Stevens Point Police Department leads the way in officer health

By Scott Hutchinson

Despite everything, you don’t want to be there.

It starts with a sincere handshake, an offer of a cup of coffee, a docent’s tour of thought-provoking art­work adorning the walls, and a friendly request to “make yourself comfortable.”

Fat chance. You’re in the Police Chief’s office. And you didn’t do nuthin’.

All that said, Chief Marty Skibba is a cordial host who has created a welcoming space. Speaking in quiet, measured tones, the articulate Skibba holds forth on a topic dear to his heart: the health and wellness of every officer under his command in the Stevens Point Police Department.

“As cops, we aren’t always the best at taking care of ourselves,” he said. “We tend to look out­ward, focusing on what’s coming towards us, a lot of which is pretty tough stuff. That’s the job, and it’s what you do.”

Skibba sits for an hour, doing most of the talking because that’s why we’re here, to learn about the steps his department is taking to turn a little bit of that focus inwards, so the men and women tasked with keeping a community safe can be at their best.

Because when we need a cop, perhaps during one of life’s most challenging moments, they need to be at their best, because we just might not be.

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While the incessant cliché of cops eyeing up a box of donuts within easy reach may never go away, think of this: most sedentary jobs don’t include the necessity of being able to go from a seated position to top speed in order to respond to an emergency situation that puts both body and psyche at risk.

Such stressors are not an employee norm.

And cops see a lot of things we don’t necessarily — or ever — want to see, not to mention deal with on a daily basis. Yet every officer, without exception, under­stands that witnessing trauma and devastation comes with the job.

Historically, law enforcement’s unwritten guideline for dealing with job stress was to suck it up and move on. The limitations of that mantra have long been known, but it takes time to move a needle and change a culture.

That’s the goal of the SPPD wellness program.

And while he’s quick to point out the resolute efforts of previous department members that laid the groundwork for the program as it exists today, Skibba’s unrelenting advocacy for the squad’s physical and mental well-be­ing is noteworthy.

Additionally, there’s a giant stuffed elephant draped over the couch in his office, the plush embodiment of the Chief’s desire to always acknowledge the difficult, the painful, even the horrific, and let such things breathe.

“No matter how challenging your day is today, you need to come back tomorrow and confront that day,” he says.

Now there’s a mantra with immense potential for law enforcement, a group as strong and tight as they come.

Enter Advanced Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine’s Traci Tauferner, the long-time coordinator of the Department’s wellness program, who joins the discussion.

“This Department is definitely strong and tight, but it needs to be strong and flexible,” quips Tauferner.

Coming from an athletic trainer, the statement undoubtedly refers to the value of muscle pliability, but it also does double duty. Cops are not the easiest group in which to insert oneself, and that kind of inflexibility is exactly what Tauferner had to overcome to establish the program. Only with trust could there be acceptance, rel­evancy, success.

She would need to convince a decidedly insular group — the thin blue line — that she was on their side.

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To get a sense of the current state of the SPPD offi­cer wellness program, just follow Tauferner to her office.

It’s a long journey, but not because the office is located in a far corner of the facility away from any serious foot traffic. That was in the old days. The trek to her office is actually quite short, as it sits smack dab in the center of the stationhouse.

It takes a while because there is a conversation between Tauferner and EVERY member of the depart­ment she bumps into, and that is no small number on this Wisconsin winter morning.

Tauferner’s experience working with tactical groups – police, firefighters, paramedics — puts her in the unique position of understanding the challenges these groups face as well as being able to do something about them. Every wellness program must be tailored to a group’s needs and, just as important, budget. At SPPD, the initial program was based primarily around fitness assessments that provide indicators for potential phys­ical issues.

These assessments proved crucial in a number of ways:

  • Provide data. It’s one thing to have an idea that a group of officers might benefit from better fitness routines and habits. It’s quite another to have quantitative measures for every individual that can be used to predict and mitigate injury risk.
  • Create a different mindset. Implementing a work­place wellness program can help shift attitudes and get officers to recognize the importance of self-care.
  • Start a conversation. A group admittedly weak at caring for itself, cops need to be healthy in order to perform essential tasks and meet citizen expectations. Having an onsite, consistent support presence increases opportunities to get physical and emotional challenges out in the open and addressed.

