La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has spent nearly $20,000 on three massage chairs in an effort to help improve the physical and mental health of deputies, part of a larger effort launched in the past year to focus on overall wellness.
“It’s been a rough year for law enforcement,” said Sheriff Sean Smith. “We just want to make sure our people stay healthy so they can serve the citizens the right way.”
The price tag caught the attention of some residents.
Durango resident Jennifer Murphy said many jobs are physical, but not all jobs offer massage chairs. She also questioned whether the employees thought the money could be spent on something more effective.
“My knee-jerk reaction is, why?” she said. “I believe in caring for employees ... but there’s physical tolls with many jobs. Do they also get that?”
Smith said he has about $6,500 allocated in his budget to pursue health and wellness programs within his department. In March, he hired an employee whose part-time job is to serve as a wellness coordinator.
This past year, the Sheriff’s Office applied for and received a $12,000 grant from Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs from a fund that’s dedicated to helping law enforcement’s mental health.
And on top of that, the Sheriff’s Office unexpectedly received an additional $11,000 or so from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, from fines CPW collected and is required to pass down to local governments.
Smith decided to allocate CPW’s money to the wellness program. As a result, all told, the Sheriff’s Office had about $30,000 dedicated toward the effort, though he did not have the specific breakdown of what money went to the chairs.
Smith said he looked at other law enforcement agencies in Colorado and around the country for different ways to implement wellness programs. One reoccurring thing he came across was agencies hiring massage therapists.
Because of the 24/7, 365-day nature of police officers needing to be at the ready to respond to calls, Smith said hiring a massage therapist wouldn’t work.
So instead, he decided to purchase massage chairs, settling on the “Super Novo” massage chair made by Human Touch after consulting with a chiropractor. Because of the number of staff members, he bought three, though at a discounted price.
Other law enforcement and even military use massage chairs, Smith said.
“It’s not something I invented to be used for this purpose,” he said.
The Super Novo retails for about $10,000 each. But Smith said he was able to purchase three chairs at a cost of $6,500 each. One is placed at the La Plata County Jail, and the other two are at the Armory Building offices.
The chairs have Alexa capability, allowing users to interact with a virtual therapist, according to a product website.
“Make massage personal again by asking Virtual Therapist to give you a customized massage, and feel the smooth glide of the recline sweep you back into a perfect state of relaxation,” the website says.
A built-in sound system allows users to listen to the immersive sounds of nature.”
Smith said the chairs help deputies in multiple ways. For one, injuries, and especially back injuries, are common on the job, which requires physical work and wearing heavy vests and equipment belts.
Smith said three deputies currently have back injuries related to active duty, and one is on workers’ compensation.
Sgt. Adrian O’Haver said he suffered a serious injury in January 2019 after slipping on ice with all his gear on.
“When you’re carrying an extra 35 pounds of gear, it makes the situation that much worse,” he said.
O’Haver had to do physical therapy twice a week for about two years, on top of a private routine that included yoga, strengthening and other activities. He said the massage chairs provide relief, especially with relieving tightness and muscle guarding.
Just last week, O’Haver was cleared to return to duty.
“One of the biggest things for me was to continue this career I love,” he said. “When I was first injured, there was not a lot of hope by any of my medical providers.”
The other aspect is mental health, said Alison Brown Cole, a 30-year counselor and mental health professional who was hired as the Sheriff’s Office wellness coordinator. She also works in victims’ resources.
Brown Cole said massage chairs can help with all the stress that’s associated with police work on the streets and responding to emergencies.
“When you put on that equipment belt and you don’t know what might happen in the course of a day, that in itself is stressful,” she said. “Being able to alleviate ... that stress is really healthy.”
In the last year, police work has been put in the national spotlight, with some critics calling for reforms. One component of that movement, Smith said, is making sure officers are in the right state of mind when on the job.
Smith said the danger can be to the officers themselves, pointing out that two Sheriff’s Office deputies have died by suicide in the last 10 years.
“We’re looking at the whole officer,” he said. “And we’re trying to do everything we can to protect our people and the challenges they face.”
The massage chairs are just one piece of the wellness program, Brown Cole said.
“Like any wellness program, we provide different activities that are meant to improve the overall health of the employees,” she said.
Among the initiatives, Brown Cole said there’s a peer support team, resilience training and other educational outreach efforts, even financial assistance.
“We have a grassroots effort in the Sheriff’s Office to make sure people have a variety of activities that resonate,” she said.
Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said his department has a similar resilience program.
Though DPD doesn’t have as extensive of a fitness facility or massage chairs, he did say officers get a pass to the Durango Community Recreation Center and have access to other services that support mental and physical well-being.
“Physical fitness is extremely helpful in our job and decision-making,” he said.
Residents gave mixed reactions Friday to the purchase of massage chairs.
“I think that’s crazy,” said Durango resident Tim Robertson. “Let’s spend it on something meaningful.”
David Nichols, who lives in Bayfield, said he is supportive of measures to reduce stress for police officers, but he questioned the high price of the massage chairs.
“I realize it’s a stressful job, but is that the best use of money to prevent stress?” he said. “It sounds like a point of diminishing returns.”
Still, some residents were supportive.
“I think it’s a good thing to help with stress,” said Kathy Turner, a Durango resident. “I did (think the price was high) at first, but now that I think about it, if it would help with stress.”
Ryan Josefs, a Durango resident, said it’s up to the Sheriff’s Office to determine the best use of that money.
“It seems a little excessive, but if they have the money to spend it,” he said. “It’s a dangerous job.”
Guy Melrose, a native La Plata County resident, said it’s difficult being a police officer, especially in the past year.
“I wouldn’t want to be a cop in this day and age,” he said. “I don’t know what those guys go through every day, I can’t even imagine. If I was a cop, I’d appreciate (the massage chairs).”
Richie Feltcher, also a Durango resident, said massages are an effective way to reduce stress.
“As part of a wellness program, it’s a good addition,” he said. “It’s never been an easy job (being a cop). It’s an extremely stressful job.”
Smith said wellness programs are an evolving and growing component of internal law enforcement strategies, and he hopes to expand the program in coming years.
“I may wind up diverting more funds for wellness, it’s very important to us,” he said. “I hope it picks up and other (agencies) start to do it.”
La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham said the purchase of the massage chairs for the Sheriff’s Office was part of the wellness program and doesn’t represent inappropriate uses of county money.
Per county policy, items that cost more than $10,000 are required to go through the procurement bid process. Graham said the massage chairs went through that process.