As a police officer and the daughter of a police officer, Laura King has seen how the profession can affect an officer’s physical and mental health.
“It is the nature of the job, the constant exposure to high stress situations,” she said. “It takes a toll mentally and physically” and leads to police officer having, on average, lifespans 22 years shorter than the general population.
King retires Monday from the role of McHenry County Conservation District police chief. On Tuesday, she starts her new job with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research and SAFLEO, the national Suicide Awareness for Law Enforcement Officers program. She said she then will work with the U.S. Department of Justice-affiliated agency to help other departments and officers create successful wellness programs for their police officers.
You have happier police officers who are more willing to help, more patient, more eager to help you problem solve.”— Laura King, McHenry County Conservation District police chief
Her focus on officer mental and physical health came, police chief in part, from seeing what the profession did to her father, a 32-year law enforcement veteran. Seeing what her dad went through made her decide “that I was going to put my mental and physical wellness at the forefront of my career and I was going to help others to do so as well.”
King spent 20 years at the McHenry Police Department and was the chief investigator for the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office before taking the conservation police chief’s role. Along the way, King also earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in psychology from Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
At the conservation district police, King and her staff expanded its wellness program, including peer support, fitness, access to state and nationally vetted wellness programs, a workout center and nutrition counseling.
That program is being recognized this weekend in Washington, D.C., where King and the department will receive the Destination Zero National Officer Safety and Wellness Award from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
“We started this program with a few hundred dollars and a limited buy in from the officers,” King wrote in her award application. “In a series of small steps, we have incorporated ideas from the officers and (grew) the program to what it is today.”
Those steps include changing the department to 10-hour shifts. Employees can use one hour of those shifts to exercise – either in their small workout room or on district trails – and now have a three-day weekend every other week.
Officer Dan Hibbeler has been with the conservation police for 14 years, and also credits the wellness program with helping him as an officer and a parent. Now, he said, he can make more time for his family ”and relieve some of the added stress.”
It makes him a better police officer, Hibbeler said.
“You are in a better mood if you feel better ... and for me, especially with the 10 hour shift, around 1 p.m. I am hitting a wall when the morning caffeine wears off. I can stop, get a workout in and reenergize for the rest of my shift,” Hibbeler said. “If do do get that call for an emergency, I am more rested and more focused to handle that.”
King said that is why police wellness programs benefit the public.
“You have happier police officers who are more willing to help, more patient, more eager to help you problem solve. It is a different level of service to the public on the back end,” she said.