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Stress on Law Enforcement Officers and Available Programs


Law Enforcement officers are ordinary people called upon to do an extraordinary job”

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Police officers are subject to significant amounts of tension and stress, regardless of the nature and size of the agency for which they work. Although a considerable number of law enforcement officers receive rudimentary training to recognize the stress involved in situations like shootouts and violent crimes, a majority of them fail to grasp the size and scope of the physiological and psychological effects of stress on their bodies and minds (Ford, 1998, p.345).

Police officers often respond to disturbing, often graphic—, and even gruesome—scenes accompanying violent crime investigations and shootings. Over the years, the cumulative impact of such incidents has given way to physical and emotional disturbances, which can develop into serious problems with severe consequences.

As Blum (2000) states; ultimately, injuries to their mental and emotional well-being that the officers usually ignore may act like secondary infections that fester and cause damage to their lives (p.129). Illustrative of the adverse effects of psychological stress on laws enforcement officers are the problem of alcoholism, anxiety, and anger (Reiser & Greger, 1984, p. 59), marital problems (Sheehan, 2000, p. 102) and may increase the risk of developing illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and thyroid disease (Violanti, 1996, p. 41).

Now is the time when law enforcement administrators and the public should change their perceptions about law enforcement officers. They are not mere heartless and dry automatons, impervious to emotional trauma and stress, but rather, “they are courageous humans, the nature of whose work requires them to face violent incidents and situations” (Ford, 1998, p. 342).

Stress is a silent killer that has a more drastic impact on the mindset of law enforcement officers. There have been a number of police suicides nationwide, yet statistics on the number of police suicides are difficult to maintain for a variety of reasons. According to a 2008 research study conducted by O’Hara and Violanti,102 actual police suicides as accounted for in 2008 via 119,000 web surveillance hits (2008, p. 71). In addition, it appears that officers in the age category of 35-39 years are at a higher risk of committing suicide, with 29% of all suicides found in this age group. Additionally, those officers with 10-14 years of service are at an increased risk of committing suicide.

The following Review of Literature examines the impact of stress on law enforcement officers and their families. It addresses various forms of mental health support services available while addressing individual issues associated with each form of support. The review outlines issues of lack of support and education for the police officers’ family members as well as the need for increased training of the police in their academies to include the recruit, their families, and supervisory personnel.

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The high incidence of PTSD and critical incident stress demonstrates the importance of law enforcement administrators and identifying the impact of trauma, and more importantly, understanding the need for peer support/and appropriate mental health services to address those impacted by a traumatic event.

What follows in this work is a study, designed by the principal investigator that seeks valuable feedback from active and retired law enforcement officers in New York State through an administered confidential survey. It will also offer additional chapters that will delve more deeply into specific issues such as the impact of stress on the law enforcement family, the hidden epidemic of police suicide, and how untreated critical incident stress can and will lead to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Ultimately, my intention is to review the gathered information to determine the need for additional mental health support services and educational training programs that may need to be developed while identifying geographic regions throughout the state that are lacking support services.

The Effects of Stress on Police Officers and their Families

Studies have shown that occupational stress is one major factor that can have a negative impact on the family lives of police officers. Statistics show that approximately 40 % of American police officers resort to domestic violence and marital abuse (Gauthier, & Gregory, 2007, p.59). According to the data gathered by the National Center for Women and Policing, a police officer is four times more likely to participate in domestic violence compared to an average citizen (Neidig, Russell, & Seng, 1992, p. 39). The reason attributable to this fact is that stress is part of life for the police officers.

The need to restrain emotions in the face of unnerving and risky situations often saddles the officers with bulky emotional baggage, which they may, unfortunately, lighten at home. This emotional baggage can make them more aloof and self-contained, unwilling or unable to communicate their experiences with a friend or a colleague. The combination of occupational trauma and domestic violence creates a vicious spiral that often pushes a normal officer to the brink of disaster. It is not a surprise that the law enforcement organization has an above-average divorce rate of as high as 75%, much the same as professions with high stress such as doctors and lawyers (Kappeler, Blumberg, & Potter, 2000, p. 78).

