2.17.2012

Police under Pressure – A Look at Police and Stress on the Job

English: NYPD officers from the Emergency serv...Image via Wikipedia NYPD ESU Officers
            While it is no secret that uniformed police officers deal with a variety of tasks on a daily basis, it should be no surprise that they also are under stress levels that can, if not properly dealt with, can cause travesties.  Problems of stress can affect more than just those officers or their potential subjects, it can also carry over into their “other” lives off the clock.  Many news stories in recent days have shown officers dealing with “peaceful protestors” with unusual force, some caught on tape and considered a bit harsh on the officers part.  While training and precise exercising can help the officer become more focused on correct procedure or premise, it may not fully address the source of the officer’s stress.  This article will look into a few of those stresses and what the public may or may not see as well as some real world examples of unnecessary stressors. 
            Since that fateful day in September of 2001, the focus of law enforcement has taken on a role unlike any prior in its history.  This in turn added a few dimensions for officials to look at and decide what is criminal and not so criminal.  The pressure to perform in the face of adversity or uncertainty affects anyone normally, but what about police officers?  According to an online article (abclocal.go.com), in an NYPD (New York Police Department) the pressures of achieving quota’s of arrests or searches became part of the job.  In the article, the officer who chose to step forward and conduct the interview admitted that officials had indeed expected a certain range of items to be accomplished.  This, according to the officer being interviewed was done in order to show its leaders that the police department had a “tight grip” on the city’s crime problem.
            The deputy commissioner issued a statement after the department declined an interview, stating “Police officers, like others who receive compensation, are given productivity goals. They are expected to work.”  This type of pressure may or may not be common or rampant in some areas, but, it is unnecessary and the statement almost implies that they get paid much like sales persons or production workers.  Imagine knowing no matter what you encounter on your beat, at some point you have to make an arrest or issue a court summons, just to be noticed or “counted” as doing something positive.  This not only deters the officer from their primary goal of addressing the more pressing community issues of crime, but also subjects the unsuspecting potential suspect to a rather unlawful approach to use of authority.  The stress factor for this one a 10 out of 10, officers should not have to meet quotas; they should protect and uphold the public trust.
            Before we dive deeper into other stresses, it is important to note that most police departments when they recruit their officers do not look for the hot headed types or those that could be considered dangerous to their force.  Instead, what most recruiters and departments look for is someone who can maintain a level head while exercising authority over their subject.  The officer may have back up while on their beat, but mostly they are working unsupervised and must make decisions of a supervisory nature, usually on the spot.  This requires confidence, patience, understanding, insight and a variety of skills.  No officer joins a force with these skills already in check, they get to train as well as protect so long as they are serving in that capacity as it will take a lifetime to be prepared for most all scenarios and even then a few will surprise the officer.
            Training in these life skills begins once the recruit has passed their initial screening to be considered a part of the force, which does include a psychological overview of the candidate and extensive background look.  Areas of interest to the candidate may include homicide, white collar investigations, cyber crime, juvenile crimes and deviance, special operations (S.W.A.T.) and a variety of others depending on the regions needs.  Some one of common sense and a good understanding or sense of moral urgency in right and wrong would certainly be a good fit in these fields.  Another prominent requirement, good physical condition is a must as well as the ability to decipher the clouded from fact in order to make a good judgment on arrest or detention, this means knowing who is lying and why they might be covering something up.
            In relation to this, a good example would be the traffic stop.  When an officer approaches the driver, they usually do have some idea of why they chose to stop the motorist.  The motorist could be in one of a few scenarios, first, the scenario of average citizen who genuinely broke the law, but without intent and cooperates with the officer fully, presents no weapons or illicit items and gets to have a fine rest of the day. Scenario two, officer approaches vehicle, smells alcohol or sees weapon, must react accordingly with authority and precision to eliminate the immediate threats. Scenario three, said motorist is contemplating running away or may be under heavier influence of intoxicating substances, which would lead them to confusion.
            The confused motorist who may not have had ill intentions could become agitated and present another danger to the officer, which could escalate and involve passengers in the vehicle and so on.  In these cases, if it were the same officer and two different drivers, we could easily see that the need to be calm in one scenario and reactive in another would certainly cause stress levels to rise and fall.  Given a busier setting, the officer could experience this type of emotional rollercoaster daily and eventually will have an effect on the mental and physical health of the officer.  Stress factor here, 9 to 10 out of 10. Traffic patrol officers suffer internal and external stress, wrecks, moving violations, criminal pursuits and assisting the stranded motorist all add up. 
            As we can see, stress factors can wear on the mind of police officers in their daily routines as does the need for qualified individuals who can handle the switching of gears and confident decision making.  This means a focus on integrity and being able to separate your job from your family or personal life.  According to another online article about policing (neiassociates.org), on their website it states:
            “Among the most dangerous of all temptations in policing is the pull to let the job become all-consuming. There is nothing wise or healthy about letting any job overwhelm private life, especially when the job involves stresses of the kind that are customary in policing. All of us need time to relax, enjoy friends and family who are not police, and engage in hobbies or sports and other activities that are good for us emotionally and physically. We need to think about things other than our jobs, to improve our minds by new learning that is not job-related, to keep ourselves in focus by recognizing that our jobs do not entirely define us. A police officer is not merely a police officer, but also a citizen, a friend, a family member, a person.”
            The ability to unwind is essential in dealing with stress and officers who ride the emotional rollercoaster at work sometimes do come home and bring the job with them.  The reason is due in part to the ethics of the job, they can’t just be “the good guys” on the clock, and some may feel the sense that this is a reflection on them 24 hours a day and in turn, if in a family may expect that their family does not encounter things that would hint otherwise.  A clean face, the perfect family, the little white picket fenced house look, all could cause unnecessary external pressure and stress on the officer who just wants to do their job, come home and forget about the bad guys for a while.  Some of this isn’t the mental state of the officer alone, it could be influenced by their fellow officers or department heads they feel are important to look good in front of in order to get a promotion or off a certain beat.  Stress factor here 8-9 out of 10, personal performance in the public’s eye and family’s eye could cause harm.
            The types of harm that stress can bring on the body, besides the family are enormous in cost, both monetarily and physically.  Your body cannot discern the difference in psychological and physical stress, as the brain has to interpret what it feels and sees in all situations, while some stress is necessary and is healthy, repeat stresses can cause damage to our body.  Consider the following chart retrieved from www.helpguide.org , where it shows some symptoms of stress:
Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms
Cognitive Symptoms
Emotional Symptoms
§  Memory problems
§  Inability to concentrate
§  Poor judgment
§  Seeing only the negative
§  Anxious or racing thoughts
§  Constant worrying
§  Moodiness
§  Irritability or short temper
§  Agitation, inability to relax
§  Feeling overwhelmed
§  Sense of loneliness and isolation
§  Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms
Behavioral Symptoms
§  Aches and pains
§  Diarrhea or constipation
§  Nausea, dizziness
§  Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
§  Loss of sex drive
§  Frequent colds
§  Eating more or less
§  Sleeping too much or too little
§  Isolating yourself from others
§  Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
§  Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
§  Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

