Jacksonville, Florida leading the way in police health and wellness

Beyond Us & Them is bringing the Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) training program back to Jacksonville, Florida, to deepen our work with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in a robust five-year project that will offer training to hundreds of officers.

This new phase of the project began with the training of a “Leadership Cohort,” which includes current officers from JSO, along with three other POWER graduates from the LAPD. These twelve active and retired officers completed previous POWER trainings with such enthusiasm that they’ve signed up to learn the pedagogy and training methodology so that they can become program trainers and offer POWER to their colleagues.

Current and retired Los Angeles Police Department and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office law enforcement personnel join with Beyond Us & Them Executive Director Jared Seide, and Beyond Us & Them Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Ann Seide, as part of the Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) training program’s premier leadership cohort.

Building a sustainable, lasting officer wellness program

Officer Gregory Hernandez (first row, second from left) is a four-year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and a member of the new Leadership Cohort; his only complaint is that the program isn’t longer. Officer Hernandez shared about the tremendous stress officers are experiencing, the impact stress has on their mental and emotional health and the great need for resources. He believes that POWER is a great help and “the biggest preventative step right now.” Officer Hernandez was struck by officers’ openness to the healing power of “sharing and listening to the stories… it’s incredible to this day, even the toughest among us break down.”

Officer Hernandez went on to explain that he and his colleagues continued to carry on the weekly council huddles they learned to facilitate in the program, even after the formal POWER program period ended in 2017. In addition to describing the transformative impact the program has had on his life and work, he says his huddle of fellow officers continues to connect on a regular basis. “Now, the circle’s grown, we’ve gained more people to include.” In fact, a handful of participants in the new POWER cohort related that it was Officer Greg Hernandez who inspired them to sign up and experience POWER themselves. As he explained, “most law enforcement officers either try to forget about their issues or go get a drink. I pushed the idea of giving POWER a chance.”

The veteran championing police wellness in Jacksonville

Initial training cohort from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office taking part in Beyond Us & Them's Peace Officer Wellness Empathy & Resilience Training (POWER) training program in 2017. Officer Gregory Hernandez is seated in the front row, fifth from the left.
Initial training cohort from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office taking part in Beyond Us & Them’s Peace Officer Wellness Empathy & Resilience Training (POWER) training program in 2017. Officer Gregory Hernandez is seated in the front row, fifth from the left.

“Every time I break in that circle, I sleep at night.” Officer Hernandez (first row, fifth from left) explains the positive health benefits he experiences during council, and specifically council huddles, which law enforcement carry on weekly throughout the 12-week intensive POWER program. The council huddles are the truly unique element that are a fundamental element in the POWER program. Officer Hernandez explained that officers often experience irregular and insufficient sleep patterns, which he feels is a way in which “we are literally killing ourselves.” First responders often have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep at night and that takes a great toll on health. Yet, for Officer Hernandez, sitting in his council huddle and “unloading” the issues that are keeping him up at night has proven to lead to better sleep.

Officer Hernandez comes to Jacksonville from New York where he served as a federal police officer. Prior to that, he had enlisted in the military after 9/11 and served his country for four years, followed by a seven and a half year stint working as a correctional officer at a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania, where he describes seeing “unmentionable situations” take place. So, he comes to Jacksonville with “eleven and a half years of bottled up stuff from the military and Pennsylvania.”

Officer Hernandez is convinced that POWER is effective but, he says, hard to describe. “The biggest issue was trying to define what it was. You’re talking to a bunch of people who don’t like therapy,” he explained, which was a challenge in recruiting colleagues to enlist for the new cohort. He finally came around to likening the POWER program “to AA, without the AA. It’s a place to talk about whatever it is you want to talk about. We talk in the parking lot and gripe and complain, but you don’t get the same reaction (as the council huddles),” which he attributes to creating the council “container.” He also explained that “the talking piece that’s passed around during council is such an important part of the process. It helps to create that container.” He remarked that the officers talking part in the new training cohort took the time to buy their own personal talking piece and that many carry it around with them in their patrol car.

A multi-level approach to officer wellbeing

The new JSO training cohort began their three-month intensive training program last month; a second new cohort will start up in September. Supporting and interning are members of the Leadership Cohort. Participants are learning about the impact of stress on their physiology, as well as their mental, emotional and spiritual health. They experience council in large groups, throughout the program and are taught to self-facilitate weekly small group huddles. In addition to integrating the practice of council, the weekly sessions throughout the 12 weeks of the program provide an opportunity to unpack and explore themes that are investigated in the weekly online homework assignments.

