There has been a lot of research on the negative effects of stress on people in general. I am sure you know that police work is one of the top rated professions for job stress next to air traffic controllers and dentists. A good way to start this presentation, I think, is to give a good working definition of police stress. Here it is: The feeling and desire along with the ensuing bodily effects, experienced by a person who has a strong and true longing to choke the living crap out of someone who desperately deserves it, but you can’t.
Now, while this may sound funny there is a real element of truth to it. An element of truth that says an awful lot about police work. And that is the part of the definition “……but you can’t”. Police work, by it’s very nature, calls for an incredible amount of restraint. Continual restraint and draining restraint. It is stressful. The demands on police officers to show even greater restraint have been increasing over the years, and so has the effects of stress on police work.
With the recent attention that police suicide has received in the media there have been a number of reviews on it. Between 1934 and 1960 police suicide rates were half that of the general population. Between 1980 to the present, suicide rates in some departments almost doubled. What is the difference? You can’t choke them anymore! Street justice is all but gone. Everyone has video cameras. The media gets off on putting down cops. Politicians continue to throw new laws and restrictions for police officers that further tie their hands, and you can’t choke anyone with your hands tied! So you start to feel that you’re choking yourself.
Lets take a quick overview of police work and look at the research of what the biggest stressors are:
· Killing someone in the line of duty.
· Having your partner killed in the line of duty.
· Lack of support by the department/bosses.
· Shift work and disruption of family time/family rituals.
· The daily grind of dealing with the stupidity of the public.
Interestingly, physical danger is ranked low on the list of stressors by police officers.
One of the worst effects of stress on police officers is of course suicide. We are becoming too familiar with police suicide, especially with the attention the media has given New York City. Twice as many police officers die by their own hand as do in the line of duty. (New York Times, 1994)
A study of 2376 Buffalo NY police officers found that, compared to the white male population police officers, there were higher mortality rates for cancer, suicide, and heart disease. The suggested reason: Higher stress levels.
Every study done points to the higher levels of stress police officers face, but what form does that stress take? With suicide there seem to be four factors:
1. Divorce. 2. Alcohol, not alcoholism. That was one of the early theories. But in actuality it was the use of alcohol right before the act to “get up the nerve”. 3. Depression. 4. A failure to get help. (Most officers who commit suicide have no history of having sought counseling).
All four factors are symptoms that can come from an officer’s stress levels. Police suicide is more directly related to relationship problems than to job stress. Of the last 14 suicides among the police officers in New York City, 12, or 86%, had to do with divorce or relationship breakup.
Suicide is often an impulsive act, and the handgun at the officer’s side is guaranteed to be lethal in the hands of an experienced shooter.
UB professor, John M. Violanti, Ph.D thinks the biggest reason for the high rate of police suicide is because officers think they have nowhere to go for confidential help when personal problems or job stress overwhelms them. “Police officers are more hesitant than the average citizen to get help for emotional problems. Because of their role, they mistrust many things, and they especially mistrust mental health professionals,” Violanti said. “Departments should include some sort of suicide awareness training in their stress management program.”
Police officers going through a divorce are 5 times more likely to commit suicide than that of an officer in a stable marriage. Relationship problems however, are highly related to job stress.
If we consider that officers have an important relationship with their department, we can examine the effect of that relationship gone bad. Officers who get in serious trouble on the job, suspended or facing termination, are 7 times more likely to commit suicide. (Apparently cops like their jobs better than their wives).
So we see that stress has an enormous effect on police officers lives, especially their home lives. Studies have called police work a “high risk lifestyle”. Not high risk in terms of the physical dangers of the job, but a high risk in terms of developing attitudinal problems, behavioral problems, and intimacy and relationship problems. So you learn something about the effects of police work. You learn if you ask the average cop “Hey, what’s been the scariest experience during your police career?” They will answer “My first marriage!”
The national divorce rate is 50%. All research shows police suffer a substantially higher divorce rate with estimates ranging from 60 to 75%. One of the casualties of police work is often the marriage.
Although law enforcement officers deal with stressful situations in the normal course of their duties, excessive stress on individual officers may cause them not to carry out their responsibilities. In order to keep law enforcement organizations at 100%, administrators must be able to identify the causes of dysfunctional stress on individual officers.
Much of the articles we find today on the causes of law enforcement stress, focus primarily on the factors that are personal to the individual officer. However, other researchers suggest that an officer’s ability to live with this stress is hindered by the structure and operation of the organization within which he or she works.
