzalez. He told me about Boulder Crest – and what they were doing with PTSD with the military. And now they wanted to focus on first responders – on police officers. So, we started talking about how that would take place. And that’s been a Godsend for the officers.

Every single chief bought into it. There was not one who said “No, I don't want any part of it.”

Now we've got 30-40 officers going through it every month – from all the departments within Dade County.

And the incredible thing is the buy-in that I'm getting from the police officers who are attending. For so long, police officers couldn’t talk about it. They couldn’t show any type of weakness. They wouldn’t talk. They couldn't. If they did anything, it would be to go home and tell their loved one or at most, their partner.

But what I'm seeing with what we’re doing with Boulder Crest and the Officer Wellness program has been incredible. Whether they’ve been on the force for 10 years or 20 plus years, they're opening up and getting it off their chest.

I’ve had a lot of the officers come knock on my door and tell me, “I don’t know how many officers you want to put through this Chief. But if you can do it, send the whole department ’cause it’s incredible.”

The bottom line is they've been storing it all inside. And nobody’s ever sat them at the table all together and asked, "What are you struggling with?"


Community impact

If an officer is struggling himself because he hasn't been to the training, then he may not be prepared to handle someone else struggling with the same issue.

Let's just say he’s going through a divorce. And he had to move out of his house – the house that he's lived in for 18 years with his son and daughter. Now, all of a sudden, he's on the street, and he’s responding to a domestic call between a husband and wife who are going through a divorce. If he doesn't get the aggression out, if he doesn't get the pain and the struggling out of his system so he knows how to handle it, how can he be well enough to take care of somebody else's issue?

And that's the problem. We struggle. Officers struggle.

This initiative has the potential to change policing across this country. But we have to focus first and foremost on the police officer. They deserve this. And we owe it to them, as chiefs of police, to make sure they have a happy family life.

Once we focus on the officer and he’s in a good place – he’s well emotionally, physically, mentally – that’s going to improve policing across the country.

When you have an officer that is in a good place with their family and everything else – and they're just passionate about the job – that’s type of officer who’s going out into the community to assist others who are struggling.

So is it gonna help the community? Absolutely. 


Finding a release

I've had a long career, and I haven’t seen officers open up like this.

On the first or second day of the training, you see the tension. Everyone is standing apart – stand-offish. But when you come back on the fourth or fifth day, it's a bunch of smiles. It’s, "Good morning, sir. How are you doing?"

It's incredible what you see, because people have opened up. They've had a great conversation to get it out of their system.

When I was a young officer, you had seven free visits to a psychologist. If you went through a situation, there was a number could call through human resources. You didn’t have to tell your supervisor. You would call and they would make an appointment for you. And you would go down alone and talk to a therapist.

The main mission of this training is for the individual officer to release the struggle – to understand how to recognize that struggle. And to see what they can do about it and the help they can get. So, when they walk away from that class, they’ve made friends with other people who may be going through the exact same struggle.

Last year, there were 166 suicides by police officers. I would like to see that completely stop. I don't want to see another officer giving his life to a community – then turn around and commit suicide because he’s keeping it all inside. I want it to stop. Completely.

That’s what I want to see from the Struggle Well training. 

Rene Landa has been Chief of Police for the South Miami Police Department for the last 8 years and is past president of the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police. He began his career with the City of Miami Police Department in 1980, where he went through the police academy. He worked for the department for 27 years in various capacities, including patrol, undercover narcotics and the SWAT team, where he stayed for about 16 years, achieving the rank of lieutenant, then commander, of the SWAT team. He left the City of Miami Police Department and became major and then a division chief with the Key Biscayne Police Department, where he remained for 4 years. He left there to join the South Miami Police Department, where he started as a major, moving up the ranks to interim chief of police and his current role as chief.