Police officer vulnerability previously ignored, hidden from plain site

What is currently understood as repeated exposure to trauma and its emotional impact was once thought to be a testament to toughness invoking the specter of a wall of silence. Law enforcement and first responder suicide has increased over the past several years and now exceeds the number of LEO’s killed in the line of duty. Why are cops choosing to take their lives? This is especially felt in Chicago where seven officers have taken their own lives in the last 8 months. In more than one case an officer committed suicide in the police vehicle or in the police department parking lot.

My colleague Dr. Leo Polizoti, Police Consulting Psychologist at the Direct Decision Institute, Inc. has been active in law enforcement training, fitness, and prescreening for over 40 years. He served over 30 agencies across New England and provides supportive psychotherapy as needed.

Dr Polizoti and I were recently involved in a symposium on Police Suicide in Chicago sponsored by Daninger Solutions from Daytona Beach, Florida. Among the presenters were Dr Thomas Joiner from the University of Miami, recognized expert in suicide, police sergeant Mark Debona from Orlando, Florida and Dr Daniel Hollar, Chairman in department of Behavior Science at Berthune-Cookman University in Tallahassee, Florida and CEO at Daninger Solutions.

There are many reasons why police officers have an increased levels of depression and stress.  Most are associated with repeated exposure to traumatic events like exposure to dead bodies, violence, childhood injury or death, terrorism, fatal car crashes, and more.  Most officers are able to remain professionally hearty when provided the opportunity to defuse the exposure soon after an incident. Career performance should include reducing officer depression and embitterment by building resilience starting in the academy and lasting throughout an LEO’s career.

The Mind-Body connection is well established and the role of stress in LEO career well-being is becoming a agency focus beginning in the academy.

“Not only must we as negotiators learn to take care of ourselves emotionally and physically – we must also be prepared to intervene with an actively suicidal officer. “

Dave DeMarco FOX News Kansas City

Is it any wonder officers lose hope and resilience.  There are inherent risks that LEO’s assume when they sign on like forced overtime, changing shifts, off-duty court appearances, the chance they may become injured, disabled or killed while serving the community.  There are also systemic stressors like supervisory bullying, professional jealousy, lack of opportunity to have an impact on policy, career stagnation, and paramilitary chain of command that often devalues education and innovation.  Agencies are beginning to track exposure to trauma and its correlated change police officer resilience in real time.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, LEO’s are required to attend defusing sessions following high lethality/high acuity exposure.  These sessions are kept private from members of the command staff and records are saved by the police consulting psychologist. The department has nearly 500 officers who are paid for their participation when they attend. It has been proposed that officers undergo annual “wellness checks” as a routine in some agencies such as KCMO. I have proposed a system of tracking officer call acuity and invoking mandated behavioral health assessment after a specified number of high acuity/high lethality calls for service. This is one way of reducing the stigma that officers face when they are sent for “fitness” evaluation or any sort of behavioral health care. The stigma associated with mental health may be reduced by having specified referrals following identified high profile incidents. Officers may be considered to be getting peak performance training at these defusing sessions as they are designed for enhancing officer awareness and reducing the human stress response.

Now, the KCMO department has mandated yearly wellness exams for officers in certain units like homicide and those dealing with child abuse. This was initiated to decrease the impact of traumatic events on police officer well-being. Officers at KCMO can also get up to six free anonymous visits to a mental health clinician each year, and the department has a peer support team.  Mental health clinicians must have experience working with law enforcement officers for best results.  Training for clinicians should be provided to best work with LEO’s and first responders. This is especially true for officers who self-refer.  Clinical hours should be supervised by the police consulting psychologist.

One thought on “Police officer vulnerability previously ignored, hidden from plain site

  1. Hi Micheal. Sorry to have taken so long to respond to this great post. It’s been a crazy month.

    We had a suicide recently in Hamilton, NJ, which highlights another challenge officers face. The officer in question shot himself in his patrol car, and the trigger may have been the breakup of a marriage or relationship. He called his ex so she could listen to him pull the trigger.

    Stress takes a toll on families. What happens at work comes home, and if the family is lacking in strength and understanding, it’s destructive. As in most careers, officers I suspect are reluctant to bring up family issues at work, although work may be a major contributing factor to those issues.

    We don’t teach kids how to manage finances or how to pick life partners and expect people to muddle through. We also don’t teach them how to deal with stress. The mantra that I’ve learned over time (learned the hard way) is that “dying is easy, life is hard but rewarding.” However, I’m not at all sure how many people understand that.

    When you’re military or a first-responder, you face magnified life challenges. When you face them with unrealistic expectations or without the resources to deal with the real challenges in your life, it’s very hard indeed. Whether it’s a “blue code” or simple machismo, it doesn’t help.

    Vic

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