For many generations, police officers in the U.S. have resorted to alcohol as a social lubricant to deal with on-the-job stress (Siegel, 2001, p.21). According to some conservative estimates, more than 30 % of the police officers in the country have alcohol or drug-related problems (Siegel, 2001, p.22. In fact, this is no longer a secret, and many states have responded to this issue by running peer assistance programs to deal with alcohol and substance abuse-related problems in their regular members. The experience of the Police officers at the sites of work definitely influences their actions. What they see, feel, and hear significantly influences them. According to Siegel (2000), 1the lack of appropriate communication channels has led some to try dousing their work-related problems with alcohol and narcotics (p.29).

Both the federal and state agencies for law enforcement make all possible efforts to recruit officers with the right aptitude and qualifications. They resort to elaborate recruitment procedures involving written tests, physical fitness tests, psychological tests, personal interviews, and background checks (Lindsey, & Kelly, 2004, p.136). By the time an agency is finished with testing, recruiting, and training a police officer, it has spent a considerable amount of the taxpayers’ money in ascertaining the physical and psychological fitness of that candidate.

Minimally, they note that this expenditure amounts to $100,000 per police officer. Still, Lindsey & Kelly (2004), state, this is not the be-all and end-all of policy financing (p.134). A police department has to spend $50,000 per year to cater for wages and other benefits of the police officers. The total expenditure incurred, and retaining a police officer, over a period of ten years amounts to $600,000.

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In such a scenario, if a law enforcement agency ends up losing a police officer to stress-related suicide, domestic violence, health problems, or substance abuse, the financial burden of replacing that police officer with another officer having the same training and experience stands to be $1.2 million. Thus, losing a police officer to emotional stress is not only a grave human and social loss but also a massive professional and financial loss.

During their tenure, police and law enforcement officers do witness situations and incidents involving extreme violence, which could sometimes be traumatizing (Anshel, 2000, p.376). Hence, it will be too naïve and simplistic to assume that such incidents and situations have no impact on the personal and professional life of police officers. Mostly, the influence of job stress on an officer is so subtle and prolonged that by the time one comes to realize its potential and gravity it may have already cost an officer’s health, family, self-esteem, honor, job, and sometimes, life.

Continual exposure to trauma may make a police officer lose his or her sense of orientation. Anxiety, panic fits, failure to manage anger and suicidal tendencies accompany the loss of orientation. Some officers may try to grapple with such unbearable situations, but eventually, they may succumb to excessive stress brought about by the various social issues within the community they patrol.

Stress Prevention and Intervention Approaches for Police Officers

Changes in the structure and operations of the law enforcement organization will enhance the image of the department and can help in tackling sources of officer stress associated with public attitude. According to Franklin (2007), legislative scrutiny, bad press, and criticism from the public are major sources of stress among line officers and law enforcement administrators (p.345).

Therefore, factors that lead to changes in the organization can lead to a reduction of stress as well as improvement of the department’s image. In 1995, the Philadelphia Police Department in Pennsylvania established the first stress management position of the agency after eight officers committed suicide in five years, with three of them in 1994 (Liberman et al, 2000, p. 430). The stress manager had several roles, among them being the evaluation of departmental policies and recommendations of ways to reduce stress.

Real Police Law Enforcement Resource (2011) says that most of the departments that have undertaken organizational change have reported substantial savings because of reduced expenses and costs. For example, police administrators say that it is very costly to replace officers who opt for early retirement or those whom the authority forces out on disability grounds. The police department pays the retirement benefits of retired officers. The department also is responsible for the recruitment and training of new police officers prior to joining the force. The institutional reforms aimed at reducing stress, which in turn would motivate the police force to perform better and more effectively.

Law enforcement agencies across the United States have implemented programs aimed at changing organizational operations in order to minimize stress among the officers. The Michigan State Police Behavioral Science Section supports the training officers on stress management. Indeed, the sergeants get training on stress management particularly during critical times to minimize stress among officers. The organization directs its changes towards critical incidence counseling, officer programs in-field training, styles of supervision, job assignments and fieldwork.

The department discovered that the most crucial step towards the reduction of organizational stress is through training of supervisory staff on skills and practices, which can reduce stress on the officers, they command (Brown, & Campbell, 1994, p. 67). In addition, critical assessments made by mental health experts show that a top-down model is essential in reducing stress where support originates from the chief towards the commanding personnel (Crank, et al., 1993, p. 321).

