Police Psychology: Law Enforcement Longevity and Loss of Self

By Michael Tavolacci, PhD at Peak Performance Biofeedback, Inc. | Fri, 5 Jan 2018

In 2011 65 police officers were shot and killed! (Violanti, 2012)

In 2011 147 police officers committed suicide! (Violanti, 2012)

Ironically, the sad reality is police officers commit suicide more frequently than the civilian population. Admittedly, there are a myriad of possible explanations for the statistics, access to firearms being among the most commonly cited factors. I would suggest there is an important change that takes place in an individual who, previously determined to be of sound mind, commits suicide, weapon access notwithstanding. Degradation of self-worth, loss of hope, and feelings of helplessness are commonly understood to be elements in suicide and must have been prompted by some new variable in the officer’s life. Once the decision has been reached the weapon is merely a tool to do the job as there are various ways to end one’s life.

The Cumulative Career Traumatic Stress (CCTS) detailed by Marshall speaks directly to the hopelessness that accompanies suicide. I envision the three concepts of the suicide dynamic as the legs of a stool. As Marshall suggests that the officer’s sense of hopelessness is derived from constant, never-ending, stress, I see the leg weakening, at risk of collapse. The leg that represents the helplessness of suicide emerges as officers come to feel they cannot free themselves from the urge to help mankind, in the face of insurmountable cynicism for the very same. The third and final leg of the stool, worthlessness, represents the diminished public support perceived by most officers as they are often vilified for their mistakes and seen as representative of an increasingly distrusted government.

The three legs of the stool represent the contact points of the officer to stay grounded to the world. As those supports weaken and collapse the officer’s sense of self trembles and looses its footing. No longer grounded, feeling hopeless, helpless, and worthless the officer seeks relief and to regain control. Some choose suicide as a means to end the constant struggle and restore order to the chaos within them. At the most base level, police officers are trained to, and the demands of the job require them to, be in control. The term peace officer implies the directive to maintain the peace by controlling the chaos around them. Events that are inherently volatile, rapidly evolving, and both mentally and physically demanding are the standard of police work.

Police Officers are the “Hall Monitors” of the real world. As the hall monitor they are a necessary part of our society expected to keep everyone else in line so my day is issue free; a fact that is often difficult to swallow. A police officer is, what I call, a Utopia Tool. I describe a Utopia Tool as an assemblage necessary to continued movement toward an idealized existence and society. They are the, unfortunately, necessary structures and organizations required if society is to realize the Utopia that I feel is the unspoken goal of mankind.

The officer is needed to reach the Utopian society much like a shovel is needed to dig a hole. Once the hole is dug, the shovel has outlived its usefulness, just as the officer would no longer be necessary if society were ever free of anti-social behavior. If we accept the idea that police are here to help keep the peace, we have to admit there exist elements of our society that are predatory, that choose to create chaos, steal, destroy, and victimize the rest of us. We are forced to acknowledge the reality we are afraid and need help dealing with the predators in our midst. We would have to admit there are those who behave badly, thereby, diminishing the idealized opinion of humanity some hold and our hope for humankind to exist without the need for Utopia Tools.

It is rare to have an on-duty police officer at a family party and their attendance is most frequently prompted by some sort of crisis within familial relationships. We seek their guidance when at our wits end, we seek their protection when threatened, we seek their counsel when lost, and we seek forgiveness when caught hurrying to work, practice, dinner, or home. Normal people don’t call the police to their home to let them know the holiday dinner went off without a hitch or that they are turning in for the night after a loving and fulfilling day with their family.

