Federal probation and pretrial officers from across the country are gathering this week in Atlanta for a national conference on officer wellness, an issue that has gotten increasing attention in recent years, particularly after the protracted coronavirus pandemic raised stress levels for officers in the field.
The conference is being held July 19 to 21 during National Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week, which is honored annually during the third calendar week of July to recognize the public service of community corrections professionals.
The theme of this year’s conference is Wellness 365, and the program focuses on problems that can affect the mental health and well-being of probation and pretrial officers. Organizers are providing training that can be implemented in court districts across the county and a forum to share knowledge about new strategies to foster officer wellness.
Probation and pretrial services officers often work in unsafe environments, late at night, or on weekends and holidays. They supervise people recently released from prison or awaiting trial, with the aim of helping them stay out of trouble. The pandemic put additional strains on officers as face-to-face interactions with clients became more difficult and put them at greater health risks.
“Probation and pretrial services officers work under challenging and stressful conditions, and it’s critical that we take the steps to protect them from both the physical threats they face and other risks to their well-being,” said John Fitzgerald, chief of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Office, which is a part of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “Giving officers the skills to boost their resilience will keep them safe, productive, and engaged. Hopefully, our wellness programs can be a tool for staff recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction. But most of all, we hope it keeps staff safe.”
The conference is among several initiatives undertaken by the office in recent years to safeguard officer wellness. It formed a Wellness Working Group, comprised of wellness advocates from probation and pretrial staff from across the country.
In April, the working group launched a wellness application designed to be easy to navigate and confidential. The app, easy to download to a cell phone, provides access to self-assessments, lists of local treatment providers that work with people in law enforcement, and information on the AO’s employee assistance program and suicide prevention and awareness resources.
David Congdon, the chair of the Wellness Working Group, said, “Not only do staff of U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services now have immediate access to numerous wellness resources 24-7-365, they can also locate that information in a very private setting. To date, the feedback to the app has been tremendous.”
The working group also maintains a website with wellness resources, guidance on developing in-district localized programs, and a directory of subject-matter experts. The site serves as a clearinghouse for wellness programs and Critical Incident Stress Management teams, which are trained in crisis intervention methods to help employees and their families cope with traumatic events. The group’s quarterly newsletter, Wellness Wisdom, disseminates information to officers in the system’s 94 court districts.
Many districts have established local programs aimed at fostering officer wellness. For example, in the Northern District of California based in San Francisco, there are regular town halls held for officers to discuss a wide variety of topics with their peers.
“Some of the town halls have gotten into some pretty deep, really emotional topics. Sometimes it’s the stress of the job or the social justice issues that people feel strongly about, or maybe it’s about a death in the court family we have experienced,” said Silvio Lugo, the district’s chief pretrial services officer. “You don’t have to show up, but they’re there. And it’s an opportunity to connect with your supervisor or your colleagues, or just to share whatever you want to share.”