Cumulative exposure to stress: The stigma of being human

The impact of cumulative emotional reactions and Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has significant negative impact on law enforcement heartiness, job satisfaction and career success (Polizoti, 2018). Police agencies across the country are looking for ways to mitigate the impact of accumulated stress associated with exposure to the worst of the worst of all human experience. “Arguably, everything from unattended death, domestic violence, child abuse, and a fatal motor vehicle crash may show up on the call board of any dispatcher on any day or night.” Sefton, 2014. There is no doubt that police officers and first responders are exposed to experiences that are well outside of normal human experience. On top of this requirement many officers do not feel supported by the people they serve and worse, the leadership hierarchy within the agency.

Law enforcement agencies are looking for ways to reduce the human cost of the stress and trauma LEO’s experience on the job but eliminating this all together is likely impossible. This “roller coaster” ride is often why we sign up for the police service where one can have hours of boredom sprinkled with seconds of shear terror and exposure to viral human suffering.

It has been said that LEO’s keep their internal conflict and emotions to themselves always in check and under control. Some fear being perceived as weak and feel intimidated by seeking support for the behavioral health needs resulting from the job. Strength in silence is the archaic mantra lurking behind the blue line and may be the underpinning stigma at work. This stereotype has a significant impact on family relationships, work performance, and career longevity. It has changed in the past decade but very slowly and too many officers are suffering.

Just as we have seen in a subset of the returning member’s of the armed forces, LEO’s are taking their own lives as a result of the accumulation of stressful calls year after year coupled with an erosion of coping skills rendering them vulnerable to becoming hopeless, embittered, and angry. On top of that and perhaps most dangerous is a growing mistrust and perceived lack of respect and support from community leaders, citizens, and sometimes department leaders.

Bias refers to having expectations about a class or subset of people based on unrecognized and unsubstantiated prejudice. Among law enforcement there is a perceived threat of reverse bias associated with having an emotional reaction to the law enforcement experience – at least as far as the front line troops are concerned. There is sometimes an negative attribution associated with being on stress-related leave so many officers who need support do not seek help. Over time this takes a toll on officer well-being. The health risks from years of maladaptive coping to on-the-job calls for service can be insurmountable for some leading to substance abuse, depression, heart disease, and PTSD.

The upwelling of professional disdain toward the police and outright lack of support from the public arising from use of force and incidence of fatal officer involved shootings adds to the LEO “disidentification” with the police service. Once an officer has disidentified with the job he or she is vulnerable to a host of professional challenges associated with becoming at risk for career burn out and embittered.

“Pain is lessened by ceasing to identify with the part of life in which the pain occurs. This withdrawal of psychic investment may be supported by other members of the stereotype-threatened group—even to the point of its becoming a group norm. But not caring can mean not being motivated. And this can have real costs.” according to Steele (1999) who studied achievement in African American college students.

Whether one is speaking about academic achievement or career satisfaction and job performance in the police service “disidentification is a high price to pay for psychic comfort” according to Steele (1999).

The reason for this falls back to deeply held bias toward mental illness that cuts across all segments of society. But it hits particularly hard among law enforcement and first responders. This is especially true when a brother officer is silently suffering.

Elevated mental health distress includes suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Some LEO’s preferred to seek help from a chiropractor or physiotherapist rather than a clinician or mental health provider” which reveals the true extent of underlying stigma and bias (Berg et al., 2006).

Polizoti, L. (2018) Career resilience and hardiness. LEO presentation. Worcester, MA.
Steele, Claude (1999) Thin ice: Stereotype threat and black college students. The Atlantic Magazine.

Berg et al. (2006). Fighting Police Trauma: Practical Approaches to Addressing Psychological Needs of Officers

The threat raised by stereotyping

Stereotyping plays a significant role in human behavior and is known to impact police and citizen interactions. In many instances circular feedback loops operate – sometimes unconsciously – that impact the interaction between individual citizens and members of law enforcement  This was first identified when describing how school-age students respond to teacher stereotype expectations “When we use stereotypes, we take in the gender, the age, the color of the skin of the person before us, and our minds respond with messages that say hostile, stupid, slow, weak. I know this to be true having been labeled “pathetic” at age 8 by a third grade teacher.  I was active, curious, and inattentive.  But I was not pathetic yet I sometimes feel this way even now. “Those (personal) qualities aren’t out there in the environment. They don’t reflect reality.” according to John Pargh, Ph.D.  The subtle, somewhat hostile incredulity shown to me as a young child had an impact in my effort, learning style, and self-image. I learned much later in life that the teacher I describe had more than a few problems that had nothing to do with me.  But still I have lingering doubts and understand the power of stereotyping.
These signs are independent of an individuals’ guilt or danger, and rather reflect a situationally- based psychological process, called social identity threat.  Police officers undergo defensive tactics instruction throughout their formal academy training learning pre-attack danger indicators and methods of managing the threats associated with physical attack.  This post hopes to connect the pre-attack signs with the social psychological literature on stereotype threat.
“Stereotype threat refers to the concern that stereotyped group members experience when they are in a situation where they might be negatively judged by a group stereotype (Steele 1997). This psychological threat produces high levels of anxiety, physiological stress, and impaired cognitive processes, as individuals are concerned about negative treatment based on their identity (Bosson et al. 2004; Osborne 2006; Schmader and Johns 2003).”
Community policing, when implemented effectively will provide a “buffering effect” to stereotype threat. It does so by providing identity and cultural affirmation that belies an ongoing dialogue among LEO’s and neighborhood residents that are affirming and without bias and prejudice. This has a way of reducing cultural bias, perceived threat, and misinterpretation of behavior. Community policing does much to bridge a gap in social identity by building bridges.
“ST occurs when environmental cues make salient to a person the negative stereotypes associated with their group, thereby triggering physiological and psychological processes that have detrimental consequences for their performance on certain tasks, on their behavior more generally, and on their self-understanding.” Becoming aware of stereotyping and the threat it raises in those who are stereotyped can shape the behavior of police officer and culturally diverse members of the community.

Kahn, K. MacMahon, J. and Stewart, G. Misinterpreting Danger? Stereotype Threat, Pre-attack Indicators, and Police-Citizen Interactions. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology , Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 45–54 Taken May 17, 2018