There is a level of risk inherent in the day-to-day tasks of police officers. Their workdays are stressful, filled with conflict, loss, violence, and victimization. As a response to their experiences, officer’s bodies and minds have various reactions including but not limited to: fear, aggression, compassion, empathy, anger, sadness, pity, loathing, and spite. The physiological response demanded by these experiences cause the body to introduce chemicals and activates systems intended to affect the officer in multiple ways. The systems are intended to protect them emotionally, raise their performance physically, protect their vital organs, and speed cognitive processing (Gilmartin, 2002). These automatic responses by the body have both positive and negative consequences, which range in speed of onset and duration, from immediate to long-term, and every moment in between. Experiencing the undulation of the highs and lows results a predictable pattern of emotional responses that appear eerily similar to clinical depression when graphed (Gilmartin, 2002).In truth, the statistics aggregated by The Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrate that the ratio of service calls to the number of officers, places a heavy burden on the individual and exposes the officer to significant levels of stress. Considered in the context of the negativity of a typical call for police, it is no surprise many officers show signs of succumbing to the risk factors of their occupation. The bulleted points below quickly highlight many of the factors that play a role in the overall psychological risk level for those in law enforcement. It is the prolonged exposure to that risk that eventually destroys the resilience.

  • In 2008 there were 883,600 individuals employed as Law Enforcement Officers (BLS, 2012)
  • More than 85% or ~750,000 officers worked for agencies smaller than 100 members (BLS, 2012)
  • 13,857 Chicago Police handled more than 3,700,000 calls for service in 2010 (Chicago Police Annual Report 2010)
  • 5,986 allegations of misconduct were made nationwide in 2010
  • 3,861 allegations of misconduct were made against Chicago Officers with 283 sustained in 2010 (CPD Annual Report 2010)
  • 3,298 attacks were perpetrated against officers by offenders in 2010, only 20% occurred while making an arrest (CPD Annual Report 2010)

As noted above, nearly 85% of active law enforcement officers are employed by agencies, which are home to less than 100 sworn officers. I believe this fact plays a major role in the overall sentiment held for police. The bulk of media coverage and media access is granted to the largest of agencies even though they comprise less than 15% of the industry. The coverage disparity combined with the sensational nature of modern news media, which holds to the old adage of if it bleeds it leads, results in a largely inaccurate and inflammatory portrayal of the law enforcement industry (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011). This process empowers the minority to speak for the majority.

Initially, the accountability created by news articles and media segments on police behavior served the citizens and industry well. As time has passed the concept of accountability has evolved into a skepticism bordering on contempt for police officers. No matter which perspective is employed, studies have tended to focus on individual’s experiences with the police and have largely overlooked the importance of the media in shaping attitudes towards law enforcement (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011).

Having no immediate safe outlet to express emotions that are largely rejected by their peer group, the individual officer is likely to deny the emotions, internalize them, or otherwise mishandle the processing of the events. It takes great courage for police officers to seek out professional assistance with the complex process of properly dealing with the things they experience. Complicating the urge to seek help is the limited number of skilled professionals, as I have experienced it first hand, who are qualified and experienced with the unique combination of complex and illusive elements of the police officer’s psyche.

Officers can fortify themselves against the risks of a successful law enforcement career. The fortification is subject to the acknowledgement and open admittance to several realities. First of these realities is that Cumulative Career Traumatic Stress exists and with rare exception it effects police officers in pervasive ways that impact every one. Second, that reliance on the natural resilience is ill advised and should be supplemented by extensive systems and programs to mitigate risk. Third, considerable attention to professional development must be paid including, but not limited to, thorough screening using Psychological batteries. The chosen assessments should have appropriate parameters set using realistic determinants not dictated by concern for political correctness, or fairness. Undue concern with fairness or being politically correct increases the potential for increased and unnecessary vulnerability. It is a disservice to, not only the recruit, but also the organization, the industry, the individual citizen, and society as a whole. Candid appraisal and assertion that police work is not like other professions and requires more stringent selection processes, unencumbered by concerns other than achieving the agreed on objective of keeping the peace, is vital to serving the citizenry and the individual.

Law Enforcement officers enjoy few rewards, little compensation, even less consideration, and steadily diminishing self-esteem resultant from a consistently weakening public opinion.

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