Walking the thin blue line: How officers' mental health affects the business of policing


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Det. Brenda-Jane Kerr has learned to know the signs of when she’s reached her breaking point.

In January 2010, she checked into the hospital because she no longer cared about the kinds of things people do when they are living well. Getting her finances in order didn’t matter. Neither did walking her dogs.

She became indifferent to all the responsibilities she had once been glad to take on. She was courting suicide and knew it was time to get help.

Kerr had been back to work for just a month when she started taking part in her first judge-and-jury trial for one of her biggest cases in the fraud unit.

She was scheduled to leave fraud in March. But, in February, she asked to go to the front desk.

Some officers are stationed at the front desk for physical reasons. There are those awaiting disciplinary reviews, and there are officers who need a position that accommodates their mental health challenges.

Some officers struggle to feel like the work has meaning. They signed up for this job to help people, but now their colleagues label them as “too scared to go on the road.”

“I got asked a lot, ‘Why are you at the front desk, Brenda?’” Kerr recalls.

She’d tell them she just thought she’d go to pasture for awhile.

Such is the stigma of shifts on the desk.

Accommodated positions, such as an administrative one at the front desk, as well as long-term disability have a financial impact on the force and the day-to-day of policing the City of Ottawa.

It’s a cost the police union believes can be alleviated, at least in part. The union has started a project, which now has the service’s endorsement, that is set to make a business case for investing in officers’ mental health before they have a problem.

The front-end investment would mean a major culture change for the force, taking it from reactive services available to officers who already suffer from serious issues, to preventive measures meant to steady the front lines of the police force against the inevitable tide of traumatic events they will face.


While there is no mandatory requirement for officers to disclose diagnosed mental health challenges to their employer, there is an expectation for officers to be accountable: They can’t go out on the road sick if it’s going to put themselves or others in jeopardy.

“If there are issues relating to their ability to perform the duties, there’s got to be a mechanism to ensure that, for their well-being, their safety and for community safety … we’re aware of medical issues that may impact (their) ability to do the job,” Chief Charles Bordeleau says.

For the service, accommodated positions are meant to allow an officer to recover so “they can best deal with the issues they are facing,” Bordeleau says.

Bordeleau maintains there are places besides the front desk for officers with mental health issues who need accommodation. The service won’t publicize what these other positions are and risk breaching officers’ confidentiality.

“We may have individuals across this organization that have mental health issues, are getting treatment and are doing very well, and they are employed in a wide variety of positions within the organization, but people don’t know that,Bordeleau says.

When dealing with any limitation an officer has, the first step for the service is to assess whether he or she can continue with the job they are doing. If they can’t, then the task is to find them other meaningful work in the force, Bordeleau says.

The stigma of the front-desk isn’t lost on the leaders of the force — the executive. They know that when an officer is assigned there, his or her colleagues will assume something is wrong. It’s something they try to manage.

“Policing is not unlike any business. We have people who struggle with mental illness and we have to be responsive to those issues,” Bordeleau says.


While the leaders of the force tout the importance of mental health initiatives and breaking stigma, the execution of those plans is left to middle management. There, sergeants and staff sergeants are dealing with their own pressures to properly police the community.

Supervisors tasked with staffing their units don’t get diagnoses. What they do get, filtered through the service’s health, safety and lifestyles group, are any limitations that an officer has.

Managers are caught between trying to make it all function and keeping everyone happy and healthy.

“It’s a fine line trying to make sure people have the support and help that they need to recover and grieve and deal with all the cumulative stress at work, but if you open the gate, you can’t tell everybody they have the day off today because we’re the police,” says Const. Eli Edwards.

“You can’t do that. But you can’t tell your employees to suck it up.”

It’s a delicate balance in a world of constrained budgets and caps on municipal property tax increases. Beyond the public discussion about crime stats or the rising costs of policing, the officers who make the system work feel like they’re getting stretched further each day, having to take on more and more responsibilities. If there’s barely enough time on a shift, that’s minimally staffed, to finish reports, where’s the time to debrief after a tough call?


In May 2013, the Ottawa Police Association’s resiliency and performance group (RPG) was tasked with assessing how well the service was supporting its members and with looking at how it could address challenges such as accommodation due to mental illness.

Using a model developed by the Canadian Armed Forces, RPG will present by February a business case to the force’s executive for building up officers’ resiliency to on-the-job stresses.

“There’s ways to become resilient through proper support, proper training and trust,” said Staff Sgt. Brad Hampson, chairman of the communications branch of RPG.

Some things are happening already, such as training front line staff sergeants, without approved funding. For that to continue, there has to be a buy-in from middle management, Hampson says.

Hampson has contacted every supervisor of front line sections, giving them information on how to tell when an officer is thriving, coping or struggling.

Reactive services to help officers are already in place, but that approach just isn’t working, according to the numbers on accommodations and long-term disability. Prevention has to be the answer, Hampson says.

The group’s objectives are clear: Develop early intervention and peer-support programs for officers who need them, create the tools to support members’ needs, and then measure how well the efforts are working.

It sounds straightforward, but the goals are lofty and would require a change in the current culture.

“We want to make it second-nature,” Hampson says.


During shift briefings, where pictures of wanted suspects are displayed and tactical strategies explained, RPG wants discussions on what officers can expect mentally.

If major case investigators are working on no sleep, then there would be a list of consequences that sleep deprivation can have. If someone posts a video on YouTube of a patrol officer making an arrest and using force, there would be information about what that officer may feel in the face of public scrutiny.

RPG plans to ask for a two-year pilot. The group won’t disclose what the funding request is, but there will be structured, full-time positions that would require salaries.

“We’re not asking for the moon here. We are looking very realistically at what the cost is going to be right now, trying to make it as minimal as possible, but it will have an impact on what we’re already paying out,” Hampson says.

Hampson, a cop for 29 years, spent the majority of his career on the front line. He was a homicide detective and went on a UN mission to Sudan, where he saw unimaginable things.

“I know I’m a different guy now than when I was young starting. I would have been afraid back then because of the culture.”

If the work is done correctly, the stigma of having mental health issues, the need for peer support and accommodations will all lessen, he says. It will give new officers a chance their older colleagues didn’t get.

“I’m getting ready to leave and I think I’ve done as good a job as I can as a cop for all these years,” he says.

Sgt. Dodd Tapp is also a member of RPG.

“We teach officers how to survive on the streets, but we don’t teach them how to survive the streets, survive the job,” Tapp says.

“I think finally the service is recognizing that members need more support for the long term.”




Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

The Ottawa Police "old school" mentalitity is enough to drive many officers insane or to quit or be "forced out".

 That's rather a hard option when with a minimal education you can be earning over $100,000 a year.


Now the Ottawa Police Association’s have come up with  a grand sounding title " resiliency and performance group" (RPG)