In many cities, police officers have been attacked due to the anger people are experiencing about the death of George Floyd. However, the overwhelming majority of police officers in the United States are good officers who chose this job to protect and help others.
Some of the officers I spoke with for this column described starting a career in law enforcement to help people who were in the lowest spot in their lives, to help others turn things around as someone had helped them, or as a way to give back to the community because of how they were helped when they were a child, and to be a positive role model. Each of these officers want to give back. They want to help people feel safe in their community.
Yes, things need to change. Attacking, harming, and killing police is not the answer. We need systemic change that will last, not knee jerk changes to make people feel good in the moment. Removing funding from law enforcement might help people feel more comfortable, or removing school resource officers from schools might help us feel better about things. However, this is only building more of a wall between our protectors and the rest of the community.
The school resource officer is designed to help build a bridge between our students and law enforcement. Many of these officers in our state build lasting relationships with students. This helps the students see that there are positive role models. This is a way for officers to give back and help students feel supported and help some of the students get back on the right track. Yes, adding more social work services to our schools is a good benefit for our students, but our students will miss out on the chance to build a relationship with someone they view as being in a position of authority that can be more impactful in the long run.
This needs to start at the top. The leaders in each police agency need to look at the leaders under them and determine how to make positive changes within their organization. As a mental health provider, I believe officer wellness is a top priority. If officers aren’t taking care of themselves, they are going to be at a higher risk of making poor decisions or using excessive force. Officers also need more training on managing escalated individuals in the safest way possible. However, we can’t expect them to always talk their way out of things.
Officers’ safety needs to be a priority. I’ve attended two funerals for law enforcement officers in Maine. I hope I will not need to attend more of these. We need better pay to recruit qualified candidates and to keep positions filled. Mandating overtime is only going to burn officers out and make matters worse.
We need to care for our police officers and we need to support them. Their leaders need to look at how to support them and to recognize the need for wellness programs. This includes encouraging officers to talk to someone, and having the agency build funding into their budget to pay for counseling sessions just to focus on good mental health. We need counselors who understand the culture of law enforcement to offer that support.
Wally Fraser of Hampden is a mental health counselor.