Continual exposure to sudden life-and-death experiences, human suffering, and the frustration of strictly codified responses to violence, injury, and insult creates a unique set of potentially debilitating psychological stimuli often referred to as “police stress.”
During everyday activities, whether on duty or off, the police officer is exposed to a higher than average number of life-threatening activities that precipitate sudden activation of the fight-or-jlight mechanism within the physiology of the human body. Unlike the average citizen, the police officer often does not have the option of flight, which normally provides both escape and relief from the stress of confrontation. Chronic exposure to this accelerated physiological state and the subsequent release of body chemistry designed to stimulate mental acuity and body defense mechanisms has been clinically shown to produce mental health-related disabilities such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and general anxiety disorder. As a result, increased numbers of cases of dysfunctional marital and family relationships, suicides, chemical addictions, and personality disorders are prevalent among police officers.
Additional factors that exacerbate the detrimental effects of police stress upon the officer include poor diet and eating habits stemming from frequent motor patrol assignments, disrupted sleep patterns resulting from around-the-clock shift work, the strict discipline inherent in a paramilitary work environment, and frequent displays of disrespect offered by offender and citizen alike.
An important factor that aggravates the identification of police officers whose work product and quality of life are negatively affected by police stress is an archaic belief that officers with stress-related disorders must be relieved of duty. In recent years, more departments have developed enlightened policies on the management of police stress and the treatment of officers from both a preventative and rehabilitative aspect. Many departments now mandate psychological debriefings or de-stressing sessions after an officer is involved in a high-stress incident, such as an officer-involved shooting (OIS), the loss of a partner, or response to a high-order disaster such as the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. Many police officers are particularly affected by incidents involving small children who are victims of heinous or brutal crimes.
The life partner of a police officer can be particularly helpful in identifying symptoms of police stress and in making sure that professional treatment is obtained in a timely fashion. Symptoms of mental health issues caused by police stress include nightmares and disturbed sleep patterns, restlessness, avoidance of activities previously enjoyed by the person, withdrawal from social interaction, uncharacteristic outbursts of anger, increase in blood pressure and pulse rate not due to underlying medical conditions, excessive work absences due to nonspecific illnesses, weepiness and melancholy, and an unusual preoccupation with death and dying.
A mental health professional can be very effective in treating police stress-related disabilities. Through the introduction of analysis, cognitive changes, and the use of psychotropic medications, the mental health practitioner can often reverse the ill effects of police-related stress and restore the individual’s quality of life to a normal level. The education of police practitioners and those who command police departments is a key factor in the recognition and prevention of new police stress cases.
While many modern police administrators embrace community policing as a method of lowering crime rates within their commands, the concentration on police accountability inherent in the practice has recently become a major source of police stress, with ramifications for top-level commanders and administrators as well as front-line personnel. For example, the press reported that the use of the Compstat program (an accountability process driven by computer mapping of problem areas) within the auspices of the New York City Police Department apparently led to the death of at least one precinct commander who experienced a fatal coronary event in preparation for his appearance before the Compstat board. When a precinct commander fails to meet the expectations of such a board, the trickle-down effect to executive officers, supervisors, and the rank and file is palpable. The resulting stress affects each person in various ways and degrees.
On the positive side, other results of community policing practice may have an ameliorating influence on police stress. The reinstitution of such classic police techniques as foot patrol and bicycle patrol have healthy side effects for police officers by providing increased opportunity for aerobic exercise, a medically accepted antidote to stress, and the concomitant benefit of popularity within the community, which can help lessen the tension between officer and citizen. Community policing practitioners are frequently encouraged to make their own hours and set their own patrol style within the community. By taking advantage of the particular knowledge of crime patterns learned through patrol, the officer has the opportunity to become directly involved in crime prevention strategy at the beat level. Since the officer is directly involved in results-oriented behavior, a sense of control over events is experienced, which can alleviate a portion of the frustration inherent in cruise-and-respond styles of policing.
Few jobs provide such a high level of responsibility to the common citizen. The police officer is part soldier, part lawyer, part psychologist, and part social worker. In the authorized use of deadly physical force, the officer becomes both judge and jury. This is an awesome responsibility further encumbered by the split-second timeline within which to make a life-and-death decision. In the wake of such a decision, the officer must maintain proper decorum and provide aid and assistance to the individual who may have, just seconds before, attempted to take away a life. This dichotomy of violent threat versus courageous behavior takes its toll on the police practitioner. It is an unknown factor that determines just how many stressful incidents an individual officer can experience before exhibiting a decline in work performance. Furthermore, officers may be exposed to the detrimental effects of stress not yet affecting work performance but nevertheless impacting negatively on social interaction and normal family life.
- Copes, Heath. 2005. Policing and Stress. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Ellison, Katherine W. 2004. Stress and the Police Officer. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
- Gilmartin, Kevin M. 2002. Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.
- Miller, Laurence. 2006. Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
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