Officer well-being is essential for career longevity. It becomes apparent that police officers grow and remain productive in an environment of support: both within the organization and within the community in which they serve. These attributes build a sense of personal meaning and career purpose. Leo Polizoti, Ph.D.In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl described the daily demoralizing prisoners underwent both physically and psychologically. Survivors of the horrific images at concentration camp Auschwitz began to find meaning in their forced labor – even humor along with camaraderie. Many of us glean a significant sense of well-being from what we do personally and professionally. Most cops derive great personal meaning and purpose from the job of police officer at least for the first 3-5 years. Law enforcement officers’ derive much of their identity from the work they do on a daily basis and can experience wide ranging stress from call to call. As such, it has become well-known that police work requires special understanding of one’s community and a positive sense of personal responsibility, well-being and resilience for career success and hardiness (Polizoti, 2018). Purpose in life refers to an underlying belief that what you do for work has importance and purpose on a larger scale. Moreover, to diminish oneself as a result of career embitterment runs a risk of the erosion of purpose and loss of group membership. That is when one becomes marginalized and loses his purpose and the “why” for living. Viktor Frankl believed that once gone the purpose of life and the will to live cannot be restored. Mark Dibona previously was a patrol sergeant for the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in Florida, where he supervised nine officers, but the memory of the June morning where he was called upon to resuscitate and dying infant still haunts him. “Other stressful situations include, but are not limited to: long hours; handling people’s attitudes; waiting for the next call and not knowing what the situation will be; and even politics within the department. Then, on top of it all, officers are frequently criticized, scrutinized, and investigated for decisions they make” said Michelle Beshears on the faculty at American Military University. Among police officers between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population. A colleague and friend, Sergeant Mark DiBona retired from law enforcement in 2019 has had some difficult times on the job in Florida that effect him in a profound way. He is an strong advocate for law enforcement mental health and suicide prevention. “Until this day,” said Dibona, who admits to having contemplated suicide several times before he began counseling, “I can feel the warmth of that baby on my arm.” A child Mark believed he could save.
This is a photograph produced by Dave Betz who lost his son (pictured) in 2019 to suicide.
Officer Dave Betz lost his son David to suicide in 2019
The code of silence. It surrounds the culture of police work and always has. I was once told there are two kinds of people: police officers and ass holes. If you were not a police officer then you were an asshole. It was a brotherhood with a formidable blue line that defined the police service as a singular force against all that is bad. Some have said that law enforcement offers a front seat to the greatest show on earth. Until what is viewed in the front row cannot be unseen and slowly chips away the veneer of solidarity by threatening the existing culture. For police officers to have long term career success the organization must come to grips with its membership and relieve them of the stigma they feel that prevents them from coming forward. Who would go for that?
If the organization devalues its rank and file for experiencing the natural, neurobiological reaction to repeated, high lethality exposure to violence and death, then who would join such an organization? Fewer and fewer applicants are signing on in 2019. If a police officer is emotionally denuded by the job why would he or she step up and break the code of silence and be labeled a “nut case” only to lose his badge, firearm, and police authority? No one will sign on for that kind of treatment.
Each time a member of the law enforcement community takes his or her own life the unspoken silence becomes a lancing wound to the festering emotional infection that is from repeated exposure to traumatic events. The reappearing wolf in sheep’s clothing cuts his teeth on the souls of unwavering academy graduates now paired with senior field trainers who promise to teach the tricks of the trade. Academy graduates come forth like professional athletes with all the confidence and enthusiasm of an elite athlete. They need experience and mentoring so they know what they are up against. I was asked to speak at the annual Society of Police and Criminal Psychology meeting in Scottsdale, AZ in late September, 2019 on the importance of the field training program on long-term officer wellness and career satisfaction.
Country music blared from the car radio as Dave, dressed in pajama pants and a t-shirt, stood over his son and realized he was dead.
