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  • Writer's pictureRachel Morgan

Trauma-Informed Mindfulness in Public Safety: Insights from Director Vernon Herron

Updated: Apr 16

35-year law enforcement veteran with the Maryland State Police, Homeland Security, and now the Baltimore Police Department, Director Vernon Herron discusses his work as Director of the Baltimore PD's Office of Officer Safety and Wellness and Office of Early Intervention, promoting both physical and mental health as well as trauma-informed mindfulness, through training, seminars, and health publications. Health and wellness training is just as important or even more foundational to good law enforcement than the various forms of tactical training that are part of the job. The importance of increasing mental health awareness and suicidality risk awareness in law enforcement, removing the stigmas associated with mental health issues, and seeking support for traumatic stress injuries and challenges. The neurobiology of primary and secondary trauma exposure, the need to do the work to heal from accumulated trauma and/or PTSD, and the Baltimore Police Department's commitment to officer safety and wellness and to improving police-community relations.


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Trauma-Informed Mindfulness in Public Safety: Insights from Director Vernon Herron Transcript


Fleet Maull:  

Hi! Welcome to another session here on day six of the Global First Responder Resilience  Summit. I'm here with Director Vernon Herron from the Baltimore Police Department.  Welcome, Director. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Thank you. Thank you for having me.  


Fleet Maull:  

Well, thank you for being with us today. I really appreciate you giving your time, so I'm really  looking forward to our conversation. I want to share with the audience a little bit of your  background, and then we'll just jump right in, okay? 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Sounds good.  


Fleet Maull:  

Great. Okay. So, Direct Vernon Herron has more than 35 years of experience in public safety  and law enforcement. He currently serves as Director of Baltimore City Police Department  where he manages the Office of Officer Safety and Wellness and the Office of Early  Intervention.  


The Office of Officer Safety and Wellness promotes both physical and mental health  through training, seminars, and health publications. Additionally, this office facilitates police  officers with immediate access to the mental health clinician as soon as officers have been  involved in a traumatic event, such as a police officer involved shooting. 

Dr. Heron developed a unique intervention system that focuses on health and wellness  of the officer and not on discipline. The new approach to early intervention was published in  the IACP Police Chief Magazine. Prior to joining the Baltimore City Police Department, he  served as Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for public safety and Director of Homeland  Security in Prince George's County, Maryland. 


As Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Herron had oversight of Prince George's  County Police Department, Fire Department, Department of Corrections, Homeland Security,  and the Office of Emergency Management.  


Mr. Heron served more than 27 years in the Maryland State Police. He joined that  department in 1977 and progressed through the ranks from trooper to major. During his career  he worked in field operations, drug enforcement, criminal investigations, and human resources.  


As a commander in the Maryland State Police, Mr. Herron led the violent crime strike  force who is contingent on more than 50 troopers were responsible for targeting high crime  areas within the state of Maryland, and assist local law enforcement in reducing crime  throughout the state.  


Mr. Herron received the highest honor bestowed upon a Maryland State Trooper, the  Governor's Citation of Valor, when you prevented an armed suspect from shooting several  people and other police officers at a crowded restaurant.  


So, quite a quiet background in law enforcement. I feel it's a really an honor and a  privilege to have this conversation with you today, Director Herron. And just thank you so  much for all your service to your community in this country. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Thank you.  


Fleet Maull:  

So, our subject today on day six of the Summit is leading healthy change in public safety. You  are a leader for healthy change and public safety. We're going to focus on officer safety and  wellness and resilience and things like that.  


As we all know, law enforcement officers and other public safety professionals and  first responders are all really at risk for some serious health consequences due to ongoing  exposure to high stress, chronic stress, and both primary and secondary trauma.  

So, what are some of the ways in your experience that trauma actually impacts first  responders? Especially, the law enforcement community that you're most familiar with.


Director Vernon Herron:  

So, again, thank you for having me here. This is a very important topic for me and for police  officers nationally. The majority of society experiences trauma at some point of their lives.  Police officers experience trauma on a regular basis.  


You spoke about my background and my training in the Maryland State Police. One of  the things that we had to do every quarter is qualify on the range. We had to be proficient in  the use of firearms. Occasionally, there will be new restraint holes that come out that we had  to become accustomed to and to apply in our daily activities and so forth.  

