Putting Experience to Work: The Value of a Formal Mentoring Program
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Law enforcement agencies around the country have gotten smarter about who they hire and how they nurture individuals throughout their careers. One tool that has been proven to meet both goals is the development of formal mentoring programs for officers. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) has dedicated considerable resources to its mentoring program and its efforts are paying off.
“Our goal is to hire good quality candidates in the beginning and take care of them throughout their careers,” said Aaron Snyder, sergeant in IMPD’s Office of Professional Development and Police Wellness (OPDW). “The development and mentoring program and the college partnership program have all been put together to help retain officers throughout their careers and develop a strong department.”
Developing a Mentoring Program
In 2010, Snyder was instrumental in developing and implementing IMPD’s MyLegacy© Mentoring Program. The program matches successful veteran police officers with young officers and veteran officers who are struggling.
[Related: How Police Can Reduce and Manage Stress]
The mentoring program isn’t just about saving money by hiring highly qualified and well-adjusted officers. It’s also about taking care of one another.
“In recent years, we had several officer suicides and those really hit the department hard,” said Snyder, a 15-year veteran with the IMPD. “We also had officers struggling from PTSD symptoms after being involved with shootings, officers having issues after returning from the military, and officers who had alcohol issues. It wasn’t just one incident that motivated us to start the mentoring program. There were enough issues that our leadership determined it was time to start taking better care of each other so that’s what we did.”
[Related: Police Officers Face Cumulative PTSD]
Officers who are involved in shootings are enrolled in the program. It is also open to those who request it.
The position of mentor is voluntary but the department seeks successful veteran officers who display enthusiasm and passion for law enforcement. Mentors receive three days of formal training, which includes two days of classroom instruction and one day of team-building and individual awareness training. The agency uses personality profile tests to determine primary and secondary personality types for both mentors and mentees and find suitable matches.
The Benefits of Mentoring Young Officers
One of the initial goals of the program was to support young officers entering the force to help them transition from civilian life to law enforcement. “It’s a huge cultural shift for individuals as they move into law enforcement,” said Snyder, and new officers can benefit greatly from having guidance from experienced officers. The program has been so successful that it now starts at the training academy and pairs mentors with recruits.
“When we identify a strong candidate, we match them with a mentor to help them through the application process,” said Snyder. In addition, mentors also help communicate with a recruit’s family about what to expect when a family member is a police officer. “We’ve lost a few recruits whose family said I don’t want you doing this. If that happens and they’re already in the academy we’ve lost those dollars that could’ve been spent to train someone else.” The program is now on its third class of recruits.
Mentoring Officers in Distress
In addition to new officer transition, the program also matches veteran officers with veteran officers in distress. These mentors are trained to listen and offer council as a colleague and not as someone in a supervisory role. This approach gives officers the confidence to talk about their emotions and experiences without fear of having their competence questioned.
“When I first started I thought SWAT officers who were in high-risk situations all the time were going to be tough nuts to crack in terms of participation, but after meeting with a few of them, many said how they wished the program was in place years ago when they went through their first shooting,” said Snyder.
Here are some of the keys to the success of IMPD’s programs:
Build Trust Early
One of the most important elements of a mentoring program is confidentiality. “If officers don’t trust that they can talk openly to someone, then the program is dead,” said Snyder. Fortunately, IMPD’s program has not faced confidentiality concerns. “The department is very good about not asking details on officers,” he said. “The captain who spearheaded this was respected in our department by all officers so they knew this was a legitimate program from the beginning.”
Identify a Variety of Resources
The agency works closely with its employee assistance program (EAP), POST team, and the chaplain’s office. Case managers are assigned to mentees to ensure officers, especially those in distress, are properly assisted. In addition, the agency has built relationships with psychologists who specialize in PTSD and hospitals that specialize in stress management care and alcohol addiction issues.
Consider Generational Differences
Snyder has been surprised how well new officers have responded to the mentoring program. “Officers under the age of 30 are not apprehensive about talking to a counselor or mentor,” he said. “We’re finding the younger generation is very open to having mentors and they want a mentor to help them develop in their career.”
However, it often takes more work to convince veteran officers about the benefits of the program.
“There are a lot of veteran officers who believe they can take care of themselves and keep years of exposure to trauma and stress and anxiety to themselves,” said Snyder. It’s very important for mentoring programs to target veteran officers and help build their trust in the benefits of finding a healthy way to cope with the stress of law enforcement work.
Expand into Career Advancement
The IMPD’s program has started focusing more on career advice and advancement. “We find that when officers are injured and start thinking about civilian jobs, they don’t believe they have marketable skills,” said Snyder. Therefore, the mentoring program has expanded to focus on career and leadership development by offering a four-week leadership academy. It also allows them to take course credits that can apply to a formal degree. “We want to develop our officers from the very early stages of their career and help them think about higher education and their skillsets after law enforcement,” he said.
Include Military Officers
Several officers in the department approached Snyder and OPDW about mentoring officers in the military. The Deployed Services Unit is a group of military veterans trained as mentors who keep in contact with soldiers and their families throughout deployment. When a soldier returns, the mentor helps integrate him or her back to being a police officer. If signs of PTSD show up or an officer starts developing other issues, these experienced mentors are in place to assist.
IMPD has seen remarkable results from its efforts and the program has been effective at dealing with performance issues. “The first few years we saw a 40 percent decrease in discipline rates,” said Snyder. The program continues to grow in terms of its acceptance by officers. “As more officers participate and reap the benefits of IMPD’s program, the stronger the overall department will be,” he said.
Why It’s Time to Update Mentoring Programs
Law enforcement agencies have used various forms of mentoring programs for years, but many haven’t restructured their programs to address cultural changes and shifts in the background of those entering law enforcement.
“The field training officer (FTO) program many agencies utilize today emerged in the 1970s and the program was designed for the Vietnam War era male who came to the agency with military experience,” said Dr. Chuck Russo, program director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). “Today’s recruit is from a different generation and brings to the agency different life experiences, educational background, technology familiarization, and military exposure. One would wonder why it has taken law enforcement agencies so long to change the process that shapes the individual into a law enforcement officer.”
Mentoring programs must capitalize on the differences today’s recruits bring to law enforcement and provide a structured outlet and support system to assist new recruits, he said. “Such programs have the potential to allow recruits to remain ‘open’ throughout their careers in hopes that when critical incidents are encountered, the officers will utilize a well-established support system to aid in and facilitate a rapid ‘return to normal’ before psychological and physiological stressors manifest themselves as post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Russo.
Agency leaders must consider implementing or updating mentoring programs to foster a strong support network. Such programs can help increase the retention of new officers, help develop healthier officers, and improve agency morale. And, in the long run, such programs can save agencies money.