From the Police Beat to the Halls of Academia: Building A Better Police Department
Every officer in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) is trained to create trust between the community and the Department. For most officers, that goal informs how they perform their jobs. For Dr. Jeff Thompson that goal provided the foundation for his career.
Dr. Thompson is a 17 year veteran of law enforcement and serves as a Detective with the NYPD. His experience ranges from public relations to hostage negotiations, but that isn’t all he is. Dr. Thompson is also a PhD and an Adjunct Associate Research Scientist at the Molecular Imaging and Neuropathology Division of the Columbia University Department Psychiatry.
It was in the NYPD’s Community Affairs bureau where he gained an interest in not just the relationship between the Department and the community, but the science between understanding human behavior.
“In Community Affairs, you got to experience two ends of the extreme, daily positive interactions but also when things are pretty tense, being able to use communication to defuse the situation,” said Dr. Thompson. “I realized that this stuff works and I wanted to understand what made it work. That’s what started me down the academic path.”
A desire to learn more about the communication and de-escalation techniques being used in policing took Jeff to the world of academia. He began with a masters in conflict resolution from Creighton University which eventually led to a Doctorate from Griffith University in Australia while researching the development of rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism during conflict situations.
Throughout this process he continued to serve as an officer and as a detective in the NYPD and he began to think more about how to apply these skills more broadly to police work.
“When I was working in hostage negotiation, I realized that there is a certain amount of skills that only these people in the department have to work with people to ensure the person in crisis does not harm themselves or others,” said Dr. Thompson. “And I thought, why are we limiting these skills to only a single unit?” After his experience in the Hostage Negotiation Team, he worked with the department to develop Crisis Intervention Training for patrol officers so they too can be trained in these techniques to deescalate tense and potentially volatile situations.
As Dr. Thompson continued to apply what he was learning about mental health to the NYPD’s relations with the community, he realized they weren’t doing enough for themselves.
“We do a damn good job of protecting the public when they’re in a mental health crisis, what are we doing for ourselves and each other? Police officers are human beings too and we deserve to have positive mental health.”
As the Department’s first Mental Health and Wellness Coordinator, Dr. Thompson led the way in designing and launching a peer support program, which has already trained over 300 officers to better look after themselves and their fellow officers. He also created a resilience training based on four pillars: awareness, health, purpose, and positivity. By basing practical exercises around these pillars, such as breathing exercises which remind you that you have control over yourself, he helped create a way for officers to find ways throughout the day to address the stresses of the job and at home.
“Everything I do is in collaboration with external groups, such as universities and non-profits, to ensure its based in best practices,” says Dr. Thompson. “Because with this kind of work you can’t be winging it. It needs to be grounded in research and data.”
It was his effort to use research and data for his work which led him to Columbia University. “I’ve had a great career,” said Dr. Thompson. “And one of the things that always makes me smile is that when I wanted an academic affiliation for the work I was doing my eyes were fixated on Columbia, nowhere else.”
Working together with Columbia Psychiatry’s Dr. J. John Mann on suicide prevention, Dr. Thompson is looking for new ways to help first responders and civilians alike to respond to the stresses of their lives in a positive and productive way with simple, easy to use take-aways from their research.
Ultimately, he is convinced that his work supporting a better NYPD will make for a better city for all of us.
“The way I look at it, helping people be better individuals that happen to be police officers make them better at their job. Now when you take the individuals and multiply it by all the officers, it makes a better agency. And that makes it easier for the agency to better serve the public. It is in everybody’s interests for police officers to be mentally healthy.”