So, six months of training in the police academy, training and service training, and all  other training, not one second of that training ever address the mental health of the police  officer, the fact that you will be involved in these critical incidents, and they will teach you what to do, but they wouldn't tell you the impact what that trauma might have on you  mentally or physically.  


It's important for your audience to understand that we in public safety, police chiefs of  the nation, have led down our officers. I'll tell you why. Because that component of health and  wellness is just as important as being on the range, is just as important as learning criminal  laws and traffic laws. In fact, it's more important because if you don't have the right tools and  support to manage your mental health, you're not going to be a productive police officer.  


I would venture to say that if you look nationally throughout these public events, their children, and others, that you will look into their background and found out that there were  some flags that should have been identified to get this person some mental health training.  

One of the things we do in Baltimore is when recruits come to us, we address their  trauma that they may have experienced before they became a police officer. They could have  been victim of a crime themselves. They can have been sexually abused as a kid, or whatever  the trauma is. We offer them mental health services that first day.  


And so, we want to change the paradigm. We want to shift the paradigm. We want  officers to, number one, eliminate that stigma of reaching out to a mental health professional.  And we at the police department want to make that a priority. 


Fleet Maull:  

Well, that's really one of the main goals of this Summit is to eliminate that stigma attached to  mental health and seeking support when we need it. And really doing the things that will take  care of our own mental health in some ways, physical health, mental health, emotional health. It's all one and the same thing. And really, it's really encouraging to hear you talk about ways  in which you're removing that stigma.  


You also brought up that men and women coming into law enforcement and other first  responder professions may very well have trauma in their background, may have adverse  childhood experiences. There may be reasons why people are drawn to law enforcement, the  backgrounds they come from. They may come from law enforcement families, where they've inherited some trauma from their parents and so forth. 

 

Also, many veterans move into law enforcement. So, they may have combat related  trauma in their backgrounds. So, how have you seen this show up? I mean, I would assume this  could then make first responders more vulnerable to the impact of the trauma they'll then  experience while on duty. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Unfortunately, we don't find out historically about this pre-existing trauma until something  happens. And either the media or we look into this background and found out they've been  deployed several times, that they've been involved in other traumatic events that never were  properly addressed.  


Neurologically, our mind is a sponge, right? Our brain is a sponge. We absorb trauma. If we're not able to manage that trauma that will absorb at some point, the sponge is going to  see a hole with that trauma. It's going to spill out in something else. It could be an insignificant  discussion with your significant other. It could be arresting somebody and using excessive  force.  


And when I have looked at defense in this, I have found that these officers had trauma  that was never properly treated before they came to the police department, or they expressed  trauma in the police department that we didn't have the resources to treat. I have talked to  officers who were involved in critical incidents more than a decade ago. 


One officer came to me and said, "Listen, a decade ago, I was the first responder on the  scene of a bus crash where multiple children were killed. I still have nightmares about that scene." And I asked him, I said, "Well, have you ever talked to a mental health professional?" He said, "Oh, no. It was 10 years ago. I'm fine now." And I said, "Listen, that trauma is in your  central nervous system. It's going to stay in your central nervous system until you are able to  manage it in a healthy way." 


I was able to convince that officer to reach out and talk to a mental health clinician who  specializes in treating police officers with PTSD. It's important to understand this. I want  everybody to understand this. It is never too late to sit down with a mental health professional.  I don't care how big and strong you are, and how much you think you can take. If you've  experienced traumatic events and they've manifested in your central nervous system, they will  stay there until you're able to mitigate them through proper mental health treatment.  


Fleet Maull:  

Well, I'm really glad you used that analogy of the sponge because it's actually quite accurate.  It really speaks to both primary and secondary trauma. 


Primary trauma being when we're involved in an incident ourselves of some kind, directly impacted. And of course, that'll stay in our nervous system until we find some way to  process it and work through it and kind of get it out of our nervous system. But then there's  also the accumulated secondary trauma where we hear about all these incidents that happen,  and somewhere in the back of our brain, it's going, "Well, that could have been me." We're  having a similar neural chemical response. Not the same as the person who's in the incident,  but over time that accumulates. 


