Battle Creek

Equipping Battle Creek’s police officers with emotional body armor

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series. 
Kevlar may keep officers with the Battle Creek Police Department physically safe, but it doesn’t make them emotionally bulletproof, says BCPD Chief Shannon Bagley.
There is a recognition that more needs to be done to safeguard the mental health of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect ordinary citizens and the BCPD offers several resources that its officers can access. Among these are a Peer Support Group led by Lt Ryan Strunk, 24/7 access to mental health professionals, and a Brain Health Program with officers meeting quarterly.
There is a misnomer that officers should be bulletproof and that they’re immune to the messiness of life experienced by everyone else, Bagley says.
Battle Creek’s new Police Chief is Shannon Bagley.“A lot of the things other people deal with these women and men are dealing with as well,” he says. “We are doing a much better job of being aware of the effect and impact of something going on in their personal life. We are diminishing the stigma of ‘Hey, I need a time out. It’s way better now than when many of us first started this job.”
For many years, the alternative to talking about how a particular call they went on impacted them, was to not talk about it, ignore it and move on, Bagley says.
“High rates of divorce, alcoholism, substance use, and depression among officers was the direct result of not dealing with what they were feeling,” he says. “A career filled with stress manifests itself in health issues.”
In March, Deputy Chief Doug Bagwell took proactive steps to help a fellow officer who had gone through a divorce and had gained a significant amount of weight.
“I talked to him and said we’re going to re-assign you to this position so you can take time to care for yourself so that when you leave the department you don’t drop dead,” Bagwell says.
It used to be that police officers lived an average of seven years after retiring, Bagley says.
“The whole idea of the resources we’re offering is to get officers from hiring to retiring emotionally and physically intact,” Strunk says. “Everybody’s drastically different. We have to adapt to what their needs are and marry the services to meet those needs.”
An on-staff mental health professional with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services conducted training with officers on the Peer Support Team which introduced the concept of psychological body armor.
The more than 10-person Peer Support Team, Strunk says, addresses the needs of officers who have responded to post-critical incidents such as an officer-involved shooting, the death of a child, or something that is exceptionally concerning to them. For the team members, this is an additional responsibility that they take on that they integrate into their jobs as officers.
Battle Creek Police Chief Shannon Bagley, center, talks with Lt. Ryan Strunk, left, and Deputy Chief Doug Bagwell.Recruits are told that they’ll be “shocked” by what they see “in this job, but don’t be shocked by your shock,” Strunk says.
In addition, they get insight into what the job will look like because what they learn during their time in the police academy is no substitute for what they see on the job.
The real-life work of being an officer is completely new to them. They’re recognizing that it’s likely in Battle Creek they'll see things they’ve never seen before which is what it’s like for recruits new to any community, Strunk says.
“We give them strategies to understand from a clinical perspective what their body goes through."
After responding to a call for service that may be especially troubling to officers, the Peer Support Group facilitates a group debrief in partnership with Pine Rest.
Battle Creek Police Deputy Chief Doug Bagwell, right, listens to a fellow officer.“It’s a group setting where officers are able to talk and offered therapy,” Strunk says. “From a peer support perspective, one of the priorities is to check in with folks over the course of time. We try to tailor this to every individual.”
Although veteran police officers like Bagwell have always engaged in de-briefs, those gatherings focused more on the tactics used.
“Nobody ever discussed feelings,” he says, “and it’s OK not to have feelings similar to what someone else may have. Everybody is different. What bothers you may not bother someone else. We have to be open and accepting of that.”
Among the areas of focus is integrating mental health awareness into the BCPD’s culture.
“Everyone here is part of peer support. When you work with someone you recognize changes in their behavior before anyone else sees that,” Strunk says. “We’re all taking an active interest in everyone’s mental health.”
A long-term initiative
While Peer Support addresses immediate needs, the Brain Health Program takes a long-term approach. Officers are required to participate in the program which runs anywhere from 9-12 months in duration in various phases with officers meeting in quarterly seminars to learn how to take care of themselves physically and mentally.
Battle Creek Police officers converse, from left, Lt. Ryan Strunk, Deputy Chief Doug Bagwell, and Police Chief Shannon Bagley.The program— Protect the Protectors — is offered through the Robertson Research Institute based in Grand Rapids. It is a nonprofit charity program that began in 2016 as a pilot program designed to “improve, manage, and optimize brain health for better first responder emotional, physical and mental health,” according to the website.
Former BCPD Police Chief Jim Blocker, who retired in March, learned about the Research Institute and the potential its programs had for helping his officers during a Police Chiefs' conference he attended before stepping down.
The program delivers HIPPA-compliant and specialized brain health assessments to participants to determine how each team thinks and relates to stress, according to information on the Research Institute’s website.
 “We then provide intervention strategies for the team’s unique issues/stressors and run additional focus groups with leadership and staff based on new data findings. Finally, we provide leadership staff with summary reports and success metrics.”
Battle Creek Police Chief Shannon Bagley, center, is seen with Lt. Ryan Strunk, left, and Deputy Chief Doug Bagwell.The seminars with officers include nurses and health practitioners with occasional visits from Dr. Joel Robertson, founder of the Research Institute that bears his name.
Each officer receives an individualized chart that contains information about their overall health, potential health issues, and substance use or self-medication.
“What we were seeing in the results is that we’re at a higher risk for early-onset dementia,” Bagwell says.
Topics of discussion during the seminars include how long-term stress affects brain chemicals and creates imbalances that lead to anxiety, depression, and substance use.
The program tailors an officer’s diet to maintain optimal health and also recommends an exercise regimen. There is an emphasis on ways to prevent dementia.
Bagwell says officers are more prone to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia because of the high levels of stress caused by their jobs.
Battle Creek’s new Police Chief is Shannon Bagley.“It’s all about ways to reduce that stress,” Bagley says. “The type of job we do and the stress we have is a culmination of years within the profession. As leaders, we need to bring in mechanisms so that we can talk about things so that they don’t build up. We want the quality of life for our officers to be exceptional.”
The community is best served by officers who are physically and mentally healthy, he says.
“The new officers are much better about talking about these things which weren’t talked about before.”
Bagwell says this type of dialogue will continue and become part of the BCPD’s culture, an expectation that younger generations of officers have.

