Portland Police Bureau expanding officer wellness program

The Portland Police Bureau is expanding its wellness program in the wake of tough years met with plunging morale among officers and staff.
Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 9:19 AM PST
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - The Portland Police Bureau is expanding its wellness program in the wake of tough years met with plunging morale among officers and staff.

The program, which focuses on providing more support and opportunities for physical and mental health activities, was launched in early 2019, but didn’t have much of a chance to get off the ground before the pandemic hit and protests and rioting became a central focus for the bureau for months of 2020, said officers involved with implementing the program.

“I went a few weeks before I had a day off, and then I was dealing with it every day for several months in a row,” said Officer Eli Arnold, who is a member of the bureau’s Central Bike Squad. “Yeah, it was unpleasant.”

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The protests and riots gripped Portland relentlessly in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

It was a flashpoint in the nation’s reckoning with race, justice and policing. Portland officers said they felt the heat from city hall to the streets, all while the job grew harder over the next year with crime and gun violence soaring and more officers turning in the badge.

“Some people still have injuries that they are dealing with, that they have from that time,” said bureau EAP coordinator, Officer Amy Bruner-Dehnert.

Last year, 42 Portland officers retired and nearly 60 quit the bureau.

“It felt like people were escaping, and some of the people who left -- other people were jealous,” said Officer Leo Harris, who coordinates the bureau’s wellness program.

A survey conducted for the bureau revealed what officers already felt: sinking morale at PPB -- falling sharply between 2020 and 2021. The report concluding, “The low morale was linked to city and bureau leadership’s pressure or perceived lack of support.”

Currently, officers and other staff members can choose to spend a paid hour of their day to focus on wellness activities, whether mental or physical.

“I usually do a little weights, a little cardio and I’ve been trying to do more and more meditation,” Arnold said.

Most days of the week, you can find the bureau’s bike squad in the gym at Central Precinct.

“It keeps me healthy,” said Sgt. Cassandra Wells. “It keeps me able to chase after my young kids. Also, this job, unfortunately, we’re sometimes faced with life-threatening situations and I want to be able to go home every night.”

Adding a wellness program was part of growing awareness among cities and law enforcement over the last several years to invest more in the health and well-being of those in a tough line of work.

“The average person may be exposed to one or two traumatic events in their lifetime, Portland officers it could be one or two a week,” Bruner-Dehnert said.

In addition to daily wellness hours, the program also hosts workshops and seminars on topics like healthy eating and retirement planning.

Other big additions are in the pipeline. The city recently approved funding that will allow the bureau to hire its own internal mental health professional dedicated to helping struggling officers.

“We call it emotional first aide,” Bruner-Dehnert said. “So traumatic instances, like an officer-involved shooting happens, you have a mental health provider right there to talk to that person, get them set up for the resources they may need afterwards.”

Other new plans include providing heart screenings for officers and paying for interested staff members to get certificates in certain wellness areas, like fitness and sleep so they can serve as mentors to their colleagues

Officer Harris said the ultimate goal extends beyond increasing officers’ health and happiness.

“If we can remove more and more barriers, increase morale, increase people’s ability to be resilient, increase people’s ability to want to work here; that’s when we’re going to have a better workforce that serves the community better,” Harris said.

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The survey on PPB’s pilot wellness program also found that about 90 percent of bureau employees reported the program had a positive impact on their health and well-being.

Nearly 100 percent of officers believe the program boosts morale.