This project will resource 450-500 diverse JSO officers and staff and is generously funded by local donors. Across the country, law enforcement agencies are finding resources to bring the POWER training program to their area. Some agencies have received funding through the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) Grant. The LEMHWA Program funds are offered though the US Department of Justice and are intended to improve the delivery of and access to mental health and wellness services for law enforcement through the implementation of peer support, training, family resources, suicide prevention, and other promising practices for wellness programs.

With the hundreds of JSO officers and staff set to take part in the JSO program over the next five years, Officer Hernandez is eager to see the important positive impact he believes it will have. “Supervisors on down need to be able to get in the circle” because it has the ability “to change perspectives,” he remarked. “This works because you have to open up. Once I opened, that’s when everybody felt it. In that circle, when you open, that’s it. It’s a powerful program and if I can partake in helping others, that’s what I’m set on… to be a part of something.”

Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) training program

Law enforcement personnel from the Los Angeles Police Department participate in Beyond Us & Them’s Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) training program.

The POWER training program for law enforcement officers is an evidence-based, intensive, three-month program that builds resources to support first responder physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. The program is nationally certified and is built on science-based strategies for optimizing physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health, teaching practices for enhancing wellbeing and optimizing performance, while introducing and reinforcing methodologies for working more effectively with stress.

The POWER curriculum addresses critical topics like burnout, empathy fatigue, moral distress, depersonalization and pathological altruism. Agencies working with POWER find that the program leads to stronger relationships, more positive agency culture and enhanced community relations.

The program was created in 2018, when Beyond Us & Them (formerly Center for Council) began training roughly 200 police and correctional officers in POWER. Along with Jared Seide and LT Rich Goerling, Dr. Ann Seide, the only certified council trainer who’s also a practicing physician, helped design POWER. Both sworn and non-sworn participants learn breathing and meditation, the science behind the autonomic nervous system and their response to stress, practices to support physical wellness, the importance of gratitude, cognitive approaches that reduce bias, and how cultivating a sense of awe improves adaptability to change and fosters connection. The underpinning of the entire program is the practice of council, which participants learn to self-facilitate weekly in small huddles of 5-6 people.

Health benefits of our officer wellness program

Executive Director, Jared Seide, measures the heart rate variability of a participant in Beyond Us & Them's Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) training program for law enforcement.
Executive Director, Jared Seide, measures the heart rate variability of a participant in Beyond Us & Them’s Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) training program for law enforcement.

In partnership with Dr. Ranjeeta Basu, a professor at California State University San Marcos, Dr. Ann Seide designed a protocol to measure HRV in participants along with psychosocial surveys. The subject of the study was a POWER training cohort with law enforcement officers from four campus police departments: CSUSM, UCSD, Palomar and Mira Costa colleges. The results of this research have been written up in a paper that has been peer reviewed and will be published shortly in The Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being, an open-source academic publication. The paper will explain the findings from the research project, which “really add a whole new dimension to how we understand” the value of the POWER program.

Similar to the findings from LAPD and JSO, the CSUSM cohort showed statistically significant shifts in mindfulness and empathy. These are often difficult dials to move in interventions lasting only 12 weeks, which makes this shift all the more notable. The CSUSM surveys included new questions relating to social connection, which improved significantly for participants. Their anonymized weekly comments credit the council huddles as the place where they felt most connected to each other, as well as a recognition that the “muscle” developed in these huddles allowed them to feel more connected to their families and the communities they serve.

Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Ann Seide, exemplifies how heart rate variability is measured on participants of Beyond Us & Them’s Peace Officer Wellness, Empathy & Resilience (POWER) training program.

In the CSUSM cohort, there was one individual whose data we couldn’t use because on first HRV measurement they had extremely frequent premature atrial contractions (PACs, a form of heart dysrhythmia). After making sure this person was not symptomatic, Dr. Seide decided to wait til the end of the training and re-record their HRV, thinking that if the extra beats persisted she would advise them to seek a physician’s care.

To Dr. Seide’s surprise, the PACs were completely gone. In the anonymized feedback, this individual commented on how the breathing practices were invaluable and that they now realize the importance of caring for self in order to care for others. Dr. Seide feels these factors correlate and point to additional health benefits that POWER may offer.

One of the officers from our LAPD cohort described the same scenario; he’d been prescribed medication for a heart dysrhythmia, but several weeks into the POWER training and employing the meditation and breathing practices he learned in the program, he was able to stop the medication and his dysrhythmias went away. Similar stories have emerged from officers whose experience of migraines, stomach aches and other maladies diminished or disappeared as a result, they say, of the POWER program.

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Beyond Us and Them team

Beyond Us and Them team

Beyond Us and Them is the leading solution-focused organization providing dynamic and scalable practices to combat the loneliness epidemic and foster social connection.

It creates programs and delivers training for law enforcement officers, healthcare providers, educators, policymakers, and community-based organizations, among other populations and individuals, to cultivate wellness, relationality, compassion, and resilience.