Two years ago, Orem Police Chief Gary Giles started a wellness program for his officers, dispatchers and staff. The depth and focus of the program makes it the only one of its kind for police in the state of Utah.
According to Sgt. Mike Paraskeva, chairman of the wellness committee, Orem has always had employee wellness programs, but never had one for just the Police Department.
The program covers four areas of health and wellness: physical, mental, emotional and financial. Officer safety is integrated into all of these. In fact, the whole program is specific to police needs.
For instance, Parasekva said the wellness committee did an eight-week series on finances and brought in experts in the fields of retirement planning, 401(k)s, taxes, budgeting and more.
“It was specific to the field we’re in,” Paraskeva said. “It was well received, with about 20 attending regularly.”
Lifting weights and running track is part, but not all, of the physical portion of the wellness program. The department teamed up with NutriShops to talk about a variety of illnesses seen in police staff including heart disease.
That still wasn’t good enough for Giles. He wanted each employee to have a mandatory counseling session with a therapist once a year.
“Cops are typically (those) who don’t go to counseling,” Giles said. “We never go to counseling. We tend to isolate ourselves in our off-duty time. It’s hard to admit you have something you need to talk about.”
Giles said in the beginning, he did have pushback from some in the department.
“I told them you don’t have to talk. If you want to play chess, the counselor will play chess, but you have to go,” Giles said.
Giles said the feedback he got was that no one played chess and the therapists said they did talk.
According to Giles, police officers tend to have accumulating post-traumatic stress disorder. They see things that get emotionally stored away, particularly events that may involve children or death.
“It comes a little at a time,” Giles said. “You don’t recognize it over time and you don’t know how to fix it. A one-time visit doesn’t solve it.”
Paraskeva said he has heard good things from officers about the mandatory counseling.
“There is a feeling of relief,” Paraskeva said. “Police life is hard — we do and see things the public doesn’t see.”
Paraskeva said the city provides free counseling as part of their benefits package. That also includes any form of addiction one may be suffering from. There is also family and divorce counseling available.
There are some success stories too, according to Giles. On Oct. 12, two officers were involved in an officer-involved shooting of 17-year-old Jacob E. Albrethsen.
“Both of them had gone to their mandatory visit,” Giles said.
Going to the mandatory therapy helped to break the ice so they were comfortable going back to talk to a therapist about their experience, Giles said.
When Provo Police Master Officer Joseph Shinners was shot and killed Jan. 5, an Orem officer was right there by him. According to Giles, the officer’s mandatory therapy visit was the next Thursday.
“He was affected, he really, really needed to talk,” Giles said. “Now they (officers) know it’s OK to go to a counselor.”
Paraskeva said, “After Shinners’ murder, we sent out notification that the Critical Incident Stress Management Team was sending help, counselors and doctors for a debriefing.”
“We invited Provo officers,” Parskeva added. “It was hosted at the Senior Friendship Center. It was for spouses and significant others as well.”
Paraskeva said they had to learn how to move forward.
“My wife was in tears and saying ‘don’t ever leave me,’” Paraskeva said. “It’s the risk of the job.”
The meeting had about 30 officers and spouses from Orem, and more than 10 from Provo’s department in attendance.
“It was wonderful,” Paraskeva said. “We brought on a non-denominational chaplain (Chaplain Ted Taylor). He rides with officers. Several officers have reached out to him during this (Shinners’ death) incident.”
Giles said he feels he has done his part to let his department know he does care about them and their life.
All officers, dispatchers, advocates, all critical employees, all go to mandatory counseling and all have access to every part of the wellness program.
Giles said in the beginning, there were few participating. When it became a norm, more were buying into the program.
“It’s a lot better than I thought or expected two years ago,” Paraskeva said.
Giles added, “I have been thanked by many spouses.”
The department’s wellness program is up for a national award through the Destination Zero Program. Destination Zero assists law enforcement with health and wellness. The program is in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Giles said he will know in May if Orem’s program receives national recognition.