April 25, 2024

Police Wellness Coordinator Earns Doctorate in Pursuit of Improving Mental Health Services

VBPD hired Jessica Huffman in 2023 to work with officers to address their mental health needs.

Police Wellness Coordinator Jessica Huffman

Jessica Huffman knew what she was signing up for — 30 to 40 hours per week of schooling, various courses and teaching assignments, as well as a whole lot of writing.

But in the end, she knew it mattered. Not just to her, but to those she serves.

Huffman, the police wellness coordinator for the Virginia Beach Police Department (VBPD), saw her efforts bear fruit this month. The three-year process of earning her doctorate in counselor education and supervision from Old Dominion University came to an end on April 8, when Huffman successfully defended her dissertation.

With that behind her, the real work begins — supporting and improving the mental health of law enforcement officers. Since joining VBPD in December 2023, Jessica has focused on building the future of mental health within the department.

“Roles in law enforcement for clinicians really don’t exist in this way,” Huffman said. “It’s very new. My hope is we can create a bigger community that supports law enforcement, whether it be people providing one-on-one therapy, teaching workshops or courses, or however we can best collaborate.”

VBPD hired Huffman to take a proactive approach in supporting officers and staff. Huffman is a licensed professional counselor through the Virginia Department of Health, giving VBPD personnel direct access to a mental health clinician to help them process the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Huffman’s forward-thinking in the mental health field directly influenced her dissertation, which explored collaboration between mental health clinicians and Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officers. CIT is an ever-important tool for law enforcement officers responding to mental health emergencies in the field.

“We all need to have opportunities to build a better understanding of what our roles are,” Huffman said. “I’ve experienced it, and people from the field tell me it can turn into this clash of who is right, who has authority, when we all just have a lot of pride in our jobs. We can’t help if we aren’t able to understand each other.”

Aside from offering direct support to officers and professional staff, Huffman plans on using her doctorate to ensure law enforcement agencies have a seat at the table when hammering out mental health policies.

“Ultimately, I think it’s really unfair that we call on law enforcement and first responders to be the catch all,” Huffman said. “They’re already there for everyone’s worst days. The resources available for law enforcement are mostly themselves. I want to do what I can to advocate for more support, access and capacity in those areas.”

Police Chief Paul Neudigate hired Huffman while she was in the doctorate process, seeing the value of having an in-house clinician to support VBPD officers.

“We’re incredibly proud of Jessica’s work,” Neudigate said. “VBPD is committed to support the physical and mental well-being of our staff. First responders face many challenges in the field, some of which are historically handled within. Our hope is to destigmatize those challenges and offer effective resources to support our people and keep VBPD on the forefront of officer wellness.”

Despite being the mental health expert in the department, Huffman is taking a collaborative approach on building the future of officer wellness in VBPD. She says that an effective officer wellness program is key to the future of law enforcement, as it supports recruiting, retention and better investigative outcomes.

“My vision is to build this collaboratively with the leadership and officers to give the department what it needs,” Huffman said. “It’s not just based on what I think from research, but rather bolstering it with the knowledge and professional experiences of those practicing law enforcement on a daily basis.”

If you’re interested in being part of a team committed to being on the cutting edge of officer wellness, VBPD is actively recruiting the next generation of law enforcement. Learn more about how you can join VBPD today at police.virginiabeach.gov/careers.

Contact Information

Police - Public Affairs Office

Keep Reading

See All Posts