The journey to becoming a police officer begins with the required successful completion of a 16-week MCOLES (Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards). They are not certified until they are hired by a police agency.
Those who apply to the BCPD receive an additional 16 weeks of training through a Police Training Officer (PTO) program which focuses on policy and procedures and how the BCPD operates in Battle Creek.
Although there are requirements that must be met before individuals are eligible to enroll in the MCOLES training, Bagley says 16 weeks isn’t a lot of time. While calls for service including responding to a situation involving mental health issues are taught, addressing the mental wellness needs of recruits is not.
Becoming the norm
Integrating mental health and well-being into the culture of the BCPD went from a “want” to a “need” during the Pandemic when officers and administrators found themselves doing work they never expected to do with the timing being less than ideal.
“We were forcing everybody into doing things that were not traditional to law enforcement,” Bagwell says.
Battle Creek Police Chief Shannon Bagley, right, listens to a fellow officer.At one point he found himself driving a forklift to unload food that had come from an Army Reserve unit out of Detroit that was to nonprofits serving Barry and Calhoun counties. Officers formed a human chain to get the food to a garage on the lower level of BCPD headquarters where it was stored until it could be delivered.
Bagwell says he also delivered groceries to an elderly couple who weren’t able to leave their home.
“We kind of became a catchall because we were the only ones out there,” he says.
The BCPD was operating with historically low numbers of officers before the Pandemic. Stress levels were on the rise because of the additional work officers were being asked to do.
“When you’re trying to do more with less, it catches up with you,” Bagley says.
The department was down to 91 sworn officers, an all-time low. He says the city’s budget allocates funding for 117 officers and they are currently at 108 with applications coming in from recruits on an almost-daily basis.
The Pandemic-related deficit created decreased the number of officers on the road into the low 30s and because community policing is 24/7, 365 days of the year, Bagley says, “We had a tremendous number of officers who were asked to stay after their shifts to cover 911 calls for service and provide basic level services to respond to accidents and alarms and this was going on before the Pandemic. Then you throw in a Pandemic and now you have times when multiple officers are out with COVID which impacted people being asked to work overtime. There was exhaustion in just having to deal with that.”
With the Pandemic behind them, the BCPD is back up to being fully staffed and accepting applications for openings in anticipation of expected retirements. The Police Academy at Kellogg Community College has a class of 32 students, all of whom already have jobs lined up.
Bagwell says these recruits include college students, an engineer, and a Verizon store manager.
“Life experience is good,” he says.
Before BCPD hires any new officer they undergo a thorough psychological assessment and an in-depth background check with an option to send them for a “Fit for Duty” examination.
Despite the training and the exams, not every new officer will stay.
Battle Creek Police Lt. Ryan Strunk, left, listens to a fellow officer.Bagwell says the department had a new officer who was involved in an extremely challenging situation where a very young child was shot and died.
“She had direct contact with this child and watched him die and that really impacted this officer,” Bagwell says. “As a result, she made the decision that police work wasn’t for her. That’s the reality of this profession. There are things you’re going to see that will be very impactful on your life.”
This is among the reasons that officers need to have healthy outlets. Strunk says healthy officers make for healthy interactions with the community.
There’s a recognition that officers are going to see things that may or may not impact them and giving them opportunities to have open and honest conversations is a good mechanism to reduce the stress of that impact, Bagley says.

“We emphasize to new officers coming in that we care about them because we know they have a very difficult job to do. We’re not just talking about and there’s some meat on the bone,” he says. “I think this was always important, I just don’t think we did it and we’ve learned a lot. I don’t know of any officer who got into this job because they didn’t want to help somebody. It’s that heart of a servant calling. Because you have a servant’s heart, you’re going to see things.  You’re not called to respond because somebody’s having a good day.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.