The St. Paul Police Department presented a new initiative this week mandating annual wellness checks with a therapist for all sworn staff, joining a growing list of Minnesota agencies in a broader quest to help cops navigate the daily stressors of their profession.

Chief Todd Axtell said the move comes on the heels of a "terrible year" battling the coronavirus pandemic, widespread unrest following the killing of George Floyd and unprecedented scrutiny of law enforcement. That, coupled with historic levels of gun violence in the Twin Cities, has taken a mental toll on the workforce.

"Officers, by nature, are used to putting others first," Axtell said in an interview. "And sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves."

Starting in January, all 630 St. Paul officers will begin scheduling annual consults that coincide with their physical fitness tests.

The department chose to partner with Ellie Family Services and the Professional Recovery Organization, whose employees are trained in counseling first responders and understand the collateral hazards of police work. The St. Paul Police Foundation is funding the endeavor.

To put officers at ease, the visits are confidential — and often involve no written records. One-hour sessions occur on-duty and allow officers to discuss any topic they wish, including personal struggles outside work.

In an e-mail to staff Monday, Axtell assured his rank-and-file that the consults are not meant as a "fitness for duty" assessment, but rather a first step toward connecting them to vital resources.

"As a community, we ask officers to be strong and sometimes guarded. For an hour a year, I'm asking them to be vulnerable," Axtell, who volunteered to take the first appointment, said. "In the end, it will make us more resilient."

Departments in West St. Paul, Blaine and Plymouth each developed similar programs in recent years. Shortly after taking office, Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson also started a wellness support program after seeing how trauma affected some cops in his previous job with Metro Transit police, and how problems often went unaddressed because of a culture that demands officers "suck it up."

A deep stigma remains among law enforcement that keeps police from asking for help to avoid appearing weak, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

"That's changing, but probably not quickly enough," he said. "Mandatory wellness checks ensure that police officers will get the help they need — whether they think they need it or not."

In Minneapolis, leaders are preparing an expansion of mental health services for the city's beleaguered police force. Under a pilot program starting next year, the city will cover 10 counseling sessions for officers, no questions asked.

Since the May riots following Floyd's death, dozens of officers have resigned or retired early and more than 120 remain on medical leave, many related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To replenish MPD's ranks, a divided City Council approved a $500,000 plan last week to contract with outside agencies that can help respond to 911 calls.

Meanwhile, five St. Paul officers are now seeking disability benefits, which also involve PTSD claims. Last year there were only three, said police spokesman Steve Linders.

Top brass hope the new initiative will expand on St. Paul's Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which encourages officers to seek therapeutic support even when they're not facing a critical incident like a police shooting.

Roughly one in five officers already take advantage of EAP services, said Sgt. Brian Casey, who oversees the program.

"Police work is not for the meek and requires both armor and agility," Casey said in an e-mail. "Cops are tough. ... But some have turned their pain volume down or muted their alarm systems."

That can have implications for an officer's work performance and personal relationships, he said. For officers who have been reluctant to discuss their troubles in the past, mandatory wellness consults might be "a nudge, which could be lifesaving, or marriage-saving, or career-saving."

Staff writers Libor Jany and Liz Navratil contributed to this report.

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648