            This chart shows a wide variety of symptoms in relation to stress and a few apply to our officers on patrol and investigating.  Seeing only the negative in people could easily result from the perception by officers that the entire world is evil except them.  Feeling overwhelmed when they may face several hostile encounters in a shift is a real possibility, moodiness or short temper in combination of low sex drive could very well affect marriages and if the officers daily life is less than normal, it could easily affect the happy union of souls.  Divorce rates in our society are high enough, not as high as those in police work.
            In fact, in a research project conducted in 2003 (emich.edu) an astonishing 65 percent of officers get divorced in comparison to the average divorce rate of just over 50% of all couples and officers have been known to be married 6 to 8 (six to eight) times in a 25 year career span.  Most of the cause of this is due to the officer placing confidence in the other members on his or her force thinking that only they may understand the problems associated with their jobs and not talking it out with their significant others or even seeking out proper counseling.  There is a great deal of brotherhood and fraternization among officers, the new recruits feel the need to fit in, the veterans in turn befriend them or not and seek out help from the other veterans, some see others taking bribes, while others walk a clean line and all of these items affect family life, stress factor for family life of an officer 9 out of 10, the reason it’s not 10 out of 10, alcoholism also applies in the stresses and many officers seek release in this form, those families, 10 out of 10 on stress.
            Looking deeper into the problems of stress in police work, we uncover another online article in research of this problem.  According to the article (soc.umn.edu), it states:
“Stress contributes not only to the physical disorders mentioned, but also to emotional problems. Some research suggests that police officers commit suicide at a higher rate than other groups. Most investigators report unusually high rates of divorce among police. Although some maintain that researchers have exaggerated the divorce rate among police, interview surveys demonstrate that police stress reduces the quality of family life. A majority of officers interviewed reported that police work inhibits non police friendships, interferes with scheduling family social events, and generates a negative public image. Furthermore, they take job pressures home, and spouses worry about officers’ safety. Systematic studies do not confirm the widely held belief that police suffer from unusually high rates of alcoholism, although indirect research has established a relationship between high job stress and excessive drinking. Finally, officers interviewed cited guilt, anxiety, fear, nightmares, and insomnia following involvement in shooting incidents.”
             Stop or I will shoot, is a very powerful statement in the field of police work, one that comes with great responsibility, which includes the decision to take a life or not, whether or not in self defense and whether or not it was the right decision to make.  Guilt, anxiety, nightmares, fears and restless nights, in essence our conscious mind at work.  Considering the initial recruiting process and the particulars of character those departments look to acquire, imagine if it were you and you had to shoot to kill.  Suddenly your level headed, well trained mind is told subconsciously or consciously, fire your weapon and end that life.  A sobering thought when in context to a mistake of fake gun vs. real gun or not knowing if what your suspect is holding is a phone, gun, or other item.  The anxiety of the job can also be felt in other areas, what if you are an officer who continuously works robberies, would you eventually catch yourself looking around off the clock and making assessments and if so, would they be out of the need for the job or conditioned response?  Shooting someone, stress levels immeasurable on our scale and God Bless any officer who has to make that decision, they need support all they can get.
            We have seen examples of police stresses, the physical effects on the body, the effect on the officers themselves and the need to provide better outlets for our officers who protect our streets.  Training on situational encounters does nothing for the rollercoaster effect of those encounters, especially if the administration of those departments is causing it.  Police officers are no stranger to dangers of our world; it would be a travesty, if we did not ask for the tools of relief and outlets of education and counseling to be made available to each of those men and women who make sure the boogey man stays safely at bay, even if it means giving each of them a tennis ball to squeeze.

            

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