Father of 24-year old police officer David Betz, 2019
The psychological autopsy may provide insight into the manner of death and must include prior exposure to trauma. How many first-in homicide calls had the decedent handled? How many unattended SIDS deaths? How many death notifications? How many cases of domestic violence where the victim was too frightened to speak about the nightly horrors in the marital home? How many times did he witness the remnants of a violent motor vehicle crash with ejection? Each time he bears witness to this inhumanity he risks never coming back. Some spouses will say they remember when they lost a husband or wife. “It was after the 4-alarm fire – sifting through the rooms for possible causes and finding the old woman who rented the place in an upstairs bathtub” or “the time the addict threw his newborn son off the 14th floor balcony because his baby mama did not return from work when she was expected.” Many espouse the use of the psychological autopsy as a way of honoring an officer who died by suicide as a means of linking the suicide to their tour of duty.
High lethality calls must be tracked allowing for paid psychological defusing time in the aftermath of these calls. Defusing and psycho- education can be provided for the entire group who handled the high lethality call rather than identify a single officer. Aftermath check-ins and peer support should follow. An officer who begins to exhibit changes in his normal work routine, e.g. increased tardiness, citizen complaints, or substance abuse should be referred for psychological follow-up that is linked to annual performance reviews and recommendations for corrective action.
In truth, the reader may wish to put himself into the position of the first arriving police officers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a place called Newtown. In December, 2012, twenty seven people were violently murdered – most were first grade students. I have read the Connecticut State Police report of the Sandy Hook shooting and was left feeling numb and physically sickened. It is over 1000 pages of grueling detail. Now, when I see TV images of LEO’s running on campus toward the sound of gunshots, I know they must step over the desperate victims, some of whom take their last breath reaching for a pant leg or a blue stripe or a black boot covered in blood all the while begging to live.
Recruits enter the police service with high hopes of making a difference but quickly learn that their purpose in life is being sucked out of them like embalming fluid moving though the lifeless remains of a brother or sister officer who could endure no more. Coming forth and asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, resilience, and heroism. There should be no penalty or secondary administrative sanction when an officer comes forth. They must be provided behavioral health treatment and a pathway to return to the job.
Police officer suicide impacts police agencies everywhere in America and across the globe. Many officers feel abandoned by their agencies and become marginalized because they struggle with depression, substance abuse, and PTSD after years of seeing the worst life has to offer. It is time to lessen the expectation of shame among the troops who serve communities large and small. No father should be first in at the suicide death of his own son and be expected to stand with a photo and share his story at the same time he remains stoic and brave.
I just finished a grant proposal looking at the effects of biofeedback on depression and embittered in early and mid-career law enforcement officers. A common complaint with retiring officers and many who leave is not being supported by the agency leadership. Embitterment and attrition go hand in hand but a “mass exodus” bespeaks trouble in paradise. I would like to study the effects of physiological biofeedback on LEO depression and emotional embitterment with a goal of reducing suicide with the goal of enhanced officer well-being. This study will not do much to explain the increase of resignations in Seattle but the data speaks for itself. The Emerald City has lost some luster and the trust of its troops.
Police chiefs frequently ask what can we do about officers who are trained and then leave the department after 1-3 years of service? This is a large problem in small and medium-sized departments. A study was published looking at the exit interview data from departing officers in the Seattle PD and what factors contributed to their decision to leave. According to Jason Randz who has a radio show at KTTH in Seattle, the mass exodus is linked to disgust at the city leadership including aggressive city council over site.
“There are lots of people walking out the door,” an officer explained. “This is a mass exodus. We’re losing people left and right. Why stick around when the City Council doesn’t appreciate you? [These officers are] fleeing the ‘Seattle mentality.’”
It is unlikely that a true mass exodus is taking place as some believe in the great Northwest. All large departments have officer turnover that can cause difficulty for recruiting efforts. In 2019, it has become more difficult to recruit men and women for the police service across the country. The Seattle story cites over three dozen officers who have left or are planning to leave the SPD because of feelings of unhappiness with the city. A true copy of one exit interview is shown above “New strategies will be essential to fill not only the recruitment gaps, but also the tremendous loss of organizational knowledge that will accompany the impending mass retirements. Few would argue that a department full of rookies at every level is what the profession needs, especially if those rookies are from a generation that craves immediate approval and recognition” as described in a paper published in Police Chief Magazine entitled A Crisis Facing Law Enforcement: Recruiting in the 21st Century.