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Law enforcement agencies are under increased pressure to tackle complex activities. Considering the fact that funding has always been limited, administrators of law enforcement agencies must ensure that the officers carry out their work under minimal stress and as efficiently as possible. Steps undertaken by different agencies to minimize organizational stress show that when procedures and policies are changed by departments and agencies, efficiency would be improved significantly without compromising public safety particularly by the integration of technology in police procedures or through community policing (Chan, 2004, p. 141).

A former police sergeant and novelist from Los Angeles, Joseph Wambaugh, wrote that police officers are a reflection of the type of society they represent. We can draw the conclusion that the current troubled society has led to distrustful and cynical attitudes directed towards law enforcement officers with regard to their effectiveness in tackling crime.

Investigations carried out to evaluate ways of reducing stress among police officers in New York as well as their families revealed that it is possible to change how officers perceive support services. The study used a systematic approach to develop an active volunteer support program that embraces the available resources as well as aspects of the police culture. The volunteer peer support program was successful in renewing a sense of trust among police officers.

Trust is an important virtue, which assures officers that they can safely seek out confidential assistance when under stress from their personal or professional lives. However, although the peer support groups provide opportunities for the officers to share their problems, their main concern is to celebrate achievements in police operations (Anderson, Swenson & Clay, 1995, p. 45).

When a police officer succumbs to stress, the most affected people are his or her, family members and colleagues. Health experts say that most families tend to break up since stress limits an open relationship between the spouses. It also results in neglecting the most fundamental family issues such as family responsibility. Additionally, stress also contributes to stress-related domestic violence that affects the family (Sheehan, 2000, p. 21).

Intervention programs are important to reduce the stress-related domestic violence. Therefore, the authorities should expose the police officers to peer support programs. Further, the extension of these programs to their families would show that departments and/or agencies are concerned with the welfare of their employees. Such programs could be possible through family seminars and support workshops at specific sites and on specific dates to involve the whole community. Statistics from crime-prone areas indicate that the public has a major impact on the wellbeing of police officers and this implies that agencies should enhance a close relationship to reduce developments of stressful conditions (Franklin, 2007, p.347)

Studies related to the efficacy of the stress management programs have revealed that it is possible to evaluate, organize, adjust, and implement a stress reduction program without developing a long and tedious process. Most of the programs fail to address the challenges and stress faced by the police officers in particular. However, an appropriate stress management program should be brief and sufficient for stress reduction. Sufficient stress reduction is achievable in several ways. Firstly, sourcing information on efficient programs from research reports, key theoretical points from the private sector, and local and federal papers can indeed result in an efficient peer support program.

Territo and Sewell (1999) say that research materials give a critical analysis of program and administrative responsibilities and markers exist to assess the levels of success (p. 22). According to NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assoc. (2000), programs to reduce officer stress are diverse, and it only requires the dedication of department administrators for the programs to be effective. They further emphasize that the programs should include the effect of the environment on the officers rather than on personality traits of the officers alone.

Secondly, programs that have proved to be effective in other agencies should only get the approval of the administrators after analysis of the prevailing situation in the agency. This would promote the efficiency of these programs in reducing stress among the police officers.

The efficiency of a program calls for confidentiality at all levels of a police department. Franklin (2007) says that confidentially enables police officers to gain trust in a given program and thus increase the likelihood of seeking help (p.348). In addition, police department psychologists are supposed to act as a medical liaison between the department and private mental health experts.

The coordination between private practitioners and departments and/or agencies does improve the efficiency of programs set up to reduce stress. However, the use of departmental mental health professionals who also perform fit for duty assessments on officers within the same department creates a barrier for officers. How can they trust someone to help them who in the end could recommend that their careers be over? Private practitioners should be separate from departmental mental health professionals to assure a safe and confidential environment for officers to go for assistance when the need arises (Franklin, 2007, p.348)

Signs and Symptoms of Stress among Police Officers

Central Florida Police Stress Unit says that there are common signs and signals of stress and psychologists classify most of them under three categories physical, behavioral, and emotional. Physical signals include fatigue, dizziness, chest pain, difficulty in breathing, nausea, blackouts, vomiting, profuse sweating, muscle tremors, headaches, and rapid heart rate. Emotional signals of stress include anxiety, anger, fear, denial, guilt, severe panic, depression, irritability, uncertainty, and bad thoughts. Behavioral signs include inability to rest, change in activity, emotional outbursts, substance abuse, suspicion, withdrawal, anti-social acts, and pacing (Wilson & Keane, 2004, p.309). These are among the initial signs of stress and if no administration of intervention, it may affect the wellbeing of the officer or that of the family.