The success with fitness testing led to program enhancements such as onsite rehab. Tauferner’s bread and butter are strength and conditioning interventions, which she provides to officers on an as-needed basis. Could be an officer experiencing a hitch in their giddy-up, or someone who needs help rehabbing after surgery. Perhaps it’s an ergonomic issue, where a computer needs to be moved or a chair requires an adjustment to provide relief.

Such visits often begin with the hope that a nagging pain can be addressed. This opens the door, providing an opportunity to broach other issues and bring them to light.

If Tauferner gets the call to work on a tight quad with ultrasound, cupping or instrument assisted soft tissue mobilizations, she knows this is the perfect time to make a few inquiries. And if that call isn’t made, officers still have required fitness testing three times a year.

“Many of the officers don’t see their primary care phy­sician, so three times a year I am able to check in on their health, their blood pressure, their heart rate, their flexibility,” says Tauferner. “It’s an opportunity to start a conversation and suggest some help.”

To emphasize the point, Tauferner relates the story of a firefighter complaining of heartburn. No biggie he says, and he’s ready to shrug it off. Tauferner tells him to sit down so she can take his blood pressure. It mea­sures 180/110.

“I suggest you go to the ER right now,” says Tauferner.

Turned out the officer was having a heart attack and had arterial blockage in the left anterior descending artery commonly known by another name: “the wid­owmaker.” Following a flight for life, open heart surgery was immediately performed.

The officer frequently thanks Tauferner for her life-saving abilities; she points to the flight crew and hospital staff who provided care. Though minimizing her role in the outcome, she is a serious advocate for the testing she performs.

“He had symptoms that were questionable, and the assessment confirmed it,” says Tauferner.

And it all starts with a conversation.

She spots an approaching figure, laughs.

“That’s the belt guy I was telling you about,” she says, loud enough for Detective Lieutenant Bob Kussow to hear. “He’s put on some weight.”

Time to start another conversation.

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In charge of the detective bureau, Bob Kussow oversees the work of SPPD detectives: two narcotics detectives, a white-collar crime detective, a general investigator and a sensitive crimes detective. Starting at SPPD as a patrol officer, Kussow would later work in sensitive crimes, then as a school resource officer, back to patrol as a supervisor, and from there in administra­tion in charge of training, auxiliary and K-9.

“Yeah, I met Traci when she first started a weight loss competition here. That first year I actually kept adding holes to my belt because I was losing weight pretty good,” says Kussow. “Had a bit of a setback this year.”

Prior to his “setback,” Kussow made some changes: improved eating habits (subject to change), the addition of cardio to workouts consisting mainly of lifting, run­ning a few 5Ks, the adoption of a more open mindset (“I gotta do something about this”).

And he stuck with those changes for the most part, until an injury last year.

A member of the Department’s SWAT team for 18 years, Kussow was no stranger to the yearly training drills done with other law enforce­ment agencies at Fort McCoy. As he was looking to transition out of SWAT, the 2019 training session was to be Kussow’s last.

He made sure of that with a single jump.

The two-day session starts with an obstacle course, one Kussow had conquered many times before. You can see where this is headed.

“Of all the equipment we did, walls we scaled, all that stuff, this was a four-foot wall that you jump over and land in a ditch on the other side. The easiest thing, really,” he says.

Kussow stuck the landing and tore the meniscus right off the bone. He’d continue the course, which ended with a long stretch of monkey bars and a signif­icant drop. His compatriots knew Kussow was hurting and were there to help him finish the course.

Following surgery to reattach the meniscus to his right knee, it was six weeks before Kussow could put any pressure on it. He then began seeing a physical therapist three times a week, and Tauferner worked with him on the other two days upon his return to SPPD for modified duty.

Goal number one for Tauferner was to help Kussow get back range of motion. Working in concert with Kussow’s surgeon, Tauferner pushed him to get back to where he needed to be. Tauferner was, in the words of Kussow, pretty tough.

Credit her military background. Or her vast knowl­edge of strength and conditioning interventions. Either way, Kussow was getting back to full strength.

At the time of his interview, Kussow was almost 21 weeks out from surgery and way ahead of schedule. Tauferner put Kussow through testing he had to pass before he was cleared to return to full duty, tests which included lifting weights, running and jumping fences.

He finds himself in a good spot now, and he credits the support system that SPPD has in place.

“You can tell that the physical and mental health of the squad is very important to the Chief,” says Kussow. “And in order to have good mental health, you have to have good physical health.”

Just down the hallway from Tauferner’s office is a well-equipped gym providing easy access to tread­mills, weights and other workout equipment — mostly donated — for officers to use before or after shifts as needed, to get the adrenaline out after a tough day.

