New Rules for Today’s Police

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Stable employment used to be one of the perks of being a police officer. Today, every officer is one decision away from being torn from their career. The decision doesn’t even have to be wrong for the ax to fall. As the law enforcement profession continues to take fire, literally and figuratively, individual police officers and their loved ones must adapt to new threats. Threats from the criminal element, although increasing, are nothing new. Daily threats to their livelihood lurk on every shift. Here are things our police officers from rookie to veteran to chief need to consider.

Financial security

Debt is a great enemy to individuals and families. According to Forbes magazine, a 2017 survey showed that 78% of American families live paycheck to paycheck. This was pre-covid and didn’t just apply to low income families. Most police officers can live as middle class citizens, but the norms of even middle class culture accept high rent and house payments, along with never ending car payments, are to be expected. This attitude is a recipe for disaster. A sudden job loss from injury, suspension without pay, or dismissal can not only stop a paycheck. Relying on off-duty employment as regular income is perilous if it depends on police officer status. Health insurance can be unaffordable on the open market.

Many injured officers can testify to horrible treatment by their employers and worker compensation insurance. Expecting that the agency will take care of their wounded officers is not wise. For many departments, injured officers are simply a burden that is easily cast off and forgotten. Sadly, the expected support of fellow officers can fade as well.

Disciplined financial planning is essential for a police family. Having savings that can carry three to six months of expenses during loss of income is possible with planning and budgeting. Finding part-time employment that develops a new skill or at least is independent of being a police officer can provide additional protection.

Legal protection

Adding to the professionals in a family’s life, like doctors, dentists, and financial planners every police officer should have an attorney, or at least know who they would call. Attorneys who specialize in employment law or defense to lawsuits would be best, unless the issue is a looming criminal charge. Being a part of an existing legal protection plan is worth the cost.

Officers should know their rights, and the history of their agency’s treatment of officers who are accused of misconduct. Many officers are idealists, trust their employers, and believe in their own competence to handle legal matters. Facing accusations requires a support network when, to the dismay of many, leadership and even colleagues withdraw from an officer in trouble. A good attorney is essential in these times.

A factor often forgotten is that when an officer is suspended during an investigation that may last a very long time, the peace officer loses their law enforcement privilege of carrying a weapon. This can be proactively resolved by obtaining a concealed carry permit before it becomes necessary.

Mental health

 One other professional that should be part of an officer’s life is a mental health partner. Preventive counseling, especially during the current era, can help reduce anger and anxiety. Officers must assume that their family members are experiencing vicarious stress and may be tempted to hide their anxiety in order to not be a burden to their officer.

A self-check with assistance from trusted friends, family, and counselors can be another proactive step in providing support for a law enforcement career. Depression, substance abuse, and destructive behavior can sneak up on anyone. Planning for prevention rather than waiting for trauma will build resilience and coping skills.

Being part of a non-law enforcement support system is also important. This is difficult for many officers, but being part of a sports league, interest group, or faith group is important. An officer must resist the urge to disregard groups who are not aware of the realities of police work, even though being constantly questioned about the job is a frequent annoyance. If those group members include critical or hostile persons, finding a new circle can be therapeutic.

Being prepared

Being prepared for a disastrous event like unemployment or injury with a supportive network can keep officers physically and mentally healthy. Having the security of preparing in advance can take away some of the niggling anxiety that can interfere with quick decisions and traumatic events. Being physically fit will benefit all of these factors, but financial, legal, a social wellness are essentials for today’s law enforcement officers.

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