Most of the signals of stress are easily identifiable but police psychologists say that most officers try as much as possible to disguise them. According to Liberman et al., (2002), denial and refusal to seek treatment is mostly caused by the general perception that police officers must be strong enough to handle stressful events (p.431). In addition, officers may think that opening up about an individual problem may set a bad precedent among the senior officers and thus limit the chances of upward movement in their career line. Support programs established by police departments must be able to ensure that personal information of officers undergoing treatment remains confidential so that officers will be able to trust and feel safe while seeking treatment.

Intervention programs to Combat Stress on Law enforcement officers

Hans Selye, a researcher on the effects of stress said that working in the law enforcement profession is America’s most stressful occupation, even exceeding that of air traffic control (Raphael, & Wilson, 2000, p, 132). A study carried out in the Detroit police department in 2007 showed that one of the leading factors that contribute to suicide among police officers is marital discord. In addition, studies in New York reveal the officers are usually intoxicated just before they commit suicide (Sheehan, & Warren, 2002, p. 234).

To reduce the prevalence of stress, there is a need to identify the basic facts that lead to such problems and necessary programs and policies put in place to reduce stress. Law enforcement work exposes the police officers to different types of stress comparable to that experienced by doctors or lawyers.NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assoc. (2000) observes that the problem that arises with police stress is that most of them are not so obvious or chronic, and people tend to assume them as normal challenges of police operations.

Law enforcement agencies cannot predict what impact stress or a critical incident can have on their personnel. The police often risk their lives in combating crime involving dangerous gangs that would not hesitate to kill to avoid arrest. Yet, they continue to endure excessive and unfair criticism and complaints from the very citizens whom they have sacrificed their lives.

What is required is a drastic humanization of the way people and authorities perceive the police officers (Burke, & Scrivener, 1995, p.430). Such a change must begin from the top echelons of law enforcement. Once the officers come to realize that their superiors and seniors do not perceive their emotional responses to critical situations as a sign of weakness and vulnerability, they will be encouraged and emboldened to be more open with their stress-related problems. This will also do away with the traditional aversion exhibited by police officers in subscribing to medical and professional help. An official and statutory recognition of the emotional aspect of policing will help in diluting the age-old mistrust that police officers often harbor against their employers.

It is imperative for administrators to properly prepare their personnel by initiating training programs for stress identification and management, establishing comprehensive policies, mandating such services for every new recruit, their families, and supervisory and management personnel. Training should be on a yearly basis after the recruit stage and incorporated into their already mandated in-service training protocols. James T. Reese, a retired agent from the FBI’s Behavioral Health Sciences unit shared that advocating for the monitoring of stress-related signs and skills that enable the officers to cope with stress are efficient approaches that allow the officers to work under no stress and avoid the stress-related disorders (Kates, 1999, p. 201). It is critical we learn and grow together to maximize our effectiveness within our ranks and overcome the stigma of seeking help.

Stress programs around the country differ in many ways, so they can accommodate staffing configurations. Primarily non-sworn mental health professionals, professionals who are also law enforcement officers, peer supporters, or a mix of the above, staff them. The Miami-Dade County intervention programs entail internal support groups that track all stress-related signs (Herman, 1997, p. 1287). Non-sworn mental health professionals are much more effective when they have knowledge of and experience in providing services to law enforcement personnel so that the officer can communicate outside the realms of the department they serve. In fact, one major benefit of utilizing outside mental health professionals is that mental health hygiene laws that protect their communications bind them. This truly applies to clergy members.

Employee Assistance Programs or EAPs seem to be the buzzword for organizations when dealing with employee concerns. An EAP can be either internal or external depending on the structure of the organization, its members, and their collective needs (Goldstein 1997, p. 53). It involves the full-time trained clinicians, psychologists, and outside contractors that offer the peer services to the officers and support staff with confidentiality. The design of EAP is such to intervene on an employee’s problem during its early stages before the employee’s career is adversely affected.