And also, working around people with a lot of trauma in their nervous systems. So, you  know, working around populations where there is a lot of suffering and trauma, our fellow  officers, fellow first responders. We just keep soaking that up and soaking that up. Well, at  some point, our system says too much, they can't hold anymore, and so it starts to shut down  and you start to see problematic behaviors or you just see somebody moving into burnout, and  you start seeing the dangers of depression, even suicidality, and things like that. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

That is an excellent point. Listen, in Baltimore, we have a mandatory health and wellness class  that every police employee has to take.  


One of the stories I share with them is when I was a young state trooper. I responded to  a scene of a shooting with three of our troopers have been shot. We all responded to the scene to provide aid to these troopers. The suspect have been shot and killed. It was the most horrific  scene I ever experienced as a police officer. Back in those days, there was no such thing as  stress or health and wellness. So, we were required to come back to work the following day.  


One of the troopers who responded to the scene with me can't come to work the next  day. He called in sick. In fact, he called in sick for the next three nights. It got to the point  where the sergeant said, and this is important, the sergeant said this, "If you were not involved  in the shooting, you didn't shoot anybody or you didn't get shot at, you need to come to work." 


What that Sergeant did not realize is that officer had been traumatized vicariously through responding to an event that impacted him emotionally. That trooper was never able to  work the road again. He was reassigned to a non-police function, if you will.  


And when I think about cases like that, I think about how we have let our officers down.  Because when we do the background investigation on a prospective candidate. We check  whether or not they did drugs, they did alcohol, they've been arrested.  


In fact, I'd like to say they are as clean as claimed to be when they come into the  department. But within five years, this young person who is now an officer starts to experience  a change in their behavior. They started to medicate him with alcohol and sometimes drugs  because we don't have the resources to help him to process that trauma.  


In Baltimore, we're trying to change all that and we are changing all that because we  want to put the officer's mental health and fitness first. 


Fleet Maull:  

Well, that's something you pointed. It's really important because one of the reasons that  there's very significant health risks and really not great health data for law enforcement,  corrections is even worse, I think, than community but the numbers are not good in law  enforcement.


People are suffering from all the chronic stress related ailments, early death because of  all the cardiovascular diseases and chronic stress related ailments, obesity, diabetes. A lot of  this comes from coping with ongoing traumatic stress and with accumulated trauma in ways  that we all do.


We all tend to self-medicate. We all do that. We self-medicate with food. We self medicate with the internet. We're feeling a little uncomfortable, we do something to distract  ourselves. But you know, when you started self-medicating with overeating, with alcohol, with  other drugs and things like this, the long-term effect can be really, really serious. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

You're absolutely right. And so, here's our approach with officers who start to medicate  themselves. Remember at the beginning of this broadcast, I talked about how we have failed  our police officers nationally, because we provide them all these other tools to enforce the law,  but we don't provide them any tools to manage their mental health.  

So, we found an officer that is imperiled. He or she has been medicating themself. They  become alcoholics. Commissioner Harrison has indicated that if an officer self-reports, he or  she can sign themselves into an alcohol rehab facility that specializes in treating first  responders, police officers, correctional officers, and firefighters. If they are impatient, they can  use FMLA. They can stay there for 30 days, or however long the clinician says they need to  stay. And when they return to the police department, they will not be disciplined. And they'll  still have their jobs.  


In fact, we will keep that information confidential unless that officer comes out and tells  one of his coworkers that he's been in rehab, no one would ever know. He or she will not be  disciplined for coming forward. That's the paradigm shift that needs to happen. It's like, we  need to stop blaming officers. 


When I was a trooper, if you became an alcoholic, we will terminate your employment.  Today, we should be understanding that the reason that that officer is an alcoholic is because  of the police work that we've exposed them to. So, we want to help that officer get an  opportunity to continue their career in law enforcement. 


Fleet Maull:  

Well, that's the kind of enlightened approach that we really need to remove these stigmas  around mental health issues. Because, you know, it's no small thing being a human being  whatever profession you have. 


It's getting more challenging all the time to be a human being on this planet. And so, we all have mental health challenges. We just really need to remove the stigma around that. So, for you all to be taking that really non-punitive, non-blame-based approach is really long  overdue and much needed. 


On the prevention side, before somebody gets to that point, what kind of tools and  strategies are you offering officers in your health and wellness classes so that instead of  moving towards self-medicating, whether it's with food, or alcohol, or other drugs, or  substances, or even with unhealthy internet activity or something? What other tools and  strategies are you offering them to deal with the ongoing stress and trauma exposure? 


