Renae Griggs

Ashoka Fellow
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This description of Renae Griggs's work was prepared when Renae Griggs was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 .

Introduction

A decorated veteran of law enforcement, Renae Griggs is seeking to shift the culture of policing in a more humane direction for the nation's 800,000 officers. She aims to remove the barriers that she believes have perpetuated a subculture in policing that separates officers from their humanity and often results in abusive and self-destructive behavior, including rates of domestic violence and suicide that are two or more times the national average.

The New Idea

As police nationwide are commonly seen as people who solve problems and not as individuals who may have problems of their own, Renae is working to establish a new mindset–and motivation–among department police chiefs, captains, desk sergeants, and cops on the beat to give their own mental health sufficient priority, while they dedicate themselves to serving and protecting the public.
Renae is seeking to shift the tone at the leadership and management levels and reframe the perspective on the frontline to focus both on acknowledging the potential impact of the police officer's professional life on his or her personal life, and on recognizing the signs of the psychological demands of the role and how they can manifest behaviorally. This cultural shift will encourage officers to proactively manage the grueling emotional strain of their job by seeking help from peer groups and mental health professionals at the early stages rather than waiting until the situation develops into a life-threatening crisis. Renae's strategy for effecting this paradigm shift in policing is to address these historically unspoken impacts on police officers not only at the academy but also during in-service training and again upon supervisory promotions. Additionally, it is critical that the policies and procedures within the department reflect this proactive approach. And finally, in encouraging officers to seek help, there must be a system of local services and resources in place that are confidential, easily accessible, and specifically skilled in working with law enforcement families.
With the critical insight that the profession of law enforcement–a closed community–has unique needs for stress management, Renae is seeking to model a new approach for police officers to balance the demands of their work with positive family relations. Renae's approach to prevention (not reaction) has the potential to change law enforcement to a career in which one can manage the intense psychological demands of the profession, rather than see them always escalating.
Because policing is an international institution with numerous routes for information sharing, there is tremendous potential for fast spread of effective new ideas. Renae sees that by releasing officers from the notion that in donning the badge they forfeit their humanity and with that their emotional vulnerability, police officers will more readily recognize and more appropriately respond to the true root causes of the situations they face–both on the job and off. The permission to experience emotions common to every human being significantly reduces the long-standing cultural mantra to separate themselves from anyone who is not a member of the police community–referred to as the "us versus them" mentality–and enables officers to open themselves up to developing a tighter bond with the community. Through an effective public awareness campaign, that community will meet them halfway, recognizing and supporting the tremendous sacrifices society expects officers and their families to make.

The Problem

Although research is limited and the validity of the results often questioned, according to some studies, the rate of domestic violence in families of law enforcement in the United States is two-and-one-half times (40 percent vs. 16 percent) that of the national average. For every police officer killed in the line of duty, three more take their own lives annually. And rates of substance abuse and alcoholism among police are higher than normal. Taking these statistics into consideration, it would seem obvious that police officers and their families are significantly affected both by the unique and sometimes excruciating demands of the job and by the lack of support available to mitigate those demands.

The very "control" they are taught for its value in handling in escalating situations is the source of behavior that officers take home to manage their families. However, dealing with children and spouses in this way "controlling" causes emotional harm and stress, especially since the officer trained to control difficult situations, can often put the family in a position of vulnerability.

Ultimately, police are not trained in the family-friendly coping strategies that would also increase the effectiveness of law enforcement. Breaking the cycle of escalation as a response to stress would likely reduce domestic violence, substance abuse, alcoholism, possibly suicide, and sometimes murder in police families; it could also reduce the violence on the job for law enforcement.

Until now, most solutions to these problems have focused reactively, resulting in senseless death and destruction in police families. Renae's solution focuses on preventing a crisis by addressing the root issues early on along with the symptoms before the situation is allowed to escalate and the options for resolution severely diminished. And Renae's solution will incorporate the community to help support the officers and their families. This broader, more proactive approach is expected to create more safety nets, ultimately resulting in saving lives, protecting families and, when possible, preserving careers.

