Surviving the Badge: One Officer’s Commitment to Healthier, Better Police

The following is an interview with Law Enforcement Action Partnership representative Special Agent Bobby Kimbrough (Ret.). He left the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2016 and now runs a program called Surviving the Shield, which helps law enforcement cope with the stress and trauma of their work. As a LEAP speaker, he focuses on improving access to PTSD treatment for police, opposing arrest quotas, improving police training and community relationships, procedural justice training, addressing racial disparities in the justice system, and improving transparency and accountability in policing.

Mikayla Hellwich: How does the nature of policework impact the wellness of officers?

Bobby Kimbrough: I started over 30 years ago as a Winston-Salem police officer. I was first an officer with the state, and retired a special agent with the Department of Justice.

Looking back over my life and the men and women I worked with, I notice the people we were when we were hired — five years later — we’re not the same people. Every academy, every training I’ve ever been to, we talk about report writing, firearms training, self-defense and surveillance. But we never talk about surviving the shield. In other words, how do you survive the work? Whether it’s the silver or gold badge, while it only weighs a few ounces, that shield starts to affect you physically and psychologically. I refer to the Journal of Police Science Administration, which says that police officers have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, suicide, and cancer compared with those in the general population because of stress.

It’s like going into a room with a smoking area — even though you don’t smoke, you’ll leave that room smelling like smoke. The same applies to law enforcement. Every day, we come out of it 10 or 12 hours later, go home for 8 hours, sleep, and then come back to that same environment. Depending on the size of the city or the metropolitan area, the stress intensifies and builds up over time, and we have very little in place to help officers stay healthy.

How do members of law enforcement heal from the situations they witness?

Ask any officer — they remember their first homicide. They can tell you their first near-death experience, their first physical altercation, and their first struggle with an arrestee. They can look back over their lives and say, while this career may have been rewarding there’s a price that I paid in losing some of myself. A lot of officers are isolated; even when they’re off, they still have that same aura, those same defenses up — even with their families. I’ve been retired for two years and people say, ‘You still move and carry yourself like a police officer, like an agent.’ In law enforcement in the 21st century, we have got to start teaching officers how to survive the shield. How do I become a better partner to my significant other, a better father/mother, a better human being? How do I endure this job and survive it intact?

What are the external consequences of failing to address trauma and other mental health issues for officers?

You can wake up having a bad day just from living life! As an officer, I’ve still got to go to work and strap on a gun. I’m entering a very dangerous environment with personal baggage, and I’ve got to go out and interact with people who have no earthly idea what is happening and why I may be feeling badly. Too often, we have officers working the street who probably should have taken the day off. This is not surviving the shield. This is not managing stress. It shows up in our homes. It shows up in our workplace. It shows up in public.

There’s no police department in the country — except federal agencies — that does mental health evaluations regularly. Federal agencies do a reassessment of agents on the street, who must go through background checks and all the processes he or she went through during the hiring process.

Anybody who’s carried a gun will tell you — it’s a lot of stress and responsibility to carry a gun every day of your life. It becomes a part of you. You’ve got to know where it’s at and make decisions about when to draw it and fire it. It’s clearly written when you should use deadly force, but at the same time there’s a psychological effect. To make that decision correctly and accurately, a lot of things must be firing correctly in you. You have to be mentally and physically well. In some situations, if you’re firing on all cylinders physically, you can talk your way out of it, but if your judgement is clouded by other things, you could make a lethal mistake.

What happens today when an officer starts to exhibit signs of PTSD? How might other officers react to it? If officers bring it to their superiors, what is likely to happen?

The culture of law enforcement is very tight. We call it the thin blue line because no one else understands what we deal with as the last defense in chaos versus order. We have to protect one another. No one wants to blow the whistle when they know an officer is really not fit for the job. When an officer starts to show signs of PTSD or other stress disorders, a problem already exists, but we haven’t seen the manifestation of it. It’s like a volcano starting to erupt. We haven’t seen the eruption yet, but at the base it’s brewing and rumbling, about to explode. We’ve got to teach officers it’s alright to say, “Hey, maybe I need to go talk to someone.” Or, “I need to take some time. I need to take some family leave.” We need healthy officers that can function under pressure, under stress, and remain whole, and come back to work the next day ready to do it again.