Director Vernon Herron:  

One of the key components of this training is for them to identify stress in themselves and their  colleagues. I mean, stress is something that we all need. It gets us up in the morning and helps  us prepare food and things of that nature. But it's when stress becomes excessive, is what is  harmful to your mind and to your body. So, we have a full-time officer safety and wellness  unit. We have seven full time members.  


I know for a lot of police departments; they don't want to dedicate those resources to  health and wellness. But here, here's where we differ. We have to be able to provide touch  points to our men and women in the police departments.  


If you look behind me, you'll see pictures of some posters. Posters of real police  officers. These posters are throughout the district in Baltimore City, and there are mental  health signs that were created by police officers, reminding officers to protect their mental  health. We have a 24 seven EAP hotline for clinicians who will answer the phone any time of  the day, any day of the week, and provide officers with immediate counselling. Every officer in  Baltimore Police Department, every employee has an app on their phone, their employee issued phone, department issue phone, where they can text. We talked about technology so  they don't have to call. They can text a counsellor and start discussing their issues with them  via text, and it's all free. It's all confidential.  


We have health fairs where we go around to every district, every unit in the Baltimore  City Police Department. In these health fairs, we will have partners from the health and  wellness community. We'll have health clinicians. We'll have nutritionists. We have financial  advisors. We'll have mindfulness experts. We'll have all of these commissions there in order to  expose these officers to all the preventive measures that they can use to manage their stress  on a daily basis. It's about touchpoints.


Recently, you probably know that we're on the federal consent decree. But just this week, the Department of Justice has ruled that the first sections of the Federal consent decree  to be in compliance is the health and wellness section. And that wasn't by accident, because  we work tremendously hard every day to make sure every police employee is aware of the  resources we have for them.  


Every officer in this department has my personal phone number. I kind of consider  myself the conduit to hand this officer off to a mental health professional because I'm wanting to help. A lot of times officers just want to be heard. And they want to be heard in a safe place  where they don't feel like there's some reprisal or something of that nature. So, it is truly round  the clock. It's not a program. I don't like to call it a program because a program has a beginning  and an ending. It is a way of life in Baltimore City Police Department. 


Fleet Maull:  

Well, that's wonderful. And, you know, I think this is really important because we all know Baltimore is a great American City. And like most of our major cities in this country, Baltimore  has had public safety challenges, we all know that. And for you all to be able to move the  needle around health and wellness in a city with the size of Baltimore and the challenges of  Baltimore, is really incredibly meaningful. So, I really want to congratulate you on getting out  from under that first phase of that decree by really making real changes in your approach to  health and wellness. That's really to be congratulated. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Nationally, there's all this hue and cry about police reform. Police reform, when it's needed is  absolutely essential. But if there is a police department out there that is in the process of  reforming their police department, and they don't have a good health and wellness  component, they're chasing their tail. 


You have to make sure your police employees are healthy. You can't send an unhealthy  officer out into the community because that's when the excessive force cases start to generate  and the citizen flight. That has to be a huge component. You have to dedicate as much money  to that resources as any other resource in your department. That is the foundation of police  reform, in my view.  


Fleet Maull:  

Absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more. And you mentioned mindfulness before. There's a  lot of mind-body training available in the world today. It's really backed up with current neuroscience and brain science. Elite military units are all using it in ways in which we can  develop a much greater capacity to sort of self-regulate our own nervous system. When we're  getting too upregulated, we can bring it down a notch. If we're to down regulated, we can  bring it up a notch. We can actually learn to regulate our own nervous system.  

I think the more mindful and awake and embodied we are, the data shows that we  actually absorb less trauma, less secondary trauma, and we're better able to heal from direct  trauma that we experience. And also, we're more likely to be able to make better decisions in  the moment because we can get out of that autopilot fear and survival base place of our brain  and regulate ourselves back into where we have access to the whole brain and we're likely to  be able to make a better decision in the moment.  


It's not like we have to stop and do something. In a crisis, we got to respond. But if  we're doing this kind of training on a regular basis in that crisis, we're more likely to still have  the presence of mind to make a better decision. And I'm wondering about, you know,  integrating this even into the academies. 


I mean, you spoke about being on the range before. I know that in firearms training,  there's some breath regulation involved. And, you know, there's a certain component of that to  being proficient with a firearm. But, imagine if people were trained to really develop full  interoceptive awareness, the internal perception of the body and really be deeply embodied in  the midst of that training.  


