Law enforcement officers have a dangerous job. Few would dispute that. Where the biggest danger comes from, however, may be a big surprise.

According to statistics cited by Wallace Police Chief Jimmy Crayton, law enforcement officers are 25 times more likely to die from an attack of the heart than from an attack of an assailant.

With the common health problems of police officers in mind, the Wallace Police Department introduced a new wellness program for its officers this past week.

“The idea behind the plan is to make better, healthier officers,” Crayton said. “We want them to live healthier, happier and longer lives. We accomplish this by attacking our wellness from multiple angles: fitness, cardio, mental health, spiritual guidance, financial planning and nutrition.”

While police officers have had access to a town gym for a while now, the new plan encourages officers to think more holistically about their health. Crayton said he’s unaware of other plans like it in law enforcement, and he’s been working on the plan for several months.

Required physical fitness testing, called POPAT, for Police Officers Physical Abilities Test, began for some Wallace officers last week. The testing is made up of two components, a pursuit and apprehension component, and a rescue component, Crayton told the town council on Thursday night.

Officers were put through the wringer in a gym at Cape Fear Community College, under the supervision of physical trainers. They were directed to chase down “suspects,” apprehend them and take them into custody.

Some of the work involved rolling around with and wrestling a 175-pound practice dummy. While it’s serious business, the officers try to have fun with it, too.

“There was a lot of jovial trash talking among officers, but also a lot of encouragement too,” Crayton told the council. “We seem to have a lot of buy-in and excitement about the program.

Improved fitness among officers can help with the stress that comes along with the job; stress that can lead to heart disease, depression, alcoholism, and high divorce and suicide rates.

“What people don’t understand is the type of stress this job produces,” Crayton explained. “The ebbs and flows of adrenaline, the sudden and sometimes prolonged spikes in heart rates, the physically draining aspects of fighting with a combative person, dragging a person from a wrecked vehicle, chasing someone on foot, or even standing and directing traffic for hours on end.”

“The mental and emotional tolls: giving CPR to an infant who doesn’t make it, gruesome motor vehicle collisions that result in dismemberment or death, speaking to a child about being sexually assaulted, assisting the elderly after being scammed out of life savings, and countless incidents of repeated domestic violence.”

All of those things can happen in the span of one week, he added, and that is compounded by relatively low pay and rotating 12-hour shifts that make family life difficult.

The average life expectancy of a police officer is 22 years less than that of civilians, Crayton said.

While taking the POPAT test twice a year is now mandatory, it’s not yet a requirement that a Wallace officer pass it. For the next two years, officers will be given the opportunity to improve their fitness and their scores, and at the end of that period, they will be expected to have passed the test as a condition of their continued employment with the Wallace Police Department.

The POPAT is the NC Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission’s standard for physical fitness in law enforcement. In order to become a certified police officer, each person must complete the test within a certain time limit.

After passing the test to be certified, however, few law enforcement agencies make it mandatory that officers continue to be able to pass the test, Crayton said. In addition to passing the POPAT in the next two years, Wallace officers will also be required to receive physical and mental health screenings each year, under the new plan.

In addition to mental and physical health care options available to Wallace officers, the department will also have financial planners and chaplains who are ready to help officers with any other challenges that they may face.

It’s a plan that Crayton says will pay off in numerous ways.

“A mentally and physically in shape officer is less likely to burn out,” he said. “They are less likely to use excessive force, they are less likely to be involved in motor vehicle collisions and the list goes on. We owe it to ourselves and to our communities to keep ourselves in shape.”

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