Spotlight: Justin Hesse, The Cops’ Coach

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: Thanks for clicking into another Spotlight. Today we’re talking to Justin Hesse, The Cops’ Coach, and owner of Blue Line Fitness. Justin has been in law enforcement since 2014 and is currently a part-time Four Seasons Water Patrol Deputy in Minnesota. He founded Blue Line Fitness after learning that law enforcement is more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, a statistic we’ve been struggling with for far too long. He has been a fitness and nutrition coach since 2016 and has coached over 75 first responders in the last two years.

Today, we’re talking about how the lack of energy impacts first responders’ personal and professional lives and how their negative environment can affect the same. He wants you to know that you can be happy in your health, fitness, personal, and professional life even while working as a first responder.

Justin, thanks for hopping on.

Justin: Glad to be here.

Caroline: Let’s start with your journey. How did you come into law enforcement and then your mission?

Justin: I’m not sure about everybody, but I thought being a cop was cool when I was watching my favorite show, NCIS back with Leeroy Jethro Gibbs for those NCIS fans.

Caroline: Those were the good episodes.

Justin: Yeah, now you can’t even recognize the cast. But I thought that looked cool. It’s something new every day, they’re catching bad guys, being the hero… So, I attended Alexandria Technical College in Minnesota and I graduated in 2012. My first duty station, my first cop job, was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was there for a short time because I wasn’t a good fit; I didn’t pass FTO.

I worked a couple of part-time jobs before I landed a full-time police officer job in Redwing Minnesota. If the name Redwing sounds familiar — some people know Redwing Boots — it’s just the motherland. It’s right near the Mississippi, a nice little river town.

I worked that for like five years while also being in the Minnesota National Guard as a military police sergeant. I’ve been doing that for over ten years.

Caroline: That’s excellent. On your Blue Line Fitness page, you mention that it was 2020 when you started hearing about the suicide rates in law enforcement. Of course, it’s across all first responder categories, but let’s talk about how that impacted you.

Justin: So, just like every department, you have a Use of Force Training annually, right? My training officer at the time, Cory, had also just gotten into peer support. Peer support was very new in our department. He shared a staggering statistic. I think the numbers went up [since] because he shared it in January of 2020, reflecting on 2019.

I could be butchering some of the stats but [there were] about 140-150 line-of-duty deaths – majority of them by gunfire – while there were 230 reported suicides in 2019. Of course, we emphasize reported because whether it’s by department, a life-insurance policy thing where someone doesn’t get benefits, a region where a faith believes you don’t go to heaven because of suicide, or whatever… Some people will just say it was natural causes, right, so that number could be way higher.

What was staggering to me was that we spend all this time and training (use-of-force training) for that small percentage where we could get into a gunfight, go hands-on, car approaches, building approaches, all this stuff but we don’t want to talk about suicide or prevention.

So, I just felt like something needed to change. I feel like a lot of departments have taken great strides in the last couple years, getting contracts with therapists or therapy groups. For people who will actually use that kind of service, that’s great, talk therapy’s an actual thing. But I also know just from my colleagues, that you have to do one check-up from the neck up.

This person’s going to do a ride-along with you for like 60 minutes. As an officer, if you’re just going to choose to talk about the weather or just make small talk to check the box, then are you actually getting the help that you need? Or is that one conversation even going to be life-changing? Perhaps, but for me, with just my personal training, my health and fitness, I knew we could use this for mental health.

Some people think Justin’s working out because he wants juicy muscles, six-pack abs, and the attention. I don’t know how many times I was just stressed out to the max from work, or I’m just fuming and I just need to get this out of my system so I don’t take it home to my wife.

So that was in January of 2020. We know what happened later: COVID, Floyd happened (that happened 50 miles from where I was working), and then a nationwide police reform. We can see the effects that happen there. 

Caroline: Absolutely.

Justin: I knew that there were physical and mental hurdles for law enforcement officers, but when you see that stat that you’re more likely to kill yourself than get killed in the line of duty… that was staggering to me.

Caroline: I think people don’t really appreciate the meaning behind those statistics. And the thing is, those statistics are from studies that are years old. None of those studies are from data reported – and I’m by no means the authority on this but – none of these studies have been completed and reported and put out to the public post-COVID. So, there’s got to be more, we don’t want there to be more, but there’s probably more.

As you said, it’s just those that are reported. How many times do people either not admit to the fact of what happened or they just don’t want to report it officially on paper because of benefits or beliefs and other things like that?

It is a staggering thing to come to grips with and I think one of the hardest things is for people as  a community to get together and say, “What can we do about this?” How can we convince first responders – in your case, law enforcement, though I know you help others outside of law enforcement as well – but how do we reach those groups in a way that they’ll be willing to participate?

Talk about how your outreach has been. Instead of saying, “Hey, I’m going to do talk therapy to help you feel better,” you say, “Let’s talk fitness.” Talk about that approach and how it’s been different.