Well, that's not only going to improve their performance on the range but it's going to  it's going to improve their overall health and well-being all together. I can't hardly think about  a kind of tactical training that you could integrate this kind of mind body work into, in a way  that would be beneficial. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

I have a confession to make. When I first heard about mindfulness, I thought it was voodoo. I'm  thinking like there is no way that you can manage your own spirit and your mind in order to  create resiliency. 


Someone challenged me on that. I had a mindfulness session. And after I had that first  mindfulness session, I want to do more of mindfulness session. Then, I realize how important  that was as part of your time health and wellness embodiment. So, that is something that we advocate. We bring mindfulness professionals to our health fairs. It absolutely should be  mandated in training.  


So, in the state of Maryland, probably like all other states, there is a governance body  that mandates how many hours of training a police officer must have before they're certified by  the state to be a police officer. Unfortunately, right now, mindfulness and other health and  wellness initiatives are not included in that, but it should be. But I bet you to say that one day,  as we recognize in law enforcement that we really have to focus on that individual, that  mindfulness will be a strong part of it.  


I had a lieutenant that came to me about introducing the therapy dog to Baltimore City  Police Department. I'm like, "Oh, my gosh. We're going to lose all credibility when we start  walking around with a therapy dog." However, that therapy dog has managed to impact the  mental health of a lot of our employees. I can tell you story after story of an officer working in  homicide, who was always disgruntled. Never smiled, was always complaining. We went over  there to the unit with a therapy dog. For the first time in five years, I saw this officer smile. He  picked this therapy dog up and to really embrace that, I mean, even if it's only for five or 10  minutes, that's five or 10 minutes where she wasn't thinking about the trauma of the day. So, that's important. Anything that we could do to introduce any techniques to our officers to our  workforce to help them manage the trauma in law enforcement is important. 


You've mentioned a very important statistic earlier about the mortality of police officers. The average police officer lives to be the age of 62 in this country. And that's not by accident.  It's because of the trauma associated with law enforcement. And cardiovascular disease is the  number one killer of police officers. That's because of the rise and fall of cortisol and  adrenaline on a regular basis.  


We have things to try to manage those. There are breathing techniques. We take  officers in training through scenarios and we encourage them to use these techniques on a  regular basis in order to build muscle memory to manage their stress on a daily basis. 


Fleet Maull:  

Well, that's a really disturbing statistic that you mentioned, and it is well known. I think it's  even a little. I've heard 58 or 59 years in corrections. But that's almost two decades less than  the general population. And to think that, you know, we're asking our heroic first responders to  keep us safe, serve the community, and not giving them the resources to be able to enjoy long  and healthy career and have a long and healthy retirement. We're really shortchanging people.


Hopefully we can turn that around. Sometimes we hear, even in the corporate world,  this distinction between the hard skills and soft skills. And personally, I think that's kind of a  misnomer. What they are even learning in the corporate world is that it's really the soft skills that determine a lot in the end. The leadership skills, the emotional intelligence skills, the  

communication skills, and so forth to drive success.  


It seems to me, the more we can integrate all these things, because, you know, for  example, whether you want to call it mindfulness or just mind training or mind-body training,  you can incorporate that with any other activity you're doing, right? There isn't a type of  training activity that you couldn't add to it. 


Well, while you're doing this, also be aware of your breath. Be aware of your body,  right? Be aware of your surroundings, right? It's going to enhance your performance and also  be building your resistance at the same time. I think we're making progress and I'm sure you'd  agree there's ways to go. We got a lot of room for improvement. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Yeah. We do have a lot of room for improvement. We need to look at our police employees in a  different light. Listen, I love police officers. If I had to do all over again, I wouldn't be a state  trooper for another 27 and a half years. I love wearing that uniform. I love driving that car. I  love helping people. Unfortunately, the police organizations throughout this nation don't value  our police employees. I know it's hard for some people to hear but we don't value our police  employees the way we should.  


One of the reasons that we have a very successful officer safety and wellness initiative  in Baltimore is I went to one of their seminars. It was held in Washington DC. I heard speaker  after speaker from their police department talk about how valued they feel by their  Superintendent that they were a police officer. Not only while they were a police officer did  they get health and wellness support and mental health support, but they have a Veterans  Administration here. They have a Veterans Administration for their officers.  


