Paul Sylvestre is a professor and chair of the criminal justice department at Johnson & Wales University and served in the Pawtucket Police Department for 22 years.
The public trust in policing is at an all-time low. Gov. Dan McKee, Attorney General Peter Neronha and General Assembly leadership recently acknowledged this and the need to do more to restore the trust of the general public by announcing a statewide program that will equip police officers across every department with body cameras. While this is an important, positive step, our leaders need to address the predominant issue in law enforcement today: a lack of mental health evaluations and supports.
More police officers are opting to retire, and fewer are deciding to pursue this career path. Despite a growing number of police suicides, the reluctance of administrators to address the psychological issues those in uniform experience perpetuates the assertion that this is an individual issue and not an organizational problem. This is just not true.
Regular psychological assessments of police officers should be viewed as critical to career longevity and street survival as training on the firing range and of self-defense tactics.
Every decision a law enforcement officer — from patrol to chief — makes depends on their psychological well-being. Every shift, they participate in encounters with outcomes that illustrate the need for regular psychological evaluations. When unchecked, the cumulative stress that occurs from their daily interactions can have a significant impact on their well-being.
As a former police officer of 22 years, I can’t reconcile how we continue to mandate that officers be qualified yearly, or more often, with their firearm without regular psychological evaluations. Funding is readily allocated for firearms instructors, ammunition used for practice, and officers’ overtime. It is time for departments to also prioritize investments in mental health. Municipalities and the state should support this by allocating sufficient funds.
Throughout the police academy, recruits are taught to suppress their natural emotions. This continues once on the job. Although peer support and crisis intervention services are available, many officers fear that using them could result in being isolated, perceived as weak and viewed as a liability. Instead, we often see officers who are struggling turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs to cope with the debilitating and detrimental consequences of cumulative stress.
Another step towards earning back the public trust is more transparency from police.
Body cams should be required and worn by all police at all times. They give protection to both officers and the members of the public. Incidents without body cam footage that include conflicting accounts of what transpired reflect poorly, be it fairly or unfairly, on the officer involved, and can lead to the appearance of impropriety and reasonable accusations of a cover-up.
Law enforcement is at a crossroads, and this new body cam requirement begins the process of reforming policing, while simultaneously providing more protection to the public and the officers. This alone is not enough. Our leaders must now enact bold measures to address and support the mental health needs of police. Body cams show us what can happen when mental health and proper police training is not prioritized.
We cannot let the effort to improve policing end with body cams and without investing in mental health or we will continue to ask ourselves “how could this happen” each time a tragic incident occurs.