Justin: Right away, it’s about what is going to help you. I just did a simple post saying, “What are you doing as a first responder to relieve job stress?” It’s got almost over 200 comments right now. We’re finding new ways other than just talking. Gym therapy, going out for hikes, especially in summer getting out in nature.

I can’t remember where I heard it from, but it’s very therapeutic: If you hear the noise of birds that means the predators are away. It’s almost ingrained, getting out in nature, listening to birds, walking in the trees, getting sun…

Take vitamin D for instance. It’s a huge booster for your immune system and energy. For night shifters or if you’re in a state like Minnesota in the winter, you don’t have much access to the sun. People can be in poor moods or their energy may be down. Get outside in the sun or walk your dogs.

Establish a routine of doing something with your activity level to help you lose the gut, get stronger on the street, and increase your stamina so you’re not winded climbing a flight of stairs, chasing your kids, or dealing with a suspect.

Right away, it’s meeting them where they’re at to get the small wins to build upon. Then get them from what they need – strength and conditioning protocols that are going to help them survive on the street – to also look good in a bathing suit or fit into the jeans they want that are collecting dust in the closet.

Caroline: Yes. You know it’s more appealing, especially to those who are not trying to look like they need help. They don’t want to admit that there are stressors going on and they’re having a hard time dealing with something. They’ve got that I’m-strong-enough-to-deal-with-it kind of mentality. That’s across all walks of first responder life.

The idea is that this kind of therapy is not traditional therapy, not talk therapy. “I’m going to go work out. Justin’s going to help me get into shape. There’s going to be a dietary plan so I have rules, it’s regulated. I can follow orders and do this and it’s going to help me.” It’s something more physical.

In a type of job where everything is physical, and they don’t talk very much about the mental aspect, it’s nice to have a therapy where you get to feel better and it relieves a lot of stress. Working out is a therapy and I think that’s great.

Do you have any particular success stories?

Justin: Yeah, I’ve got several.

Recently, I’ve had one person who’s been married for about three years and had gained over 50 pounds. A breaking point for her was looking at her wedding photo. She saw her mom, and her mom is a little bigger. She knew if she continued down that path, she might have the health complications of her mom. And she also couldn’t put her wedding ring back on.

Now, she’s been working with me for three months. She’s not only down 20 pounds, but she went from a size 14 to a size eight pants and they’re baggy and she can wear her wedding ring again. She’s looking forward to Savage next year; it’s like a Tough Mudder race.

Another example is a retired commander from a sheriff’s office in Minnesota. Her struggles were about [deciding] what’s next once she retired. What was she working toward? Her identity was missing. With all her free time, she could just snack all day. She’s the type of person who would work out five days a week and track macros. She’s by the book, but because of all that boredom and no one holding her accountable, she started putting on belly fat and she didn’t like that.

Now, she lost about ten pounds in two months, but she’s lost about twice as much body fat as her normal weight. More important is what it’s given her. She had these goal jeans and now they’re too baggy. So, now she’s going out to buy clothes that are smaller than what she anticipated. And she gets to have her alcoholic drinks on the weekend. She said, “Justin, I’m retired. I want to be able to have my cocktails on the weekend.” She gets to enjoy that.

Those are a few success stories.

I also want to mention other things that help with the stress: deep breathing and meditation. When you’re stressed, you’re [not breathing correctly.]

I’ve started doing cold water plunging or cold water exposure. I put myself in an ice water bath and my brain is like, “This sucks. Get me out of this.” I start using my breath to calm myself down. Your body will recognize stress whether it’s in cold water, a heated confrontation with a suspect, or it’s a crucial conversation with your spouse. More naturally now, whether I’m stressed about [any of that], I can do a deep inhale, deep exhale… I can do that deep breathing and it helps.

Caroline: Interesting. I’ve heard about cold water exposure before. That’s interesting that you can teach your body to breathe through the stress. So, when your body does encounter stress whether it’s a confrontation or other unpleasant exposure, you can regulate your breathing and calm yourself down. I like that; that’s good.

Do you see any other ways we should be reaching out to our first responders to help lower this statistic of suicide rate? 

Justin: Well, I’d say first people have to stop thinking that asking for help kills a career. There’s some cops I’ve talked to in the last six months that felt that if they were to admit to this that they’d be on desk duty or admin leave. But what’s more important, to do that and be able to live the life you want or go the other way? I think we need to take ownership.

As first responders, we’re so used to helping others. As a cop, you’re running toward the gunfire of a school shooting. That’s not normal. In human behavior, that’s not normal. It’s not normal to run into a burning building if you’re a firefighter; that’s not normal. It’s not normal, if you’re a dispatcher, to hear someone on the other end of the phone that might get murdered by their spouse because there’s a domestic and you’re hearing the screeching and crying. We don’t deal with normal behavior. We try to put on this armor like knights. And we think that accepting that help will make us appear weak. We say, “I don’t need it,” or, “That won’t happen to me.” It’s denial.