Fleet Maull:  

Wow. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

You can go as a veteran of the police department. You can go and get the same services. They  will facilitate for you. I mean, it's like the true sense of family. We talked about we're a family,  but you know. 


You come work in 20 or 25 years, you leave, and they forget about you. But not there.  They value that employee. When we get to a point where we start valuing our employees,  you're going to see a reduction in excessive force cases, with tragic cases that get national  attention that have been perpetrated by police officers. You're going to see crime go down. You're going to see citizens engage the police department. And it all starts with a comprehensive health and wellness program, where we put our employees first.  


Fleet Maull:  

Well, you mentioned this disturbing statistic of 62 years, and a lot of that is people dying early from chronic stress related ailments and trauma-related ailments. And unfortunately, some of  it is suicidality. There's quite a lot of controversy around the statistics on suicidality and  policing in the US anyway because it hasn't been well documented sometimes. And then often,  if it happens after somebody retires, often that doesn't get documented or added to that, but  it's a real issue out there. I wonder what your experiences with that. 

I do a lot of training with first responders around the country. Especially in corrections,  but with some law enforcement and sheriff's departments. People tell me again, and again, too  often they're hearing about their colleagues retiring, and then either dying early on, or hearing  about these tragic suicides. I'm just curious about your experience with that and whether you  think we're making any progress in that area? 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Well, I think we're making some progress but we have a long way to go. I mean, I've heard  cases where police officers, their last day on the job, will put their uniform on and drive to their  patrol area and commit suicide. I mean, these are some of the things that we're hearing and  seeing every day.  


Embedded in our mission statement is health and wellness for our employees. It should  be in every mission statement throughout the country. Right? One of the things that we want  to do is to eliminate police suicides. How do you eliminate police suicides? Number one, you  have to track it. So, when I got here, we're not tracking police suicides, I had to call around and  talk to people who've been here for some time and say, do you recall anybody who committed suicide while you're a police officer? We created this database. So, now we have a database of  all of the officers who committed suicide over the past decade, right? We looked into what led  to these police officers or what some of the things that led them to take their own life and so  forth. We want to look and create some warning signs that others can recognize where we can  intervene with that officer, provide that officer with support, and make sure they get the  mental health service they need.  


I've been here for about six years but we've had one suicide. I struggle with what we  could have done to prevent that suicide. This officer took my class. We did a post mortem on  what was going on in this officer's life before he decided to take his own life. And one of the  things that we found out, it sounds insignificant but I think it's critical. So, the day before this officer committed suicide, he went up to a female commander and said, "I need a hug." She had  never heard him ask for a hug before. She gave him a hug but she never asked and that she  regrets. "I regret not asking him, why do you need a hug?" That could have been a way of him  saying 'I need some help.' We don't know.

  

But listen, we tell all our employees that here are some of the signs that could occur  where somebody is contemplating suicide. If somebody has a plan to commit suicide, chances  are they're going to commit suicide. If they go from being a social drinker to an alcoholic. That's  one of the flags that we look at here in Baltimore because I talked to a police survivor whose  husband was injured on the job and they were transitioning about. She said he went from  being a non-drinker to an alcoholic. The alcohol assumption gets worse every day. She  believes that the alcohol was a contributing factor to him deciding to take his life. So, if that's a  contributing factor, we want to make sure that every police employee, when they get to a point  where they start medicating themselves with alcohol, that we get them into a program.  


I can't tell you how many labs we've saved since we started this initiative. I like to think  a lot. We are so dedicated to the mission of putting our employees first and giving them the  health and wellness tools they need to survive this thing we call police work. Their family  members, we want to do everything we can in order to return this young man or woman back  to civilian life, the way we got them. We got them the squeaky-clean people, and we want to  return them back to the community as squeaky-clean people when it comes to their mental  health and fitness.


Fleet Maull:  

Absolutely. You mentioned before, in some cases, there have been an erosion between police  and community relations and some of these excessive use of force cases and tragic killings of  unarmed citizens in the hands of the police and so forth.  


As we all know, there have been all the protest movement over the last couple of  years. And, you know, this idea of defund the police, which is kind of nonsensical because  actually we need more funding for good training and good hiring practices, and really to make  all the improvements, right.  


