The Future of Wellness for Law Enforcement, Fire, and Other High-Stress Occupations

Part III


Chief John Carli

Thanks Gordon and Dr. Black. This crisis is real and requires our full attention. We spend enormous amounts of money on safety equipment and training so our first responders are physically prepared to confront dangerous threats. Yet, there is a deadlier risk, the uncertainty whether police officers, firefighters, and all other first responders are psychologically prepared to endure repetitive traumatic experiences and emotionally survive. As a police chief, I am troubled by the pressures our officers and dispatchers are experiencing. How can we ensure the safety of each of our employees, both physically and mentally?

Based on these concerns, I focused my efforts on making mental wellness a priority and began ensuring that our peer support and chaplain programs were engrained in department culture. Although useful, these programs were incomplete; there needed to be comprehensive and coordinated preventive resources. The Vacaville Police Department Wellness App was the solution born a year ago during a brainstorming meeting I had with Dr. David Black, President and Founder of Cordico, a passionate and well-recognized psychologist and mental health expert who has focused his efforts to improve officer wellness in our profession. I shared my idea, an expectation and a call to action.

I wanted to develop an App, include best-in-class tools, resources, and information to promote officer wellness and resilience, as well as make licensed clinicians just a few clicks away, in a fully anonymous environment, and put it in the hands of every officer and dispatcher in my department.

A few months later the App was released, and my officers embraced it! We quickly realized my department’s mobile wellness app for law enforcement should be put in the hands of every first responder serving in communities across the nation. Now, this powerful proactive officer wellness movement is underway.

My desire has been to provide the best quality wellness tools and resources and make them instantly accessible to officers in crisis. Thus the interface in the App is designed to be intuitive and simple to navigate from any smartphone. Providing access to trusted content that has been selected and reviewed by law enforcement professionals, researchers, and police psychologists is critical. Thanks to Cordico, this is now a reality.

Recently, there has been much discussion about the disproportionate suicide rate of our first responders compared to the rest of the population. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) just held a town hall summit in New York City to focus on the problem. It was of national importance, an opportunity for police chiefs and leaders to exchange ideas and learn ways to address the high rate of suicide of police officers in America. The Cordico Wellness Apps were highlighted as a trusted and tangible solution already being implemented in police and fire departments today. No doubt this is a tremendous opportunity to make a real difference in wellness for officer wellness.

Consider that first responders are hired, in part, because they are deemed resilient, capable of handling abnormal conditions and stressful experiences. However, what they encounter over time would shock the conscious of the average person. Exposure to a career filled with death and destruction has consequences, and some first responders don’t psychologically survive. We have made the incorrect assumption for far too long that traumatic experiences can be absorbed without causing psychological scars. The truth? Resilience is not without limits. It is very normal to have unsettled feelings after a bad call. This pent-up emotion and compartmentalized feelings are destroying first responders one call at a time if not dealt with in the moment.

The stigma that inhibits officers from asking for help when at a breaking point is removed when resources and therapists are quickly available to help through a difficult call or event. Waiting for the crisis to occur is no longer acceptable, especially when all one has to do is access a trusted counselor by simply clicking the “Therapist Finder” in the App. To be clear, why wait for the crisis? We have no problem going to the doctor when we are physically hurt. While there are many programs such as peer support and processes such as critical incident debriefings that are very important, a simple click within the App that connects each first responder to a licensed clinician after a tough call is a game-changer! Let me explain…

A few months ago, officers in my department descended on a violent scene; a man who attempted to kill his own family, stabbing two of them, setting the house on fire and trapping the children inside. The manhunt lasted for hours and included several allied agencies. I knew how much danger our officers were in as they searched for this predator. The use of deadly force against this attacker ultimately ended the stressful ordeal.

I arrived on scene and talked with officers, checking to see if they were okay. One officer had also been involved in the recent manhunt for Officer Natalie Corona’s killer in Davis, California, just a few days earlier. Struggling and needing help, he reached out to a licensed counselor with a click of a button using our department Wellness App on his iPhone. The next words out of his mouth got my attention, “I don’t know how much you paid for the App but it is worth every penny!” His revelation confirmed that our wellness culture and App were beneficial. This confirmation proved the significance of addressing emotional trauma before it builds up and turns into a crisis.

So, it is time for solutions, real and actionable. Promoting a culture of wellness for all first responders and advocating for their emotional health is paramount. It is a call to action, not just a program. It requires a systemic change, a realization and normalization that there is nothing wrong with feeling wrong! As Gordon famously says, if it is predictable it is preventable. The root cause of officer suicides occurs much earlier than in the moment of despair, before the crisis. It is time we change the model and shift toward prevention and early intervention, one that produces emotional fitness and psychological resilience. The Cordico Wellness Apps, with all their tools and resources, are the new paradigm in first responder wellness!

About Chief John Carli

Police Chief John Carli began his career with Vacaville (CA) in 1989, ultimately taking over the helm of his own agency in 2014. With 29 years of experience at all levels of a full service agency, Carli’s policing strategy is both progressive and innovative.

Facing significant homelessness issues similar to many California cities, Carli formed a Community Response Unit using federal COPS funding, focusing on quality-of-life and homeless issues. He chairs the Vacaville Homeless Roundtable and is outspoken in coalescing community groups and faith-based organizations to address social issues placed at the feet of law enforcement. His agency’s creative approach to reducing homelessness was recently highlighted during the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) national town-hall meeting focusing on “The Police Response to Homelessness.”  

Carli’s philosophy toward community engagement is a top priority, most notably seen through his effective use of Facebook and other social media outlets, which have at times been controversial due to the manner of citizen engagement and level of public support. As an outspoken advocate for the law enforcement profession, Carli’s most relevant work focuses on national best practices in policing and public trust. In 2016, Chief Carli was summoned to the White House to meet with President Obama In the wake of national high profile officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, and the targeted killing of police officers.

Chief Carli is an Executive Fellow with the National Police Foundation, focusing on the continuous improvement within the policing profession throughout his career. In 2009, he was instrumental in deploying a body-worn camera program department-wide. As an early adopter, Carli gained national recognition by publishing a department study on the effects of body-worn cameras and organizational trust, with his research being included in the Department of Justice COPS report “Implementing a Body-worn Camera Program – Recommendations and Lessons Learned.”

John holds a Master of Science Degree in Strategic Leadership and is a graduate of the Police Executive Research Forum’s Senior Management Institute for Police. Carli was awarded the Executive Leadership Certificate by the California Department of Justice Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. As a member of the California Police Chief’s Association, he chairs the California Data Sharing Task Force, focusing on best practice strategies for law enforcement technology and information system sharing. He also represents law enforcement interests on the California Attorney General’s Advisory Committee.