April focus: Officer health in the black law enforcement community
April 15, 2021
In the public safety community, we know that first responders face unique health risks as a result of keeping our communities safe, healthy, and whole. Those health risks include problems such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.1 2 3 But while suicide rates in 2019 declined by 2.1% from previous years, the rates for black Americans (and other ethnic minorities) did not.4
We know that minority populations have unique health risks including higher rates of stroke and coronary heart disease, obesity, asthma, periodontitis, tuberculosis and others.5 These risk factors coupled with socio-ecological risk factors including persistent stressors, social marginalization, and personal (relationship, financial, legal) problems present a critical storm of factors that can contribute to suicide ideation and suicide attempt. Black communities face many of these issues daily. But are the risk factors the same for minority first responders?
The data are sparse on minority first responder health risks. But risk factors do exist, and they likely traverse both the problems that first responders in general face, as well as the risk factors of their ethnic and cultural groups.
This month, I sat down with Lynda R. Williams, National President, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) to discuss the health risk factors of minority law enforcement officers from the perspective of African American leadership.
Dr. Courie: Do you think the risks differ? Why or Why not?
President Williams: African Americans are generally at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS, as compared to their white counterparts according to the Office of Minority Health, Department for Health and Human Services. African American police officers are generally predisposed to these conditions yet report to work daily to perform the fundamental rigors of policing their communities in an already stressful environment; consequentially there are other, very real challenges nuanced in the black officer’s career life impacting their physical and emotional health.
Specifically, challenges related to racial tension, peer acceptance, and the general pressure of working within a larger system that continues to place little emphasis on racial equity to include opportunities for minority officers. This may be enigmatically related to a specific medical disposition that links to an underlying or compound factor to overall officer health and wellness.
President Williams: Also, Mental Health is a significant part of our well-being but even more so for members of the African American or law enforcement members of other communities of color. Psychological stress can be a daily challenge to master. The expectation of persons of color to excel or to be accepted by members of the community along cultural norms, as well as within their own agency can be impactful. The phenomena of "code switching", that is, being "relatable" in both communities of color and also in the professional setting among law enforcement peers, adds to the inherent stressors of life in public safety; navigating being both is a reality and a necessary tool of the trade to be trusted, effective and successful.
Dr. Courie: What challenges do African American law enforcement officers face in addressing their health needs and what are some barriers?
President Williams: Culturally, in general, there is a negative stigma in the African American community in seeking either professional medical or psychological assistance, which can lead to misunderstandings about the resources, support for and, as importantly, the causes of serious illness. Compound this with a general gender reluctance in the male population to seek professional help, and this becomes a compounded barrier to addressing mental and emotional needs before it spirals or negatively affects their duty to serve.
We see this manifest among many ethnic first responders who, though they may have adequate resources or insurance, will still ignore their health warning signs. In many ways, while rooted in cultural exposure and upbringing, is also similar to their white colleagues in being hesitant to seek peer support or employee assistance programs when faced with emotional or health challenges.
President Williams: In terms of psychological wellness, we often find that seeking mental health help is frowned upon in law enforcement in general for a multitude of reasons. For some seeking help, it is viewed as a weakness or a deficiency. Others do not come forward because they may be fearful that there may be a negative impact on their job, such as being ostracized or having their service weapon temporarily taken as a protective measure.
The stigmatization of police officers seeking help for mental health issues is a far-reaching problem and can ultimately have damaging effects on the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. For the African American police officer, the reluctance to seek help for their health needs may go beyond machismo, and result from feeling compelled to perform at a higher standard than their white colleagues. Will they be perceived as inferior or not worthy of their roles if they reveal health problems?
Dr. Courie: What do you think are some solutions to this?
President Williams: I believe police leaders/agencies must acknowledge the historical prejudices towards minorities that have plagued the law enforcement profession over the years, internally and externally. To ensure equity in responding to officer wellness issues, there must be trust between African American officers and the managers/leadership of the agency. Messaging that reiterates the value and importance of every employee should be part of the department’s health and wellness campaign or vision statement. Stereotypes that exist regarding mental illness and other health problems should be condemned by leadership to effectively nurture and cultivate an environment that genuinely supports employee wellness for all employees. Once trust is developed in this area, African American officers will feel more empowered to seek assistance knowing it is safe to do so.
President Williams: Secondly, academy training must change from a warrior mentality to one of guardianship. The military system, which was a foundation for most law enforcement training, has to be changed to face current needs in our communities and how we train new officers who are entering the field of law enforcement. Promoting culture awareness and dispelling the negative connotation of seeking mental health aid should be established. Organizations such as NOBLE and like-organizations can help sponsor mental health aid training and counseling workshops. Increasing awareness and education within the law enforcement community can have great benefits and tap into unchartered waters.
