officers in the audience will be a mixed crowd. If this is a department of 100 cops,
15 to 18 of them will already be suffering from the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 25 more will be going through a variety of other anxiety disorders
that interfere with concentration, cause irritability and restlessness, create tension and stomach problems. These and another 25 are experiencing problems in their relationships at home and some may be facing divorces.
further, these 65 officers and an unknown remainder of the 100 are doubtless struggling with sleep disorders brought about
by shift work and time in court. Finally, we have the toll taken throughout the squad
by substance abuse—not only alcohol, but from easily obtained pain killers for work-related injuries that become addictive.
then, are the officers sitting in the briefing, numbly listening to the sergeant's admonition, “Be careful out
is it possible that, in spite of the training we've been doing and enhancing for years, we're missing something crucial
to keeping our officers alive out on the streets? Is it possible that there's something
besides felony stops, powerful weapons, physical prowess, combat simulations, tactical breathing and more fanciful
practice ranges that we need to be considering?
is where we bring up the unspeakable and where many of you will stop reading—mental health and how important it is to
is not considered “nice” or “politic” in law enforcement to suggest that emotional well-being can
have a bearing on an officer’s survivability out on the streets. Saying that
an officer’s “mental health” is as important as their body armor is not at all welcome in today’s
culture. Today’s young police officer is taught that he is invincible and emotionally
infallible. He stands above society, a mythic “warrior” protecting the
sheep from the wolves. It's about brawn, firepower and withstanding multiple "hits."
Anything less is a sign of weakness. One popular lecturer insists that even
senior officers want nothing more than to be in a gun battle before they retire. That’s
doubtful, but it’s this kind of thinking that adds to a stigma making officers reluctant to step out of the ranks and
seek help when emotional problems do strike.
fact, an officer’s emotional "edge" when faced with danger is the most important survival resource he has. A preoccupied officer in an emergency is easy prey in those first seconds, no
matter how many guns and daggers he has planted on his body. History is filled with
examples of unarmed people who have survived attacks and pursuits because they kept a clear mind and used it to its most creative
potential. Unfortunately, however, the typical officer has only seconds to react—but
it is in these few seconds that lack of clarity can be deadly—walking up on a car with a mind distracted by anxiety,
job dissatisfaction, concerns over a divorce and financial worries is courting disaster.
applies equally to traffic stops, suspect encounters, family disputes, high speed driving, directing traffic, laying out spike
strips, flying an aircraft and the many more tasks required of an officer. "The edge" is crucial, regardless of how
many tools the cop may have on his belt.
Perhaps you’re among those
who deny that this is a problem. You have a lot of company.
After all, when the officer’s body has been removed, the evidence officer will be unable to find
“Insomnia” on the ground and bottle it as evidence for later examination. Search
as they might, no team will be able to locate “Difficulty concentrating” on the pavement, and no one will be able
to photograph it.
easy to say, “Just clear your mind before you walk up on that car.” “Focus!” Bear in mind, however, that stress is subtle and erodes at alertness in ways that are not
always obvious. We often “think” we are focused when, in fact, a part
of our mind is preoccupied with other issues. Complicating this is the fact that many
of these issues are related to the job—it could be a trauma or series of traumatic events that occurred during many
years of a law enforcement career. Much as police administrators deny that
“the job” can cause stress, anxiety and even PTSD, it’s a fact—so much so that "LOSING THE EDGE" can
get us killed when we’re carrying the symptoms around and exposing ourselves to danger at the same time.
Let's start with some of the symptoms that commonly affect officers.
ANXIETY: As you read this list, think about how any three or four of these symptoms might affect
YOUR officers’ alertness and/or judgment as they prepare to stop a motorist on a dark street:
1. Chest pain
3. Underlying anxiety, apprehension, or fear
5. Difficulty thinking, speaking, forming thoughts, following conversations
6. Excess of energy
7. Heart palpitations
9. Suddenly snapping
10. Difficulty falling or staying asleep
11. Nightmares, bad dreams
12. The feeling of being under pressure all the time
14. Neck, back, shoulder pain, tightness/stiffness
15. No energy, feeling lethargic
16. Startle easily
17. A heightened fear of what people think of you
18. Constant feeling of being overwhelmed.
19. Fears about irrational things, objects, circumstances, or situations
21. Frequent headaches, migraine headaches
22. Repetitive thinking or incessant ‘mind chatter’
23. Short-term learning impairment
24. Short-term memory impairment
POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER: Now let's look at the 15 to 18 officers in your squad
who, without knowing it, are still working and suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s important that you understand the baggage they carry with them as they make that “routine”
1. Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event that traumatized them.
2. Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
3. Nightmares or, worse, “night terrors” (that awaken you screaming and
4. Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
5. Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid
breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
6. Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
7. Loss of interest in activities and life in general
8. Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
9. Depression and hopelessness
10. Suicidal thoughts and feelings
12. Irritability or outbursts of anger
13. Difficulty concentrating
14. Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
15. Feeling jumpy and easily startled
16. Guilt, shame, or self-blame
17. Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
18. Feeling alienated and alone
send these officers out on the beat, alone, with these things stirring around inside. Go
ahead—after all, you’ve been doing it anyway! Most of the time, luck will
be on his (and your) side. Hopefully, it will prove to be a “routine”
stop and the officer will survive.
what if it’s not a “routine” stop? What if this is an armed motorist? Will clumsiness make a difference? Lack of sleep? Difficulty concentrating? The effects of too much
drinking the night before? Or will it make a difference that a corner of the officer’s
mind is still at home, arguing with his spouse?
DENIAL—A RIVER IN EGYPT?
you’re among those in law enforcement who deny that any of this is even a problem.
You have a lot of company. After all, when the officer’s body has been removed, the evidence officer will
be unable to find “Insomnia” on the ground and bottle it as evidence for later examination. Search as they might, no team will be able to locate “Difficulty concentrating” on the pavement,
and no one will be able to photograph it.
at the station, however, everyone will be able to pull out the files showing that the deceased was current at the target range
and that he had been certified in techniques of arrest.
WHERE FROM HERE?
health” has always been an uncomfortable topic in law enforcement. We’re
afraid it means we’re “mentally unhealthy.” WE HAVE TO QUIT BEING
AFRAID OF WORDS and start being concerned about the welfare of our officers.
health” simply means “a state of well-being in which
the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully,
and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." Now, we recognize that the stresses of
law enforcement far exceed what is usually considered “normal,” and
that’s why this article is important. We are abandoning our responsibilities
if we hire police officers and send them out to maintain their mental health on their own.
They need additional help, given the fact that they work in the most toxic career field on the face of the earth.