By Jessica Dockstader, IPSA Mental Health Committee Member
Police officers experience traumatic events throughout their career called critical incidents. A study conducted by Chopko, Palmieri and Adams (2015) found that on average, law enforcement officers experience 188 critical incidents in the course of their career. In response to critical incidents, officers can develop negative coping mechanisms, experience symptoms of and/or develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and develop other co-occurring psychopathological disorders. Additionally, factors such as organizational stress, stigma surrounding mental health within the department, a lack of mental health literacy on the part of the officer, and a lack of leadership surrounding mental health in the department can also lead to an officer developing PTSD and/or using poor coping mechanisms.
Officers suffering from PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms have a higher likelihood of exhibiting violent tendencies towards the community and themselves; this is in part due to patterns such as “death imprint” and “desensitization” commonly displayed by individuals suffering from PTSD (James & Gilliland, 2017). Furthermore, the characteristics of PTSD such as hypervigilance and reliving memories can cause officers to become violent towards themselves and the community. Law enforcement departments must adopt best practices and policies relating to officer mental health to in turn address police violence—thereby reducing officer suicides and preventing traumatized officers from causing harm to the communities they serve.
Trauma and policing
Police violence in the United States may be significantly influenced by unaddressed trauma. Police officers experience trauma on a daily basis during critical incidents which “frequently involve perceptions of death, threat to life, or involve bodily injury” (Digliani, 2012). In addition, studies have found that law enforcement officers under-utilize available psychological services (Spence, 2017). As a result, officers’ ability to distinguish real from perceived threats may be impaired, causing an overreaction in situations involving threat (Lancaster, Cobb, Telch & Lee. 2016). Officers may legitimately “fear for their lives”, as they often assert after a use of force, but their fear response may originate from a history of untreated trauma related to cumulative post-traumatic stress disorder, and lack of coping skills rather than an actual threat (Beshears, 2017).
The trauma that police officers face on a daily basis during critical incidents, coupled with their lack of or under utility of mental and emotional health training leads officers to be less efficient (Spence, 2017) and have high rates of suicide (Heyman, Dill & Douglas, 2018). One historical reason for the under usage of job-related psychological services by law enforcement officers of all ranks is fear of reprisal and creating barriers to promotion (Spence, 2017). Studies have illustrated that individuals struggling with psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress symptoms are more prone to violence (Gillikin, Habib, Evces, Bradley, Ressler & Sanders, 2016; Kivisto, Moore, Elkins & Rhatigan, 2009; Heyman et al. 2018). Therefore, a lack of adequate care and training leads to a more violence-prone police force patrolling our streets.
Ignorance and dismissal
Factors contributing to the ignorance and dismissal of the mental health crisis in law enforcement stems from mental health stigmas held across the United States and within the law enforcement community (Spence, 2017). Other contributing factors are the unwillingness to establish a mental health baseline in currently operating officers based on the fear that some of them are unfit to serve and the polarization between the police and the community which leads each side unwilling to admit any fault.
The challenge lies in establishing that police officers are, like all human beings, in fact affected by trauma without implying they are unable to do their jobs. It is imperative to impress upon the law enforcement community that their officers might be suffering from post-traumatic stress which in turn impacts the way they do their job. This impairment is a public health concern to the officers and the communities they serve.
In the current age of polarization, many officers are apprehensive that community members will point to the proven trauma an officer experiences as a reason they either should not be on the job, or why the community member should receive compensation in a civil suit as a form of justice. Fear is present among both sides of this equation, with the officers and the community, leaving the problem of trauma-impaired law enforcement officers to be relatively unexplored. Researchers must determine if prolonged exposure to traumatic events throughout a law enforcement professional’s career, which is proven to increase aggression and violence, can be offset by mental and emotional health training at the beginning and throughout said law enforcement professional’s career.
Below are key recommendations for law enforcement agencies and researchers.
Law enforcement recommendations
Centralize Mental Health Resources: Develop an area within the department where all resources available for officer mental health and wellness are centralized and can be easily accessed. This will simultaneously accomplish two goals: reducing the stigma of receiving help and ensuring every officer knows where to go if and when they are seeking out help.
Partner with Mental Health Organizations: Partner with mental health organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and/or former law enforcement officers who have experienced and overcome mental health issues to deliver presentations to officers on how to recognize signs of mental illness within themselves.
Collect Data on Officer Suicides: Begin to collect data on the suicide rate of officers from the department, and contribute to the new data platform, a partnership between the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
Prepare Lateral Transfers for Critical Incidents: Lateral transfers coming from a smaller department to a larger one may be more severely impacted by critical incidents (Chopko et al. 2015). Ensure these officers are receiving appropriate training and assistance as they integrate into the department.
Recognize the Impacts of Understaffing on Officers: During the ongoing nationwide staffing shortage, it is important to emphasize mental health awareness and self-care for officers. Copenhaver and Tewksbury (2018) found that officers were 28.4% more likely to seek help for symptoms related to mental illness when they had received an extra hour of sleep; thus, it is imperative to better understand the impact of shift work and sleep deprivation on officers.
Improve the Organizational Culture: Research has shown that organizational stressors have an equal or greater impact on law enforcement officers than critical incidents (Shane, 2010). Bring in an organizational consultant to assess and address issues which could be negatively impacting the department.
Establish Partnerships with Research Organizations: Partner with local and/or national research organizations to integrate evidence-based practices in the department. Without coordinating these partnerships, the department, officers, and communities you serve have the potential to be negatively impacted.
Conduct Research inside Departments: Develop relationships with law enforcement departments, so as to conduct research with their officers to determine their level of mental health literacy, attitudes towards mental health treatment, and to begin to determine how many officers are struggling with PTSD and PTSD related symptoms.
Develop Safety Protocols for Officers: Law enforcement officers have a large fear of being “de-gunned”. At the same time, having their weapon can be a risk to them while suffering from PTSD. Researchers and counselors must work with law enforcement departments to create special safety plans to address an officer’s access to lethal means while placating their fear of not being able to work.
Educate Departments on Evidence-Based Practices: Law enforcement departments have been utilizing Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) despite the fact that it has not been found to accomplish what it claims to (Mitchell, n.d.). Researchers must develop partnerships with law enforcement departments to routinely update them on the latest evidence-based practices, to ensure a robust flow of knowledge surrounding best practices in the field of law enforcement.
About the Author
Jessica Dockstader is an M.A. Candidate at the University of San Diego, and earned her B.A. in Human Development with a concentration in Counseling Services from California State University San Marcos. She is currently completing her Master’s capstone on mental health in law enforcement, and has worked in the field of police-community relations in San Diego for a year and a half. She also serves as a member of the IPSA Mental Health Committee. firstname.lastname@example.org