Columbus Police Launch Wellness Bureau To Improve Officers' Mental Health
Rhonda Grizzell leads me up a curved staircase to a conference room in the Columbus Police headquarters downtown. As she takes the new role of Wellness Bureau Commander, her office is in disarray while she switches working spaces.
“I’m moving locations so my office isn’t presentable right now,” Grizzell explains.
She helped start the department’s peer assistance team six years ago, which brought counseling services to officers. But Grizzell says she never fully had the time to develop the ideas she had for the department.
“The peer assistance roles were kind of ancillary to our regular roles. So it was like, ‘Do your regular work first, then work on peer assistance stuff,’” Grizzell says. “And it’s very difficult to really completely develop those types of ideas when you don’t have the extra time to do it or can’t devote your entire focus to that.”
That’s why Grizzell is excited now to be able to devote all her energy to officer wellness.
“I think people are starting to realize that it’s not normal to expose a human being to the trauma that we have to go see every single day, multiple times a day, over and over and over,” Grizzell says.
Being a police officer is a stressful job with have major consequences on mental health; statistics show officers are more likely to die by suicide than at the hands of criminals. Columbus Division of Police officials hope that opening a dedicated Wellness Bureau will boost the health and welfare of its more than 1,800 officers.
Coping With Trauma
Trauma for officers comes from a number of sources. Grizzell says the public does not typically ask police for service for positive reasons.
“If you work an inner-city precinct, you may see children that don’t have enough food or are left home alone or domestic violence victims with physical injuries a few times a day,” she says. “You might see aggravated assault, homicide, a fatal accident, or a house fire.”
She says some police suffer from a 50% divorce rate, cardiac risks, diabetes, sleep disorders and alcoholism. So the new Wellness Bureau is dear to her heart, and has been for years.
“We had kind of been kicking around the idea of a Wellness Bureau, but we couldn’t get any traction," she says. "We’d been thinking about that and trying to promote that for a couple of years.”
She's still developing initiatives, but the plan is to include things like mindfulness training and helping officers build their emotional intelligence.
When Tom Quinlan was named Interim Police Chief in January, he was excited about Grizzell’s proposal – he'd had a similar idea of his own. Quinlan asked Mayor Andrew Ginther for permission to expand the number of bureaus in order to devote more attention to the issue, and Ginther agreed.
“We were authorized for 17 commanders, so he wanted to expand the number of commander positions,” Grizzell says. “So he had to go to the director’s office and mayor’s office and make the case for why he wanted to create this bureau.”
The total cost isn’t known yet. Grizzell says the bureau has 50 new employees, and she's allotted an overtime budget. Funding comes from the General Fund and is managed by the department’s fiscal services.
Will The Bureau Be Effective?
For community activist Tammy Fournier Alsaada, a Wellness Bureau is the start to a solution for officers’ mental health, but it's incomplete.
“Not only do we have a force of officers that we are now recognizing need that kind of focus, intervention, attention around mental health, but I’ve been saying since the beginning, we also must recognize that our community is traumatized and needs intensive focus after each one of these tragic shootings,” Alsaada says.
Alsaada says the same attention the city is paying to officers’ health needs to be paid to the general community’s health.
“But I think that it’s important for us to remind ourselves not to lose sight that it’s hand-in-hand,” Alsaada says.
More than 30 clergy members of different faiths wrote a letter to Ginther in October 2018 asking for changes to the police force. Their main focus was combatting racism within the police department, but they also called for more attention to officer health.
First Congregational Church Pastor Tim Ahrens says sometimes the trauma officers experience is only recognizable to the people they go home to: their family members.
“They just saw them sort of pulling in, pulling in, pulling in emotionally from the family. And then they were gone,” Ahrens says, referring to officers' families he'd spoken with.
New Faith Baptist Church of Christ Pastor Jeffrey P. Kee adds that some officers do not feel comfortable truthfully expressing their emotional state to begin with.
“We don’t know that officers feel well in terms of being able to state, ‘I’m not so well.’ They feel like there would be retaliation,” Kee says. “That’s something against their mental, cognitive processing that you know, ‘I’m not fit to do this if I say I need help.’”
Across the country, 146 officers died by suicide this year, according to nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P. Nine officers killed themselves in New York City alone, a record number for the country’s largest police department.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 9 vice president Brian Steel hopes the Wellness Bureau will prevent Columbus from joining that statistic. He thinks its formation is a sign things are changing for the better.
“Almost two decades ago when I started policing, it was something not really talked about,” Steel says. “Now I’m glad we’re talking about it, we’re recognizing it. It’s something real and it’s something treatable.”
As stressful as it can be to be a police officer, Grizzell says it’s also hard for officers nearing retirement to imagine doing anything else.
“Two years out, when we know someone is going to be leaving the organization. This really is an identity. It’s a lifestyle. People identify with being a police officer,” Grizzell says. “Then all of a sudden they’re not gonna be one anymore. I don’t think they’ve ever prepared anyone for that.”
Grizzell hopes to have the new bureau’s initiatives fully up and running in about a year.