According to Chief Sid Smith, “with the growing public concern over police use of deadly force, this mental health issue presents another challenge for the recruiters and places an added burden upon the mental health professionals retained to more carefully screen all applicants, including military veterans”. In a prior post the topic of protective factors for success in law enforcement are listed but a substantial factor impacting job satisfaction and career hardiness is perceived support from management and city government including members of city council and in some cases strong mayors. In 2014, the Seattle Police Department appointed Kathleen O’Toole, a former Boston Police Commissioner, to lead the agency which was under federal consent decree for cases of alleged excessive force. She resigned in 2017 for personal reasons.
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.
Scope of the Problem: Police Suicide and the goal to eliminate it
Police job-related stress is well-identified and reported in the media daily and the rates of suicide nationwide are being debated by Aamodt and Stalnaker. They are actually less than one is led to believe but even one law enforcement officer suicide is too much.
Stress is defined as any situation that negatively impacts an officer’s well-being. The rate of suicide and divorce among law enforcement is approximately the same or lower than the general public according to a meta- analysis conducted by Professor Michael Aamodt. But there are areas in the country and agencies that have higher rates of self-inflicted death.
When the suicide rate of police officers (18.1) is compared with the 21.89 rate for a comparable demographic population, it appears that police officers have a lower rate of suicide than the population according to Aamodt, 2008.
Incidence of suicide tend to be elevated in cities like Chicago, where chronic gun violence and a murder rate in the hundreds per year means cops see a staggering amount of trauma and may gradually become numb to the exposure of pain and suffering (Joyner, 2009). A Department of Justice report found that the suicide rate in the Chicago Police Department is 60 percent higher than the national average. According to the Chicago Sun Times, in a note to department members Wednesday, CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson said, “Death by suicide is clearly a problem in Law Enforcement and in the Chicago Police Department. We all have our breaking points, a time of weakness where we feel as if there is no way out, no alternative. But it does not have to end that way. You are NOT alone. Death by suicide is a problem that we can eliminate together” CST September 12, 2018. Chicago PD is not alone with the problem of suicide among its men and women in blue.
Law enforcement officers (LEO’s) encounter the worst of all experience on a routine basis. The people who call the police may be society’s best upstanding citizens but on this occasion it could be the worst day of their lives and they seek help from police. Many times it is not the pillars of society seeking help but those people in the fringes or margins of society now victims of violent crime or abuse.
According to Hartley, et.al., 2007, “repeated exposures to acute work stressors (e.g., violent criminal acts, sad and disturbing situations, and physically demanding responses), in addition to contending with negative life events (e.g., divorce, serious family or personal illness, and financial difficulties), can affect both the psychological and physiological well-being of the LEO population.” When these officers are identified there needs to be a planned response using a peer support infrastructure that provides for a continuum of service depending upon the individual needs of the LEO and the supports available. In many agencies, especially smaller departments lacking resources, officers’ languish and sometimes spiral downward without support and without somewhere to turn. Police officers must have support available to them long before they are expressing suicidal urges.
As programs are identified and service continuum grows the risk of peer conflict over perceived betrayal of trust must be addressed. This must be addressed in the peer support training with emphasis on preservation of life over maintenance of confidentiality or the status quo of abject silence. “In itself, it’s a product of centuries of police culture in which perceived weakness is stigmatized. Cops know their brothers have their back, no matter what, but they still don’t want to be seen as the one who’s vulnerable.” according to a recent Men’s Health article written by Jack Crosbie in a report about suicide in the NYPD published during Mental Health Awareness month in May 2018.
The argument is made that the recurring uncertainty of police calls for service often leave LEO’s with low-level exposure to trauma of varying degrees. It is common that LEO’s move from one violent call to the next without time to decompress and process what they have seen. The repeated exposure to trauma can slowly whittle away LEO resilience – defined as the capacity to bounce back from adversity. In a national media study published by Aamodt and Stalnaker, legal problems were a major reason for the law enforcement suicides yet no other study separately cited legal problems. In another study, relationship problems accounted for the highest percentage of suicides at 26.6% (relationship problems plus murder/suicide), followed by legal problems at 14.8%. In nearly a third of the suicides, no reason was known for LEO suicide.