In an internal model of an EAP, the efforts of the program are located within the organization. However, the majority of the members feel that the efforts of the internal programs do not take the best interests of the employees into account. The external model usually takes the organizations’ services to outside concerns (Goldstein, 1997, p.56). Purportedly, the officers have little trust in EAPs since the internal mode is only available to those on a higher rank. Furthermore, those who need these services are often hesitant to seek and use the available assistance

The combination of EAP and peer-support programs makes it easy to access external services through established organizational support. The peer supporter provides immediate support and intervention by accessing the mental health professionals through the EAP (Violanti, 1996, p. 75). Psychologists consider Peer support as the most interventional method in law enforcement as peers can empathize and understand their fellow officers.

Detective Gustavo Cecchini, retired from the New York City Police Department-Counterterrorism Unit believes that the internal peer support programs are efficient in addressing stress in officers because distressed officers are more open to fellow officers. Detective Cecchini volunteers his time as a peer support officer for his department’s union-based support program called POPPA, after being involved in a shooting where he lost his partner. He believes the program helped him to deal more effectively with the trauma from his shooting while providing support for his family as well.

Peer supporters are just that. They support their peers through stressful times with the option to refer them to outside resources. One major obstacle for peer supporters is that any communication they have with an officer who divulges either information regarding an incident under investigation or information regarding a crime committed is legally actionable under the confidentiality laws. Licensed professionals utilized by EAP’s can and do offer confidentiality under such circumstances.

Team leaders for peer support programs must recognize this and train their members to understand the consequences of such occurrences and guide them through the process without exposing them to potential legal issues in the future. This contrasts the mental health professionals, who only have to report cases where there is suspected child abuse or in cases where the individuals may be harmful to themselves or to others. According to the director for the Metro-Dade Health Services Section, William Garrison (NIJ1997), professional police officers, or retired officers are more likely to be accepted in peer support programs because they have prior experience of the challenges the police go through.

One possible way of circumnavigating the officers’ mistrust of internal and external mental health professionals is to involve people from within the police force in stress management initiatives (Miller, 2006, p.20). In fact, many police departments and agencies have come to realize the validity of such an approach and have initiated peer support programs. Peer support officers’ training focuses on the basic counseling skills like identifying stress-related problems in their fellow officers. Officers seeking help also find it easy to trust these officers because of the existing sense of camaraderie and positive respect between them.

Genet Bill Genet, a 33-year NYPD veteran; and director of the Police Unions Membership Assistance Program (MAP) argues that intervention programs should operate independently from the department and be established to help cops get the help they need while protecting their confidentiality. He believes that providing a safe and confidential environment that is supportive would encourage the officers to open up and share their concerns.

Allen Kates feels that other law enforcement agencies and police unions should pay attention to Genet’s program because, in addition to providing peer support for officers, it also caters for the police officers’ families allowing them to help the officers cope with the stress. Genet feels that utilizing trained peer officers makes a big difference in cops getting the help they need because of the concept of one cop helping another. He argues that the MAP is the best intervention program that can prevent stress-related disorders in police officers.

One program that celebrates great success is a program called Cop2Cop from New Jersey, the first program of its kind in the nation. It became a law in 2000 to focus on suicide prevention and mental health support for law enforcement officers. With the combination of a 24/7 hotline, case management, and referrals, and a statewide peer officer support program, Cop2Cop certainly stands a national model for other states to follow.

In 2010, The Governor of New Jersey’s Council on Mental Health Stigma developed a statewide task force that assisted in the enactment of new legislation that requires suicide awareness training for all new recruits with the goal of reducing the suicide rate of the police officers. According to Cherie Castellano, the Director of Cop2Cop program, the Cop2Cop peer program since its inception in 2000, has attended to 24,000 law enforcement officers in need of its services. The New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma collaborated with the Task Force to create and launch the “Tough Cops Ask for Help” Campaign in October of 2009 (Gilmartin, 1998, p. 12)

Since meeting with Ms. Castellano and visiting her program in 2007, and after reviewing other national successful programs, I have been working with New York State representatives including elected officials, law enforcement administrators, and regular member’s officers, mental health, and medical professionals, clergy members who serve law enforcement personnel, Employee Assistance Programs, and CISM teams located throughout the state. It is incumbent upon our elected officials and law enforcement administrators to prepare for critical events and provide their personnel with the training and support services necessary to assure a successful career with minimal emotional carnage.


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