The Strategy

In order for Renae to set a new culture that embodies a completely new way of coping in law enforcement, she must work at all levels of policing, as well as with the supporting organizations of policing (unions, communities, families). Renae's strategy starts at the top with police chiefs, supports frontline officers on a peer-to-peer basis, and shifts the system to providing mental care.Renae plans on eventually enabling each police agency's (city, county, state, and federal) leadership to integrate protocols, policies, and practices developed with both the assistance of nationally recognized experts and the participation of individual department panels crafting the policies specific to each agency's needs and resources. Ultimately, Renae is planning a nationwide institute that will provide training to law enforcement managers and leaders, domestic violence advocates, mental health professionals, members of the media, and others in the criminal justice community. She wants them as part of a "train-the-trainer" model to promote safe and healthy police families who will have a seamless system of support from the beginning of officers' careers to retirement.

Renae's pilot program has launched the first in-department prevention project in Broward County, Florida. It focuses on proactive and preventative policies and procedures: promoting help seeking and incorporating consistent accountability measures; an unprecedented comprehensive training program for all employees, both sworn officers and civilian support staff; and the development of positive relationships with mental health professionals available for officers and their families to ensure easily accessible and effective support services. Renae seeks to show that interventions are a sign of strength, not weakness.

Renae has become recognized as one of the nation's leading experts on police domestic violence and suicide. Following the unfortunate events last year in Tacoma, Washington, in which a high-profile police chief killed his wife and then himself in front of their children, a national outcry arose for understanding and information about such behavior. Renae will continue to build on her reputation as an authority on such issues. She has become one of the primary reference points in this work and a leading source for reporters nationwide. Renae's strong media presence and credibility as a decorated professional is expected to help accelerate the spread of the idea.

Renae aims to finance these initiatives through the police community, with the understanding that benefits accrue to the personal and professional lives of the police themselves, ultimately making the model sustainable from its beneficiaries. This model has already been successfully demonstrated via the pilot program, funded entirely by the participating police department.

The Person

Renae Griggs grew up always wanting to be a police detective: "I always wanted to be the good guy," says Renae. She graduated the top percentile of her high school class, entered the law enforcement arena at 21, and served 13 years as police detective, the first female member of the Special Entry Team and the second woman in the history of the country to become a certified S.W.A.T. officer.

As a Major Crimes Detective on call 24-hours-a-day, she created a new domestic violence tracking system, trained officers in how to professionally handle cases involving sex crimes and child abuse, and promoted innovative new approaches across the region to respond effectively to the needs of victims. Despite her successes in creating some change within the system, the stresses and emotional burden of policing eventually caught up with Renae.

"You see all of this awful stuff–murdered babies, bloody beaten wives–and eventually, it gets to you. But as a cop, you have nowhere to put it. You're supposed to be 'Robo-cop'–so you stuff it all into a black hole, and eventually, it comes out in other ways." Like many officers before her, Renae reached the brink of suicide–putting a gun in her mouth with a finger on the trigger, before seeing another way.

In 1998, Renae turned in her badge, earned her B.A. degree in psychology, studying the underpinnings that led to her own self-destructive path and necessitated an early end to a highly successful and enjoyable career. A graduate scholarship enabled her to study at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, specifically to gain the trust and respect of the audiences she needed to change–the law enforcement community. Specializing in police psychology and police-family violence dynamics, Renae reached out to leaders in law enforcement and domestic violence to conduct research and plan a new organization to address the issues she cared about so much.

In 2002 she launched the National Police Family Violence Prevention Project and began to realize her life-long dream of finding systemic solutions to the unaddressed issues in law enforcement that often result in domestic violence and suicide. Reflecting now on her earlier career, Renae sees that her initial belief–that her career came to a premature end because of a personal inherent weakness–was erroneous. "I came to understand that I was having normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. I thought then that I was alone in my experience. I've learned that is not the case at all, and I want to share that with the thousands of other officers who are suffering needlessly, too ashamed to ask for help for fear of the ramifications. This has gone on long enough."