Police suicide has been on the radar of advocates of LEO peer support for months or years. The incidence of suicide has remained stable across the country but some agencies have higher rates of suicide. Smaller departments – those with less than 50 officers in general have the highest rates of suicide. This may be linked to the lack of availability of peer support programs and a paucity of local practitioners to provide professional service with knowledge in police psychology. “While police officers may adapt to the negative effects of chronic stress, acute traumatic incidents necessitate specialized mental health treatment for police officers (Patterson, 2001)”. A referral to the department EAP often falls flat and makes it more difficult to make the hand-off when peer support is not enough.
Real-time model of change
The use of force continuum is well described in the LEO literature and ongoing criminal justice narrative. What does that have to do with stress intervention in police officers? It sets the tone for officer behavior whenever they meet potential resistance and or increased aggression during citizen encounters. It may also be used for initiating peer support needs whenever an incident use of force has occurred. LEO’s change the force response based on the situation they encounter in real-time in a flexible and fluid manner. In this same way, peer support programs can flexibly shift to the needs of a presenting LEO and intervene early on – rather than when an officer is at a breaking point. “This continuum (use of force) has many levels, and officers are instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation at hand, acknowledging that the officer may move from one point on the continuum to another in a matter of seconds.” NIJ publication. Peer support too, must accommodate a law enforcement officer in real-time to begin the process of building a healthy, resilient response to sometimes horrific exposures and provide a continuum of unbiased employee assistance and when necessary professional consultation.
Protective Factors begin in Academy training
What topics should addressed while LEO recruits are in training? Ostensibly, the resilience of LEO’s depends upon the opportunity for in-service training in topics of mindfulness, stress management, physical health maintenance, nutrition, and trust.
“Emotional resilience is defined as 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” according to Leo Polizotti, Ph.D. a police consulting psychologist (Sefton 2018).
Police programs for health maintenance
The Police Stress Intervention Continuum or P-SIC, involves a system of police support that varies in its intensity depending upon the continuum of individual needs of the LEO including physical debility or other significant components impacting career success and satisfaction. The intervention protocol is flexible and fluid as well. The entry point into the peer support continuum initiates from supervisory observations of LEO history and behavior, peer recommendations, and exposure to a range of traumatic events.
Generally speaking, a police officer’s behavior change is a function of the resilience they develop throughout their careers. Greater attention to physical health and emotional well-being are now being espoused in police academies across the country. Greater awareness of the correlation with the recent trauma and frequency of exposure to trauma such as the death of a child, exposure to dead bodies, suicide of a colleague, etc. have negative impact on officer well-being. Perceived support from supervisors and the organization hierarchy builds resilience.
Career success requires that officers learn stress tolerance and healthy habits to manage the daily challenges of police service. Physical exercise and healthy routines often afford the stressed officer an outlet for reduced risk of stress-related physical afflictions in addition to the emotional and health effects of repeated exposure to unpredictable violence.
The cumulative stress associated with a career in law enforcement cannot be understated. In the setting of police stress and stress support there is an intervention protocol that relates to the peer-support program continuum. Depending on where officers enter the peer support network will impact the level of intervention they may require in the P-SIC program. Peer support is not psychotherapy but officers occasionally must hand off the officer in trouble to a higher level of care. These hand-offs are key to linking at-risk LEO’s with range of professional support needed to keep them on the job. Yet fear of reprisal for acknowledging the cumulative impact of stress and its impact often derails the hand-off to the professional. The highest risk for suicide to a LEO is when he is denuded of badge and gun because he may be a threat to himself.
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.
Points of entry to Peer Support – Stress Intervention Continuum
copyright Michael Sefton
Exposure to highly stressful events in close sequence
Change in work assignment, district/station, deployment undercover or return from deployment
Increased absenteeism – over use of sick leave
Increased use/abuse of substances – impacting job functioning, on-the-job injury
Community – citizen complaint(s) for verbal abuse, dereliction of duty, vehicle crash
Citizen complaints of excessive force during arrest, supervisory or peer conflict, or direct insubordination.
Abuse of power using baton, taser or firearm, recurrent officer involved use of force. Officers are sometimes strongly embittered and angry at this point in their career due to perceived lack of support and powerful feelings career disappointment and alienation.