Another program enhancement, and another oppor­tunity, to change the culture.

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When starting a program, initial conversations about wellness tend to be broad in scope. Chief Skibba has been around long enough to see the trajectory of the program at SPPD and how those conversations have changed.

“We might have begun with a general notion of getting officers in better shape, say, how many push-ups or sit-ups can you do?” says Skibba. “But with Traci’s help and fresh set of eyes, we were on a track to take things to the next level.”

That means bringing relevancy to testing by looking at job requirements. Instead of a test that simply measures running speed, you measure the length of your high school to find out how far an officer would need to run in order to clear a school. Instead of a simple climbing test, you find the city ordinances that specify how high the fences are that officers must be able to climb. And you factor in the amount of gear that is worn.

“Now we have testing that is relevant to what our com­munity expects officers to be able to do,” says Skibba.

Tauferner speaks to the trajectory of the fitness test­ing as well, the initial focus of which was the Functional Functional Fitness assessment, which tests body com­position, waist circumference, functional movement, and cardio.

In the early stages, Tauferner conducted the assess­ment four times per year, and there were a lot of below average scores on the exams, which indicated a need for improved levels of fitness. Over the course of the program scores have improved significantly, so much so that Tauferner recommended reduc­ing the number of times per year the test was given.

With the betterment of scores, new questions arise: Are we satisfied with where we’re at? What steps can we take to get to the next level of improvement? Are there other factors we need to consider?

With SPPD, Tauferner also utilizes a Functional Movement Screen (FMS), a test first widely used in the military to assess basic body movements to ensure service members would be able to perform assigned military duties. A test with obvious crossover capa­bilities for other tactical groups, FMS identifies strong predictors of future injury risk — deficiencies in balance, core stability, flexibility, and mobility — through a series of specific movements.

Used in concert with physical fitness testing, the FMS is key to developing appropriate and effective injury pre­vention programs, Tauferner said.

The relationship between Tauferner and the SPPD that began a decade ago set the stage for a more com­prehensive program that would better meet the needs of a growing community with the concerns that affect cities across the country regardless of size.

Police departments are addressing an ever-grow­ing number of issues. Coupled with the expectation of digital world response times, this equates to increas­ing responsibility and greater workloads, underscoring the importance of keeping injuries to a minimum and quickly and safely returning those injured to their posts.

To meet those needs, the SPPD officer wellness pro­gram includes the following:

  • Early access to care for injured officers
  • Onsite rehabilitation
  • Strength & conditioning coaching
  • Return to work testing for injured officers
  • Post-offer employment testing (POET)
  • Fitness center for workouts prior to or following shifts
  • Daily voluntary stretching program
  • Access to orthopedic services within 48 hours

Tauferner stresses the importance of each program component to act as a touchstone with Department members, as well as to contribute to a culture of well­ness. It’s this mindset that continues to drive the program, putting the Department in the position of knowing exactly when an officer is ready to take care of the community in whatever fashion is needed.

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As with anything funded by tax dollars, you better be able to show a return on your investment. Skibba is con­fident the Department is being fiscally responsible with the wellness program.

Nonetheless, some will ask why such a program is necessary.

While corporate health and wellness programs are common practice in businesses, the same is not the case in the law enforcement world, where such support is crucial. Yet across the country, many police depart­ments are resistant to such trends.

In many cases, decision-makers need to spearhead such initiatives. Skibba asserts there has a been a long history of such leadership at SPPD. He feels the pro­gram is well-established and has momentum.

He adds another item of note.

“Job injuries have gone down considerably,” Skibba said. “The savings from that perspective alone are considerable.”

Skibba credits Tauferner with elevating the program to where it is now, and Kussow agrees.

“Traci has been the inspiration to get the Department on a healthier track,” Kussow said.

Tauferner is back in the hallway, engaging with her team, trading barbs, asking what’s up, offering the highly sought after let’s see what we can do, getting to as many officers as she can. She moves quickly; time is of the essence.

“It’s important to not waste time, because every minute I spend with an officer, that’s less time for them on the road,” she said. “Taxpayers are paying for all of our services, so we need to be mindful of how we can make those dollars go the furthest and be put to the best use.”

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NOTE: A proud NOVO Health Partner, Advanced Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine specializes in onsite therapy services, injury prevention, job site analysis and first aid to decrease OSHA recordable events.