The cost of stress in the police force
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When it comes to what stresses police officers out, it’s not the car chases, or the threat of getting shot at, or even killed.
Ask Cherie Castellano, director of Cop2Cop, a 24-hour-hotline that fields up to 850 phone calls every month for stressed-out police officers, and she’ll tell you the worst part of an officer’s job is secondhand trauma: exposure to murders, car accidents, seeing hurt kids, all the horrible things police have to deal with on a daily basis. But she says there’s a close No. 2. Some argue it may even be No. 1. And it happens after the car chases are over.
It’s something Brian Higgins knows all about.
“What frustrated me was all the other stuff, the administrative baloney,” says Higgins, a police officer who served for 27 years and recently retired as chief of police for Bergen County, N.J.
For lots of cops, it’s the administrative nitpicking, being micromanaged, being charged with trivial offenses and being poorly managed that really bothers them.
Higgins says as the son and grandson of a police officer, he was fully aware of what he was getting into when it came to the physical risks on the street.
“I expected this,” he says, “chasing people, getting shot at. That’s why I have a job with benefits. That’s why they buy me a bullet-proof vest. That’s why they buy a gun. That’s why they give me very good training, because that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna chase people, I might get hurt.”
Politics of policing
But what Higgins and many other cops say they don’t want is to deal with is the inescapable politics of policing. If you’ve ever seen the HBO police show “The Wire,” you know what he’s talking about. The entire series, spanning six years, kicks off when Detective Jimmy McNulty makes his boss look bad by accident. His boss begins a campaign to make McNulty’s professional life a misery.
Pluck that bad boss out of the television. Plunk him down behind a real world desk, give him a uniform, a badge and an enormous, detailed rulebook with which he administers discipline, and you have a living, breathing example of one of the problems Higgins is talking about.
“I had a buddy of mine [who] jumped into a river for a helicopter that went down, rescued two people, and when the chief showed up, he was asked where his hat was,” he says. “That’s so frustrating, it makes you wanna just lash out.”
“The evidence is pretty clear that the sources of stress tend to come mostly from administrative issues internal to the organization,” says Robert Kane, director of the Criminology and Justice Studies program at Drexel University.
Breaking the rules
In many cases, says Kane, police officers are weighed down with many more rules than other professions. Following all of them, he says, can make it very difficult for officers to do their jobs.
“Whether they wear short sleeves or long sleeves in their uniform, the position of their name plate or their badge. In many police organizations, a lot of these little nitpicky things are called ‘white socks violations,’ ” he says.
There are so many rules, Kane says, it’s almost impossible to do the job without breaking some. From the seemingly trivial, to bigger issues, like when it’s OK to pull out your gun or Taser. The problem is so widespread cops have a saying about it: “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.” Which translates into: Police officers would rather be judged by jury of 12 than be carried by six pall bearers at their own funeral.
“They know they’re breaking the rules, but in their minds it’s a rule that’s worth breaking,” Kane says.
Officers, he says, are much more willing to risk a rule violation than place themselves at risk.
“In their minds, they’re telling you, ‘I could get killed out here, and I’m going to use the tools of my trade in ways that I think are best for me and my colleagues,’ ” Kane says.
Keeping people happy
Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says part of the administrative stress officers cope with also stems from the way they’re hired and promoted. He witnessed that firsthand during his 16-year tenure on the Newark, N.J., police force from which he retired as a captain.
“I certainly watched people get promoted into positions that they clearly did not have the knowledge, skills or abilities to do,” he says.
Politics, says Shane, are to blame. Often, chiefs are appointed by politicians, and there’s the inherent pressure of keeping your job. You need to keep politicians happy.
“You’re told how you’re going to do your job. You’re going to be told who gets a summons and who doesn’t,” he says. “So we have speeding problems on this street, but on this street you have several council members who might be speeding. You’re not going to set up an enforcement operation on that street, you’re going to go to another street where no one is likely to complain.”
Shane says that expectation of loyalty moves right down the ranks. Captains have to keep chiefs happy, lieutenants keep captains happy, and so on. He says this means department officers can be hired based on loyalty, and not because they’re the best candidate for the job. And all of this, he says, can breed cynicism, and ethics can start to slip away.
“Because the sentiment is, ‘nobody really cares,’ ” he says. ” ‘Look at the people above me, what they’re doing. If they’re doing those things, nobody is going to care what I’m doing down here.’ “
All of the stress cops face on the job, says Shane, can drive some of them to drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and even excessive use of force.
If the idea that workplace stress can cause such an extreme response seems shocking or surprising, it’s not as counter intuitive as you may think, says Dr. George Everly, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a specialist in stress, trauma and human resilience, who’s worked with cops for decades.
“I’ve heard it for 30 years,” he says. “What is stress? It is arousal. It is a survival mechanism.”
Officers, Everly says, are the thin blue line “between innocent, law abiding people and those who would do them harm.”
The military aside, he notes, it’s hard to find many comparable professions where every day work is done in a landscape of potential violence.
“There are few jobs that have those weights in them,” he says.
When you think about what stress is — the fight or flight response and what police do — it makes sense. “In the context of violence it is predictable that you would escalate the violence,” he says.
A broken system
To those who question the connection between workplace stress and cops lashing out, Everly says, people who haven’t done the job simply have no idea what they’re talking about.
“Like me offering an opinion about being an astronaut,” he says. “Those people need to get out of their offices and get out on the street.”
But it’s between the street and police department where cops are getting squeezed. Higgins says police officers have less and less discretion about how they do their jobs, which exacerbates existing stress even further.
“Sit in your car, walk your beat, shut your mouth and only do what the book allows you. In the business world you’d leave your job,” he says.
But, he notes, oftentimes police can’t. Except for the top jobs, like chief, they’re stuck. If you to move from one police department to another, because of the complex chain of loyalties, you have to start from the bottom. The current focus on problems with individual officers, Higgins says, is ignoring a bigger problem: The system is broken.
“If it was the subject who waved the gun around, you’d have certain groups who’d come out and say, ‘They had mental health, why didn’t we ask why was he waving the gun?’ I get that,” he says. “But there’s nobody asking about the cop. ‘Why did the cop react this way?’ ”
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