What would your ideal preventive program in a department look like?

An atmosphere of change. Everything in life is set for a particular atmosphere. The Ritz-Carlton is set totally different from a Motel 6. The atmosphere determines what is going to take place, so if you get into the atmosphere and change it — change the culture of policing — you could change the outcome. We can’t be so callous and hardened that we don’t give or receive help. Officers need to feel comfortable supporting each other emotionally. It’s alright to hug my colleague and say, “Hey, my brother, if you need anything I’m here for you.” We have this machismo that helps us deal with stress but only to a point. You can’t show any weakness or damage in your armor. We’ve got to do some things besides routine training. A good departmental atmosphere and culture would mean doing more interactive activities as a group: some leadership, some stress relief activities, all as mandatory parts of training.

If I had the time or money, I would go across the country and select officers going into the academy and track their behavior and personality into their first job in uniform. It would be awesome to come back and show each officer themselves 5 years into the job and how much they’ve changed. When you go into law enforcement as a rookie, you go to a field training officer whose job it is to shape you and train you, and you have to assimilate. You can’t be that same happy-go-lucky guy because they will write you out of the process. In your first year, most departments can write you out with something as simple as “conduct unbecoming” or “I don’t think it’s gonna work out. I don’t like the way you responded to that call,” or “I don’t like the way you wrote that report.” Sometimes that can simply mean you’re not adapting to the culture of law enforcement.

Tell me more about your Surviving the Shield program.

We did the first one at High Point Police Department. We brought in the chief’s command staff and talked about what it’s like to be a police officer. What are the stressors? When was the last time you gave your significant other a card saying how much you love them? When was the last time you walked in the house with flowers and said, “I just want you to know that I appreciate you for tolerating me, and I want you to know how much you mean to me, even though I rarely say it. I want you to know that I don’t take you for granted.” And there were men in that room that had tears in their eyes. It calls you to look at yourself. It calls you to reinvent yourself. You can’t see your forehead unless you look in the mirror. There are things about us that we can’t see that other people do. Your significant other will tell you things about you that you can’t quite see. I’ve been told, “Stop being a police officer all the time. We are out on a date, let your guard down, smile, dance, laugh, stop looking at everybody who comes in, wondering if they have a gun on them. Stop, relax.”

Stress takes moments off your life and brings on other illnesses. A Google search will tell you that as a the result of constant stress all types of illness develop. Because the work police officers do is very stressful, the program is all about helping officers manage stress through self-reflection and peer support.

When an officer from a department with a poor mental health culture approaches you for advice, what do you tell them?

You can’t make law enforcement your end-all. It can’t be. There will be a point when you retire and they’ll replace you. Then what? Find something else outside law enforcement you like doing, whether it’s riding a bicycle, playing golf, or something else. Find something that you love to do and do that regularly. Spend time talking with someone outside of law enforcement, too. Most people who work in law enforcement are friends with the same people that they work with. Their friends and conversations are basically the same, so there’s no work-life separation.

You said the culture is tight-knit and supportive, so it’s probably helpful for morale, but if you’re not doing anything else, then you’re constantly living in that state of stress and not disengaging.

Exactly! So, what I tell them is do something different, spend a lot more time doing things you love with family. Do something that you’ve never done before. Read something other than a law enforcement book. Do something totally against what you’ve been accustomed to, and by doing that you start to open up and see life from a different place. Once you see life differently, you start to be a different person. I started riding a bicycle five years ago, three years before I retired. I found that to be very relaxing. You have to have a way to decompress. If you don’t, you will be just like the volcano. You will erupt.

That’s great advice and a great note on which to stop. Thank you so much for sharing your work with us and continuing to serve the law enforcement community after retiring. Do you have anything else to add?

What I’d like to add is that we must continue to support the men and women who serve and protect our streets and our country. We must continue to seek better ways to perfect this profession and at the same time we’ve got to spend funding and energy helping those men and women survive the shield and become better officers and human beings.

Special Agent Bobby Kimbrough (Ret.) spent 32 years in law enforcement and retired from the D.E.A. in 2016. He’s now an elected sheriff and a representative of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).

Mikayla Hellwich is the Speakers Bureau & Media Relations Director for LEAP.

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