Police Academic

Professor Judith Andersen
Friday, July 8, 2016 - 3:48pm
Carla DeMarco
Psychology prof from U of T Mississauga receives provincial funding to improve health, safety and performance of police officers

It was sheer serendipity that Psychology Professor Judith Andersen met Peel Regional Police Chief Jennifer Evans at a Ministry of Labour summit in 2015.

This chance encounter however has proven to be extremely fruitful: it set the wheels in motion for Andersen’s current collaboration with the Peel Police and the opportunity to further develop her innovative method for use-of-force training. Peel Regional Police is the third largest municipal police force in Canada, providing a large sample of officers for research engagement. The collaboration additionally laid the groundwork that led to a project that has just received over $274K in funding from the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s (MOL) Research Opportunity Program Grant.

“We were on the same panel at the 2015 summit in March, and I was so impressed by [Chief Evans], who is really dedicated to engaging in evidence-based policing,” says Andersen. “She is a trailblazer in introducing programs that highlight awareness of police mental and physical health, and performance to her agency. Right there at the conference we discussed a potential research collaboration.”

Andersen was thrilled by Evans’s openness to participate in research and the fact that she immediately understood the importance of the training she was advocating.  They met the next month so Andersen could present her findings from an earlier study in Finland, and by the summer of 2015 Andersen was doing a pilot study with the Peel Police.

“The first pilot project was a small sample, but it was enough to show that the officers were interested and there was buy-in for the training,” says Andersen. “Peel Police has been a fantastic partner ever since, as a large police organization, Peel is a leading agency in Canada, so they are really setting an example by supporting evidence-based policing.”

The main focus in Andersen’s research is investigating how severe and traumatic stress impacts both health and job performance in first responders. In the case of the police officers, the population she is mainly working with presently, they are often continually exhibiting stress responses because of the nature of their job. However, not everyone recognizes the signs and symptoms of stress. Andersen says it is important to employ the physiological measures that she uses, through biofeedback devices and cortisol [stress hormone] samples, to show the police officers more tangible evidence of their stress responses, like elevated heart rates. By way of comparison, they can see those same measures normalize when they are learning the techniques that her team teaches to reach a more calm and focused state.

“In the end it’s still about managing stress so you have a clearer mind, and you can access all your training and the tools that you have available, which includes de-escalation and the least use of force possible,” says Andersen, who initially started her research working with war veterans and soldiers in the military.

She says that police officers responding to intense situations are not only at risk of making poor decisions based on their heightened stress responses, but that over time, higher levels of stress lead to several adverse health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses.

The work with Peel Police is the focus of Andersen’s MOL grant, which aims to assess a new method of use-of-force training to enhance police officers’ performance, health and well being, and it fits perfectly with the Ministry’s agenda for the Research Opportunities Program and Occupational Health and Safety Prevention and Innovation Program. This year the program is committing a total of $4.38 million in funding that will support research, health, education, industry, labour and community organizations, and conduct successful projects that focus on vulnerable workers, high hazard activities or occupational diseases in order to reduce workplace illnesses, injuries and fatalities.

Andersen says that the health risks increase for police officers, who are 2-3 times more likely to suffer from certain illnesses, so this work is very timely, especially in this climate of police-and-public tension.  Andersen is buoyed by this recent support of her research, and feels it is a step in the right direction for work that is definitely needed, not only for first responders but for people feeling stressed out in general.

“We all have stressful experiences, but with first responders, and particularly police and military, nobody can argue that those are highly stressful jobs, and that their performance can result in life or death decisions,” says Andersen. “So if this training works with them, I believe it will work for the general population.”