Law enforcement stress

Saturday, May 16, 2009

This is respect for law enforcement week, and I wanted to pen a letter informative to the public yet personally challenging to any law enforcement officer reading it.

Officers are trained to function under high-stress levels but are not trained how to cope with its long-term effects. With the start of each shift an officer automatically elevates into a higher stress level than normal, everyday working citizens. By the end of their shift many officers tend to crash to an unhealthy below-normal stress level. This exhaustive state is brought on by working at a higher than normal stress level.

Time and again during training, officers are taught that they must operate at a higher alert level to survive the job. Day after day and year after year of high-low stress syndrome, if allowed to, will cause serious health issues and cynical attitudes in police officers. Stress survival training is still not being properly addressed for most police officers today.

In law enforcement, it is easy to become cynical because we constantly deal with the worst people and situations society can muster. In a few months on the job most officers see more suffering, evil and grotesque situations than normal folks see in a lifetime. For these reasons officers are often seen as tough and calloused individuals with hardened hearts. Honestly speaking, in many ways we are, because just like the military we are conditioned to function come hell or high water. In doing so, officers tend to inoculate themselves from one of God's greatest gifts, which is compassion. Openly displayed compassion or emotions are often viewed by one's peers as a weakness or hindrance to getting the job done. Years of high-low stress combined with years of pent-up emotions cause many officers to become extremely cynical. Some become so cynical that they develop an us-against-them mentality and come to see and expect only the worst in anything or anybody.

Think about this for a moment. The men and women of our military bravely go into harm's way on tours of duty lasting anywhere from two to four years. Most of them perform under high-low stress situations involving death and destruction. Many of them come back just fine, but many are scarred for life. Of course, this has been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress syndrome. The Veterans Administration goes to great lengths to take care of these folks. Now think about a police officer on American soil that for 10, 20 or even 30 years deals with high-low stress death and destruction. To this day, almost nothing has been done to address the mental well-being of these hometown heroes.

High-low stress and bottled-up emotions annually take their toll on American law enforcement. Each year in the United States twice as many officers commit suicide than are killed by felony assault. Because of stress and bottled-up emotions, the average life expectancy of an American police officer is 57 years of age. That is 16 years less than the overall population. An additional tragedy is that during their careers 70 percent of all law enforcement officers will have failed marriages. Most of these officers only know how to help others. They normally will not express an emotion other than anger, and they will not ask for help.

Until recent years little was done to address high-low stress, bottled up emotions, police cynicism and police suicide. Studies were conducted in the 1990s to look at officers who survived and retired with relatively good health and good attitudes. The study discovered the survivors seemed to have one thing in common. The commonality seemed to be they didn't overinvest their time in the job to the point that they let the job consume them. These officers took control of their own personal lives and left the job at work. This discovery was profound, yet so simple.

It is incumbent upon the public to demand that federal, state and local governments do everything possible to help prevent, reduce and treat officers' suffering from the effects of high-low stress with pent-up emotions. This, in turn, will break the cycle of cynicism in police and create better police officers.

As administrators, we must encourage our officers to take control of their personal lives. Officers must do the best job they know how, but leave the job at the office when they go home. Officers need to go home when work is over and kiss their spouses, hug their kids and make sure they have a hobby. Officers must be encouraged to work within the community where they can easily see the good in people so they retain their sense of realism. They need to get involved in a church or community organization and be a part of the real goodness of the community. As administrators, we must make stress training and counseling mandatory to our officers that are struggling. As police officers we must never lose sight of the big picture: We are our brother's keeper. We must never lose compassion for people if we are to be true servants of the people. We must be realist and not cynics. We are not superheroes. We are mere fallible, mortal men.

I challenge every citizen who reads this to do something. The next time you bump into a police officer, take a second to thank him or her for his or her service. I challenge every officer who reads this to do a self-reflection test. Ask yourself how you personally reacted to the miraculous news of the lost 3-year-old boy being found alive and well after 52 hours alone in the woods last week. Did you get a lump in your throat? Did you have a tear well up in your eye? If you are a believer, did you whisper, "Thank you, God"? Or did you simply shrug it off, experience no emotion at all and head to the next call? My fellow officer, if you had no emotional reaction to this miracle, you owe it to yourself, your family and your community to seriously examine your emotional well-being as a police officer. Help is available, and it is confidential. Do not hesitate to contact your agency's administrator or chaplain for help. To be a true servant, you must have compassion. Stress can be managed, a hardened heart can be softened, and cynicism can be replaced with realism. Maybe, just maybe, we can beat the statistical average of 57 years of age.

John Jordan is the Cape Girardeau County sheriff.

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