I mean, there may be some areas of policing that could be reassigned or allocated to  other areas of community support, like some people are talking about, but it's not about defunding law enforcement. It's kind of a crazy idea. But nonetheless, what that's coming out  of is some community anger. Right? And so, you talked about how bringing this focus of the  health and wellness and safety of the officers, police officers, or other law enforcement officers  feel really appreciated by their supervisors, by their managers, by their departments, that you  feel this is really the beginning of turning all that around. And I agree with you.  


I'm also wondering if there could be some way that the community and law  enforcement agencies could do that in concert because a lot of the communities where some of  these tragedies tend to happen are also under resourced communities, and marginalized communities where people are struggling and don't have the health and wellness resources  they need.  


I have one friend who has a project called Cities4Peace. He's bringing together law  enforcement and communities around this. He has a vision of law enforcement, being peace  officers in the community and being people who are in the community. Now, like policing and  providing the law enforcement, but at times there is community leaders and bringing health  and wellness resources to the communities and being leaders for wellness, not only for  themselves, but for the community. So, I'm just curious if you think there's some way that law  enforcement and the community could work together towards a healthier societal contract all  together. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

That is a great question. Let me let me start off by one thing that you didn't mention in my  resume is that, I grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. East St. Louis, Illinois is no different than any  large metropolitan city. There's a lot of crime. There is a lot of lack of employment.


There are a lot of ills of the community that were created by the departure of blue-collar jobs. You know, I  can talk about Detroit, Michigan, and other places like that. The economic engine in that  community has eroded. And so, what is the community left with? They are left with two  choices. It was not a date. I didn't wake up where I saw a drug dealer, or a prostitute, or a pimp.  These were the people in my community. I was fortunate enough to have a strong family unit,  my father and my mother that makes sure that we stayed on the straight narrative, but a lot of  my friends didn't have that type of infrastructure in their lives.  


So, we always talked about the policeman community, but it's larger than that. Every  city in America has to address the social ills of those communities that don't receive the  resources that they should as far as education, as far as employment. as far as training. They  need to address those issues as well as address the police issue. 


In East St. Louis, I didn't have a personal relationship with police officers. The only time  I saw police officers is when they were investigating crime or in one particular case where they  were beating the hell out of a friend of mine. And so, that was my perception of police and so forth.  


I went away to college. I like to tell this story. I went away to college. One of my friends  in college who happen to be White invited me to his house, invited a few of us to his house.  And you know, we sat around in his backyard, and we got kind of loud, and so forth. I think,  myself and my roommate were the only African Americans in the group about 20. And all of a  sudden, the police pulled up. Well, coming from East St. Louis, he and I get up and start to run because that's what you do. When you see a police officer, you run. And my friend says, "Hey,  don't run. Don't run." which was foreign to me. So, we didn't run. He got up and had a  conversation with the police officer. He knew the police officer. The police officer knew his  family. I had never seen that before in my life. Every citizen ought to have that type of  relationship with their local police officers. And we don't.  


So again, we have to do our share but city managers, City Mayors, they have to do their  share as well. We have to be able to reach back. Listen, a young person growing up in East St.  Louis has the same dreams and visions of somebody growing up in affluent areas. They want a  big house. They want a nice car. They want a nice big family, or whatever the case may be. The  difference is that person is born up in that affluent area, they have the resources to reach those  dreams. And those in those areas that don't have the resources, they turn your other things,  drugs selling, or whatever the case may be. 


So, listen, I think it's important that police departments, police officers have a  connection with the community. But I do believe the responsibility of making sure that  community has the resources that need falls on the city fathers of that jurisdiction. 


Fleet Maull:  

Well, you shared so many wonderful things already. I'm just curious. As a public safety leader  and a leader for officer safety and wellness, what would be maybe some of the priorities you  would lay out for public safety leaders that are watching this, whether they are policymakers  or they are operational leaders. 


What do you think are some of the top priorities to create healthier public safety in this  country and around the world? Because it doesn't look like the challenges are going to get any  less anytime soon? Everything we're facing with climate change and political instability and  social unrest, there's just so much going on. So, it doesn't look like it's going to get any easier.  What would you say are some of the priorities to really move the ball forward in terms of  having a healthier, public safety professional together? 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Okay. I think, number one, we as police leaders have to recognize the fact that we're not doing  enough for our officers. We have to stop blaming our officers from falling short when it comes  to their mental health, or their fitness, and so forth because the environment we put them in  has contributed to that.  


