What is resilience in police work? Emotional resilience is defined as the the capacity to integrate the breadth of police training and experience with healthy, adaptive coping, optimism, mental flexibility and healthy resolution of the traumatic events. In general, resilient people are self-reliant and have positive role models from whom they have learned to handle the stressful events all police officers encounter. In the best of circumstances officers are encouraged to share stressful events and debrief with peer supports that are a regular component of the police service. Unfortunately, in spite of the availability of peer support many officers are hesitant to utilize and call upon their peers to help with difficult even traumatic calls like suicide and severe child or elder abuse. One reason for this is a culture of internalizing stress until it whittles away career satisfaction and job performance. The underpinning of police officer burn-out is the collapse of resilience and onset of maladaptive coping.
How many mid-career officers have reduced productivity and elevated stress that leads to increased use of alcohol, drugs, gambling, abuse of sick leave, and job-related injuries? According to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. resilience refers to professional hardiness that is protective against such career burnout and raises both professionalism and job satisfaction. Many believe that hardiness and resilience can be built and polished as the officer grows into his career.
Police training tends to be repetitive and often boring. Officers train to attain a level of automaticity so that when field encounters become threatening they are quick to utilize tactical behavior in the use of force continuum. Sadly, police departments everywhere have trained in the active shooter protocol so that when the call goes out every officer knows exactly what is expected of him or her. By doing so the motor programs and cognitive maps coalesce into a tactical advantage for law enforcement. Training also helps to reduce autonomic arousal and helps regulate internal levels of stress so that officers can function at optimal levels when needed most.
Just as it is difficult to identify mental illness in a civilian population until the person is off the rails, so too is it difficult to pinpoint a law enforcement officer who is struggling with the long-term effects of the high stress calls police answer on a daily basis. “Stress and grief are problems that are not easily detected or easily resolved. Severe depression, heart attacks, and the high rates of divorce, addiction, and suicide in the fire and EMS services proves this” according to Peggy Rainone who provides seminars in grief and surviving in EMS (Sefton, 2013).
High levels of stress are known to slowly erode emotional coping skill leaving a psychologically vulnerable person at higher risk of acting out in many ways including with violence. The 2013 case of domestic violence homicide in Arlington, Massachusetts raises the specter of domestic violence homicide in police and first responders. In this case, a decorated paramedic allegedly killed his twin children, his wife and then himself. Outwardly, he and his family seemed happy. What might trigger such an emotional breakdown and deadly maelstrom?
“Although resilience — the ability to cope during and recover from stressful situations — is a common term, used in many contexts, we found that no research had been done to scientifically understand what resilience is among police. Police officers have a unique role among first responders. They face repeated stress, work in unpredictable and time-sensitive situations, and must act according to the specific departmental policies. ” Andersen et al. 2017
The career success they have may be directly related to the application of resiliency training to build and maintain physical and emotional hardiness that lasts a lifetime according to Leo Polizoti, 2018. Before this can happen the stigma associated with reaching out must be reduced.
Reduced stigma will afford officers the chance to express themselves, lower stress and tension, and seek peer or professional help when situations evoke or release the ghosts of cases past – often the underpinning of PTSD. This openness has not yet found its way into the law enforcement culture and while physical fitness has taken hold for career satisfaction – mindfulness has not become fully embraced.
Andersen et al. (2017) Performing under stress: Evidence-based training for police resilience
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Gazette Magazine Vol. 79 No 1.
Polizoti, L. (2017) Psychological Resilience: From Surviving to Thriving in a Law Enforcement Career. Presentation. Direct Decision Institute, Worcester, MA
Polizotti, LF (2018) Psychological Resilience : From surviving to thriving in a law enforcement career. Personal Correspondence. Taken 4-21-2018
Rainone, P. (2013) Emergency workers at risk. (website) http://www.emsvilliage.com/articles/article.cfm?ID=176. Taken 12-1-2013