Finalist | Officer Wellness

McHenry County Conservation District Police Department

State: IL

The Conservation District Police Department was founded in 1986 to provide a safer environment for site users. Prior to 1986, the population of the county and the size of the Conservation District holdings were steadily increasing. Within the 12 conservation sites open to the public there existed a growing problem of vandalism. The public complained the sites were not family friendly and the sites soon became riddled with gang activity, underage drinking, and drug dealers. The McHenry County Sheriff’s Department was hired to do drive throughs and open and close gates. Rangers would patrol the closed sites unarmed and would do their best to assist when they could. The rangers had radios to call the Sheriff’s Department when they encountered criminal behavior or other situations beyond their control. This presence of undesirable behavior, specifically at sites like The Hollows and Hickory Grove Highlands, was intimidating and not at all an atmosphere where a family or individual would feel safe. In attempt to create safe sites and improve the quality of user experience, the McHenry County Conservation District created a police Department.

Since those early years, the McHenry County Conservation District Police Department turned the corner on crime within District managed sites. Diligent patrols, constant presence, and visibility to the public, and immediate attention to hot spots and problem areas have resulted in deterring criminals and sending a strong message that such behavior will not be tolerated on Conservation District sites.

The McHenry County Conservation District Police Department began a comprehensive wellness program in 2019. What is unique about our program is we are a small agency (11 sworn) and had very limited budgetary funds to support the creation of a program. We worked as a team to build a program that would be supported by the District and embraced by the officers. We wanted to remove the misconception that a robust officer wellness program needed to be expensive and complex and could only be accomplished by large agencies. We were striving to create a template other agency with limited resources could use as a model for success.

After submitting our program to Destination Zero last year, we continue with our effort to engage with and improve our wellness program. We have made efforts to adjust, improve and gather data to show our success. We continued our efforts throughout 2020 and have made remarkable strides in improving our officer’s health and wellbeing. One of the key changes was going to 10-hour shifts and issuing take-home patrol vehicles. These simple things, along with the continuation of the health and safety initiatives we created in 2019, have resulted in many improvements across the board.

In looking to improve the wellness program three key issues were identified by the committee enacted in 2019 that were negatively impacting the officers; stress management, the schedule and work-life balance issues. As our wellness program evolved, these were the areas we decided to focus on. The easiest and most logical step was the adjustment to the schedule. By going to a 10 hour shift, officers would work the same amount of hours, while realizing additional days off throughout the year. Full weekends off were only realized once every six weeks on the old schedule. With the 10 hour schedule, officers would get every other weekend off creating a greater sense of work- life balance. As we moved to this schedule, we experienced several unexpected benefit as a direct result of the changes we made. Most notable, officer productivity increase while the use of sick days decreased. This means our officers were showing up to work more often and doing more work while they were on duty. In addition to these measurable components, morale also improved. So officers were working harder and happier as a result of our wellness program efforts.

I have attached a sheet documenting our officer’s stats. In 2018, they were on the 8.5-hour shift. I began working here as Chief in January of 2019 and we started talking about wellness and work-life balance and the impact these issues could have on professional performance. In addition, I was asking the officers to do more than just respond to calls. I started asking for a proactive approach to policing our sites. At this point the data shows the officer’s activity numbers go up slightly. In March of 2019, we started talking about transitioning to another schedule and started the other wellness initiatives (the importance of workouts and discussions of wellness as part of our training) and you see another upward swing in productivity. These results were great, but nothing like what we would see when the program came into full effect.

In June of 2019, we moved to the 10-hour schedule and transitioned to take home vehicles to help officers start their shift from close to their homes. Some of our officers had an hour commute to our central headquarters, driving past several of our sites before reaching the location of their roll call. Once this change was implemented, we started to see consistent elevation of our productivity levels. By moving to the 10 hour shifts and take home vehicles, we were able to greatly influence our officer’s work-life balance. By allowing officers to start their shift at the location closest to their house, we realized a wider disbursement of patrol coverage and provided additional time on shift for officers to be actively patrolling our sites (instead of driving back and forth to headquarters).