We have to acknowledge that we have failed our police officers for many, many years.  And then, we have to say we're committed to reconciling that failure by number one, a health  and wellness section in Baltimore. We have a budget, just like every viable unit within the  Baltimore City. Whether it be homicide, whether it be robbery, sex crimes. We have a budget. 


I'm allowed to put the people in this unit who are committed to being in health and  wellness, number one. And that they are the best of the best when it comes to your selection  process. If you start a health and wellness unit, and you start off by putting employees in  health and wellness unit who don't have a good reputation in the police department, police  officers are going to look and say they're being disingenuous because, number one, look who  they're putting in that unit. So, they have to look in that unit and see a reflection of themselves. Somebody that's hard working, somebody who is committed to the mission. 


It is more than just putting a sign up on a wall or a poster. There has to be touchpoints  on a regular basis. The chief needs to be able to articulate routinely about how important  employees and health and wellness is to the structure of the police department. They can do  that in email. They can do that in gatherings. They can do it in their actions. They can set an  example but they need to let all the employees know, and I'm not just talking about sworn members. 


A lot of times we forget about non-uniformed members. Our dispatchers, our call  takers, our crime scene analysts. All of these people are impacted by stress just like police  officers, right? So, if this is going to be a family, we need to include them all. And we need to  provide them the resources – free and competent counselling. We need to provide an access to  a gymnasium, to nutritional plans. We need to provide them with all that we have at our  disposal to make sure they can manage the stress associated with police work.  

Here's another thing. I've talked to police chiefs all over the country. Some say, "Hey,  we have a small police department. We only got seven people. I can't afford to have a full time health and wellness unit." You're absolutely right, but this is what you can do. You can  enter into a memorandum of understanding with surrounding jurisdictions. You can pool your  resources where all of you can enter into one contract to hire EAP or to create a health and  wellness unit within the region that provides the same resources that we provide here in  Baltimore.  


I just came back from Birmingham, Alabama, where I talked to 70 police officers and  executives about health and wellness through concerns of police survivors. Somebody asked  me, "What is the first thing that we need to do in order to be successful like you?" We just  started off and we're rolling and so forth. My response to them was this: We started out by  going. Police officers do not trust management. When we first started this unit, police officers  would come to me and say, "Oh, I believe in your concept but I don't trust you because this  Police Department has a history of eating our young." What do you mean by that? He said, "You'll find out." You know, we have a history of eating our young. They felt that the  commissioner was using this health and wellness component to gather information on them to  transition them out of police support.  


In one case, the officer was an alcoholic who came to us. We got him cleaned up. We  got him healthy again. He's an alcoholic, but he kept his job. He went out as an ambassador, as  an advocate for what we're doing because he realized the fruits of what we were doing and it  benefited him. So, we are going to start off slow. It didn't happen here overnight. What I would say is never give up. Keep putting resources in it. Keep moving forward. And before you know  it, you're going to see that direction your police department is going to start to change. 


Fleet Maull:  

Well, and that just points to what you've been emphasizing throughout this interview - the  importance of police managers, supervisors, really valuing their people because often law  enforcement culture is one of low trust and low trust between line staff and management and  so forth. That make culture change very hard. The thing that's really going to change that is  when managers genuinely really care about and take care of their people. Absolutely.  


Well, thank you so much, Director Vernon Herron from the Baltimore Police  Department. This has been a pleasure. I just really appreciate you taking the time to be part of  this Summit. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Listen, when I first took this job, I knew nothing about health and wellness, but I'm a cop so I  did a lot of research. I travelled the country and did a lot of seminars. There are people out  there who helped me. 


Dr. Burke out of San Antonio gave me two hours every other week in real time. They  helped me put this program together. So, please, I don't mind giving out my email address. If  anyone out there is sincere about putting together a health and wellness program, I'll be more  than happy to share our policies, our successes, our failures, because I think every police  department in this nation should have a comprehensive health and wellness program.  


Fleet Maull:  

Thank you very much. I couldn't agree more. And that's really one of the purposes of this  Summit all together. So, a great message. Thank you so much, Director Herron. 


Director Vernon Herron:  

Thank you. Be safe and healthy, everyone.

  

Fleet Maull:  

You too.



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