I do all the little things – the workouts, the meditation – so that if I ever got to that point, it’s better I start taking steps now. It’s a well-rounded, holistic approach. It’s not just so you can physically look better in the mirror. That helps; it’s confidence for sure, but it’s more well-rounded. But to reach those who need the help, true leadership in a department needs to take ownership and not put it on the officers.

Caroline: Absolutely.

Justin: I talked to a police chief one time. He didn’t want to make it mandatory for his officers to work out. He wanted them to have the option to do it themselves. As a staff sergeant in the army, I have a squad of soldiers. Let’s say I’m ready for deployment. If I’m not on my soldiers to pass physical requirements and I go down on the battlefield and someone can’t drag me to safety, I did a disservice to myself. I did a disservice to them.

True leadership in departments takes the hands-on approach; they don’t leave it up to the officers. Instead of making the officers or firefighters take it out of their own pocket, they make a contract so they’re taking a proactive approach. Departments are scared that they can’t make it a job requirement. You can’t say if you fail this fitness test, you lose your job.

One department in Minnesota does a fantastic job. They incentivize if you do pass, free vacation time. Cops want their off time. If you don’t pass, nothing happens to you, but if you do pass, you get more vacation time.

Caroline: Positive reinforcement.

Justin: They have a culture where crews are going together for group workouts.

Caroline: That’s fantastic. Incentivizing the positive encourages them to go for it and achieve those goals instead of penalizing those who don’t reach those goals. While in many cases a certain fitness level is mandatory to keep a job, this is giving an incentive to the workout itself. It says, “We highly encourage you to do this to keep your body fit.”

Also, if your body is fit and able, you’re going to do better at your job, you’re going to do a better job supporting your coworkers, officers, firefighters, or EMS. It’s about supporting one another. Clearly, if I’m going to be a police officer, I should be able to climb that fence or run that distance. There’s certainly an amount of physical fitness that you need to be a police officer, a firefighter, and even in EMS you have to be able to lift a certain amount or you can’t be on the truck. That’s just how it is.

So, why don’t we have a certain amount of mental requirements as well? Or we could incentivize getting checked, following up, and getting that resiliency in place so that when it does hit the fan you’re ready. You’ve trained mentally or you know what to do in order to cope with it if needed.

Change the idea that the hero doesn’t need help. Realistically, we’re still human.

Justin: Yes.

Caroline: That’s the moral of the story, folks. We’re still human. We’ve got to get everyone to that understanding and I think the next generation is kind of there compared to us older folks. You need to take care of yourself if you want to take care of others. You can’t take care of others if you’re crying on the floor alone at home or hitting the bottle or doing other things that are dangerous to your own well-being.

Justin: One hundred percent, yeah, and it all starts from leadership. That one department I was speaking about, that chief is fit. He pushes it on to his admin, those captains, and lieutenants. So now it’s almost abnormal if you’re a crew and you’re the lazy one.

It’s about taking responsibility and nipping the limiting beliefs that you don’t have time or motivation. Those are just limiting beliefs. Be responsible for the language coming out of your mouth because if you’re going to talk that way you can be a liability to yourself, your partners, and other officers and their families.

Caroline: And new trainees. We want to start them off by enforcing that positivity, self-care, and responsibility.

Justin: One hundred percent.

Caroline: Justin, do you have anything else to add that we didn’t cover?

Justin: I’ll just add what I say to my students. You can be happy as a first responder. You can live a thriving, fulfilling life with your health, your fitness, and your family life. Gain that support and be around people that believe in that. Don’t only hang around those with a negative view or only talk about work. It all starts with one small step at a time.

In the health and fitness world, it’s more than instant gratification and the quickest result. You overestimate what you can get done in two weeks but underestimate what you can get done in two months. You can also overestimate what you can do in two months or underestimate what you can do in two seasons. Play the long game and, to site Atom Habits, just get 1% better every day.

You probably have enough information about exercise and nutrition, it’s beaten down our throats, it’s just the implementation of how to do it. Sometimes our own self-talk, limiting beliefs, our own words get in the way. So, start with something, because at the end of the day, it’s going to be worth it. It may not seem like it’s a problem now, but you don’t want it to build up over five or ten years and be much harder [to deal with] down the road.

Caroline: Absolutely, that’s sage advice from the Cop’s Coach. Thank you very much, Justin, for joining us on this Spotlight.

Justin: For sure.

Caroline: We’re very glad to have you working with us at First Responder Coaching as one of our coaches as well as doing your own work at Blue Line Fitness. We look forward to seeing what else we produce together.

Justin: Thank you, Caroline.

Caroline: Everyone can check out Justin’s Blue Line Fitness Facebook Group which has more on the same and is a great community to join. Justin’s mission is not just about fitness but the whole person. It’s about dealing with stress in a healthy manner that builds better living habits and helps you get where you want to be not only physically but mentally.

As always, if you want more information on that or you think you’re ready to start going after your own goals, reach out. We’re here for you.