'People just seem to be happier': LOPD embraces wellness program
Four Lake Oswego Police Department officers moved the table and chairs aside in a conference room and rolled out their mats. Watching them lay on their backs to begin meditation and breathing techniques, you'd almost forget you were sitting in a police department.
The casual and positive atmosphere enveloped returning yogis and eased the nerves of first-time attendees.
This laid-back beginners yoga class, taught at City Hall by instructors from Lake Oswego's Twist Yoga, is just one of the components of the LOPD's recently adopted wellness program.
In an effort to reduce the number of line of duty deaths, injuries, suicides and other health issues, state law required every Oregon police agency to have a wellness policy in place at the beginning of the 2019 legislative session.
"'Policy,' I think, it's pretty subjective," said LOPD Lieutenant Darryl Wrisley.
But LOPD was proactive in this approach.
Prior to Jan. 1, 2019, Wrisley said the Bend Police Department started a wellness program that was highly regarded. He said he attended a presentation and asked why officers were participating in it — and why it was important to address the different wellness components.
After researching wellness programs, LOPD adopted its own comprehensive program in February 2019. The wellness program, though it hasn't fully been rolled out yet, includes several components: peer support, a chaplaincy program, physical fitness, medical health and education.
Wrisley said he wanted the LOPD to be proactive about creating a wellness program because it's important to drive the number of officer deaths and injuries down.
Nationally, Wrisley said, line of duty deaths hovered around 175 in 2016 and 2017 and dropped slightly to 167 in 2018 and 135 in 2019, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
He added that driving accidents and heart attacks were the leading cause of those deaths.
To help decrease driving accidents, Wrisley said there is a focus on defensive driving and high-speed driving tactics. The cause of heart attacks was often linked to stress and health issues.
But one statistic that has increased every year — from 143 in 2016 to 228 in 2019 as reported to the nonprofit organization Blue H.E.L.P. — is the number of officer suicides.
"We started looking at, 'why?' This is just ridiculous and (it's) getting worse and worse and we think it's even higher than it is because there are a lot of these traffic crashes that are one officer and one vehicle into a tree or a highway pile on or something, and we know that in the past some of those have been suicides," Wrisley said. "It's unfortunate because what happens is officers will do that because the benefits are much higher for their families if they are dead, if they die in the line of duty."
That's why LOPD's wellness program targets many different areas.
To address emotional support, select first responders are trained through Responder Life, an organization that trains officers and equips them with tools to provide support and look for preventative solutions for issues plaguing peers. Often that support comes through formal and informal relationships that address psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical health.
On the medical side, Wrisley emphasizes the importance of annual physicals, biometric testing and sleep studies.
"One of the things that really affects shift workers a lot is sleep, or lack of it, or good continuous sleep. We will encourage people to get sleep studies because there's a lot of super easy fixes for that," Wrisley said. "We want people to be alert when they're working ... It's tough especially, you know, these graveyard guys are usually our younger people. A lot of them have families at home and the families are awake in the daytime ... so it's tough."
To prevent injuries on the job, Wrisley found that this issue is rooted in being more fit and able to stretch to increase mobility.
"They (officers) sit in this car anywhere from 8-10, 12 hours a day and sometimes more," Wrisley said.
The new City Hall building will have a small gym for officers, and in the meantime their health insurance offers discounted rates to participating gyms.
But Yoga, Wrisley said, has been a huge factor in increasing mobility and decreasing stress and negative moods.
The yoga class, in contract with Twist, is taught by a few different instructors four times a week.
"It's been so rewarding for us because we got to kind of understand what their normal schedules are like," said Twist Yoga Owner Jennifer Pahl, adding that the three instructors did a ridealong to understand what a full shift of sitting in a police car is like — and the stress that accompanies that.
One of the teachers ended up being on a ridealong for almost eight hours and took two people to jail with an officer.
"That one was a really good eye opener because I think a lot of times people don't really understand how stressful it is to be a police officer in Lake Oswego," Pahl said. "A lot of times I hear people say, 'Well, what do they have to do? Nothing ever happens.' Stuff actually does happen and the big stress, which a lot of us don't have in our daily life, is they don't know what's going to happen.
"That heightened sense of taking your nervous system up into that fight or flight stage for a whole shift day after day after day is really, really taxing on the body. It was great for us to be a part of that learning so we knew what type of class we wanted to offer them."
Pahl said that over the last year, she has noticed significant physical and mobility improvements as well as the officers' ability to be present and mindful.
"One thing I found is that since we've started our program, we've had three workers comp claims," Wrisley said.
Prior to 2019, Wrisley said, the LOPD averaged about seven or eight workers comp claims a year. He said it's hard to directly attribute this to the wellness program, but he has also noticed less muscle strains and thinks it's all related.
"Moods are better," he added. "People just seem to be happier."
Next steps within the wellness program are continuing to educate employees through presentations and classes regarding stress management, nutrition, physical fitness and mindfulness.
"If our guys are healthier, they're hurt less, they have a better workforce, a happier workforce, they're going to be at work more often and so it costs the taxpayers less and it's better for us," Wrisley said.
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