Dr. Courie: Are there actions leaders can take to address issues facing African American law enforcement officers?
President Williams: There needs to be more open dialogue in police departments about the impact of being "black and blue" or embracing the diversity among the ranks of people of color. NOBLE recommends more formal research efforts to examine the toll of the past 12 months on the physical and emotional health of first responders who identify as persons of color. The law enforcement profession needs to seek qualified ethnic mental health providers to address the psychological health of public safety employees. More departments need to embrace wellness as a philosophy and develop more efforts to positively impact the health and welfare of their employees.
Dr. Courie: Thank you President Williams for your time and expertise. I hope that this dialog helps with the first step in addressing health and wellness problems of a specific community: bringing awareness to the issue. The next is bringing awareness to resources available to help them. FirstNet, Built with AT&T, is committed to integrating these health and wellness resources into the way we look at the mission of FirstNet.
Consequently, we’ve been bringing in resources into the app catalog that address first responder health and wellness needs. This plan is to ensure that
Small departments have tools they can use when dealing with limited resources;
Your FirstNet devices have the ability to easily access health and wellness features;
Curate high quality third-party health and wellness applications that support you as you continue to serve your communities. Some of those resources include the ResponderRel8 Peer to Peer Chat app, the Better App for mental health support, and Lighthouse Health and Wellness for programs and services supporting first responders across our nation. You can learn more about the wellness and safety apps available by checking out the FirstNet App Catalog.
Health and wellness disparities are a problem for our communities of color. They are also a problem for our first responders of those populations. When organizations like NOBLE and FirstNet, Built with AT&T come together, we help to raise awareness, drive solutions, and facilitate outcomes that make a difference. When YOU become aware of those problems and seek solutions for your health and wellness needs, you become a part of making a difference too.
Just like extremes of elimination dieting, unreasonable fitness goals can set you up for injury, rather than success. Training for a marathon, half marathon, or even a 5K takes time. Your training plan should add mileage or intensity slowly to let your body adapt to the new activity without causing an injury. One trainer I worked with used to tell me you can increase your speed, your length of time exercising, or your intensity (i.e. adding weights or distance), but you shouldn’t do all three at once. This would increase your risk for injury substantially.
Law enforcement officers and firefighters are already prone to injuries that come with the job. But you need physical activity to stay strong and fit. So, it’s important you set reasonable objectives when you take on new fitness goals. This is where SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time bound) can be incredibly useful. One example of a SMART fitness objective would be: For the next eight weeks, I will run three times a week using the “Couch to 5K” training planning. If you want to sweeten the deal, add a treat for yourself at the end of your first objective. I reward myself with a massage or pedicure after achieving a goal – it’s self-care and motivation all in one. Once I achieve my first goal, I set the next one. Physical fitness is a never-ending journey.
Dr. Anna Fitch Courie, Director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T is a nurse, Army wife, former university faculty, and author. Dr. Courie has worked for over 20 years in the health care profession including Bone Marrow Transplant, Intensive Care, Public Health, and Health Promotion practice. Dr. Courie holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University. Dr. Courie’s area of expertise is integration of public health strategy across disparate organizations to achieve health improvement goals.
Lynda R. Williams is Professor of the Practice at Middle Tennessee State University in the Department of Criminal Justice Administration. With this appointment in 2017, she became the first individual bestowed this title in recognition of the breadth and depth of her knowledge and expertise in the field of criminal justice and executive security. Ms. Williams’ curriculum subject matter includes foreign/domestic terrorism studies, criminal justice processes, community and public service engagement and executive law enforcement leadership speaker symposiums. Prior to joining the faculty of Middle Tennessee State University, Ms. Williams led an accomplished career as a veteran of the United States Secret Service, from 1988 until she retired, as the Deputy Assistant Director in 2017. As President of NOBLE, Ms. Williams is focused on achieving the organization’s goals through a three-pillar platform on police reform, gun violence, and voter engagement.
1 Heyman, M., Dill, J.; & Douglas, R. (2018). The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders. Ruderman Family Foundation.
2 Benedek, D., Fullerton, C., and Ursano, R. (2007). First responders: Mental health consequences of natural and human-made disasters for public health and safety workers. Annual Review of Public Health. 28: 55-68.
3 Substance Abuse, Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2018). Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin: First Responders: Behavioral Health Concerns, Emergency Response, and Trauma. Retrieved from: First Responders: Behavioral Health Concerns, Emergency Response, and Trauma (samhsa.gov)
4 Stone, D., Jones, C., and Mack, K. (2021). Changes in Suicide Rates—United States, 2018-2019. CDC Weekly: 70 (8) 261-268; Changes in Suicide Rates — United States, 2018–2019 | MMWR (cdc.gov).
5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report. Atlanta, GA: 1-35