“Police stress” is considered by many to be an important societal problem (Cullen, et al., 1985), and police work is thought of as stressful (Kelling and Pate, 1975). Law enforcement officers must be aware of the dangers of psychological stress. Stress is the result of “demands placed on the system” and need not be harmful unless it is “mismanaged” or “present in large quantities.” However, some analysts say that occupational and life stress can cause mental and even physical problems.
For example, one study of 2,300 officers in twenty-nine different police departments reported that thirty-six percent of the officers had serious marital problems, twenty-three percent had serious alcohol problems, twenty percent had serious problems with their children, and ten percent had drug problems. (Kendrix, 1989) Yet, police were well below the average in seeking [medical and] mental treatment. The “macho” image of a police officer may well keep a police officer from seeking such treatment. Law enforcement officers have significantly higher rates of health problems, premature deaths, suicides and general hospital admissions than other occupations (Richard and Fell, 1975).
Law enforcement stress has been categorized into three sections. These are: 1) stress that is internal to the law enforcement system; 2) stress that is in the law enforcement job itself; and 3) stress that is external to law enforcement.
Stress internal to the job may be found when police and correctional officers find themselves with conflicting roles. Police spend much of their time in activities not directly related to law enforcement functions, while correction officers are placed in both the role of providing “custody [and] treatment.” Law enforcement officers can develop personal conflicts by being placed in the position of having to choose between one or more contradictory goals. Such contradictions include the loyalty to fellow officers and honesty within the department.
Post Traumatic Stress is a type of stress encountered at incidents that are, or perceived as, capable of causing serious injury or death. The person encountering the stress does not have to be the one whose life is threatened. This stress can also occur to witnesses. By it’s nature, Post Traumatic Stress is one of the worst types of stress a person can encounter. It is stress of a nature that is threatening to a person’s survival. The psychological and physical reactions of our mind and body to Post Traumatic Stress are at the extremes. Examples of life threatening traumas that can cause Post Traumatic Stress, in their general order of severity, include: natural disasters, serious accidents, serious accidents where a person is at fault, intentional life threatening violence by another person, life threatening trauma caused by betrayal by a trusted individual, and life threatening trauma caused by betrayal by someone you depend on for survival.
Police officers, by the nature of their jobs, can be exposed to more stress and trauma in one day than many people will experience in a considerable period of time, maybe even their entire life. Some police officers thrive on stress. They seek out incidents that most people would not care to encounter in their lifetime. Many people seek out a job in police work for this challenge and the personal rewards it provides. Overcoming stress of great magnitude can provide great personal rewards, but these jobs can and do ruin many lives.
Dr. George Everly, a noted researcher on emergency services stress, estimates that at any given time15-32% of all emergency responders will be dealing with a reaction to Post Traumatic Stress, and there is a 30-64% chance that they will have a reaction to it during their lifetime. For law enforcement working in urban areas, 20-30% of the officers will develop a reaction to Post Trauma Stress during their lifetimes. These figures are higher than the percentages for the general population (1-3%), urban adolescents (9-15%), and, surprisingly, Vietnam Veterans (15-20%).
For a variety of reasons, some of which are not known, many police officers work through Post Traumatic Stress and its affects. The impact of Post Traumatic Stress on their lives is short-lived (if they suffer from it at all). In the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), this is defined as Acute Stress Disorder. It lasts more than two days, but no longer than 4 weeks.
There are those, however, that will not be able to cope with the Post Traumatic Stress they have encountered. They may have handled many traumatic incidents without a problem, until one happens that breaks through their ability to cope. These officers will develop what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is Acute Stress Disorder that lasts more than 4 weeks. In their book on “Emergency Services Stress”, Dr. Jeff Mitchell and Dr. Grady Bray estimate that without proper Post Trauma Stress training, response, and follow-up, roughly 4% of all emergency workers will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
These figures do not include those who will develop a reaction to accumulative stress, which can have affects similar to, and additive to, Post Traumatic Stress. They also do not include police officers who grew up in an urban environment and are Vietnam Veterans, of which there are more than a few. These figures also do not separate out those working patrol or traffic duties from those working specialty assignments (narcotics, vice, metro teams) from those working investigative or “inside” jobs. Uniformed assignments and certain specialty assignments place officers in positions that they will be more likely to encounter traumatic stress.
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