Understanding the stress on law enforcement officers

We recently learned of the ninth suicide among the ranks of the New York Police Department this year.  That’s a tragic loss, and an unacceptably high number;  but it reflects the stress and tension of the job that police officers do every day.  As City Journal points out:

In 2013, researchers published a study in the International Journal of Stress Management, examining the relationship between “critical incidents” and the mental health of police officers. It found that such episodes are associated both with alcohol use and PTSD symptoms. “Critical incidents” include a range of experiences that police officers—among other first responders—might encounter, including “badly beaten child,” “decaying corpse,” “making a death notification,” and personal harm or injury.

According to a study published by The Ruderman Family Foundation, “one survey of 193 police officers from small and midsize police departments” found that the “average number of events witnessed by officers was 188” throughout their careers. Another study found that approximately 80 percent of police-officer participants “reported seeing dead bodies and severely assaulted victims in the past year,” while 63 percent had seen abused children. More than 64 percent reported seeing victims of a serious traffic accident. Almost 40 percent had seen someone die in front of them in the previous year.

Do the public and media appreciate the reality of police work? Police don’t seem to think so: according to a 2016 Pew survey of American cops, only 13 percent believe “that the public understands the risks and challenges that law enforcement officers face on the job.” More than 75 percent of officers believe that the media treats police unfairly. Instances of police misconduct exist, of course, and they justifiably lead to public scrutiny and condemnation; but we should resist the tendency to allow those events to shape how we view police more broadly.

There’s more at the link.

I’ve been exposed to that stress while serving as a prison chaplain.  The stress on staff behind bars is, in many ways, even worse than that experienced by police officers on the streets, because prison staff can’t just walk away from it, or go and have a beer to unwind.  They’re stuck in the middle of it for hours on end – and they may be dangerous hours, too.  In my memoir of prison chaplaincy, I wrote:

Working in such an environment has an inevitable effect on the staff — not just the Correctional Officers, but all of us. It’s very hard to maintain a cool, professional approach when you know that many of the inmates are out to get you in any way they can. After a while, the constant lies, evasions, attempts at manipulation, lack of co-operation, and just plain nastiness start to wear you down. Stress levels among prison staff are understandably very high, with inevitable negative consequences for their domestic life. The incidence of divorce and suicide amongst all peace officers is considerably above average, and corrections staff aren’t exempt. It’s very hard to leave your work behind at the gates of the prison…

This is very troubling from three perspectives. The first is that of inmates who genuinely want to change, to reform, and seek help in doing so. Their approach will be automatically regarded with suspicion by prison staff. We’ve all been ‘conned’ so many times that it’s all too easy to regard any such approach as more of the same. The inmates, hurt and frustrated, then blame the staff for being unfeeling and inhuman. In a sense, of course, they’re right — but they refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of such a reaction, given the staff’s constant exposure to less-well-motivated inmates. As a result, some convicts who really are sincere, and should receive extra help, aren’t given what they need. Some of them will turn away, frustrated and angry, and decide that if the system is going to treat them like dirt then they’re going to behave that way, just like everybody else behind bars. Others will sink into apathy and disillusionment, perhaps giving up hope of any meaningful life behind bars. Some of them may turn to drugs: others may become suicidal.

The second perspective is that of the staff themselves. They can very easily become hardened to anything any inmate says, and discount even reasonable excuses or explanations. I’ve known cases where a minor infraction by an inmate new to the system (probably committed through ignorance of regulations), has resulted in extremely heavy punishment, most likely because the officer or manager concerned was tired and frustrated from dealing with far too many similar cases, and wasn’t in the mood to make allowances or cut a new inmate some slack. It’s all too easy to say to oneself, “If they’re going to treat me like dirt, then I’m going to dish out dirt to them. Let’s see how they like it!” When I trained at FLETC, an instructor commented to me in private conversation, “During his first year in the BOP, a new officer can’t do enough for the inmate. During his second year, he can’t do enough to the inmate. The third and subsequent years, he just doesn’t give a damn any more.” Sadly, I’ve seen this cynical observation borne out in practice many times — although there are honorable exceptions, thank heaven.

The third perspective is that of the families of prison staff. It’s hard to maintain a normal home environment when one’s spouse is bringing home so much stress and tension. Children feel it too. A disproportionately large percentage of ‘corrections marriages’ fail, and the effects on spouse and children are long-lasting. Second and subsequent marriages often go the same way. It’s extremely difficult for those who haven’t personally experienced the stress of the corrections environment to understand its effect on those who live in it every day. It’s even harder for those who come home from it to share it with their spouses, who consequently feel ‘shut out’ of their partner’s work life. After all, what can a Correctional Officer tell his wife about the reality of his job? If he says, “Honey, today I charged down a man with a knife, while armed only with my bare hands,” her instant (and understandable) reaction will probably be to scream at him for being a fool by exposing himself to such danger. She might understand intellectually that he did something heroic and praiseworthy, but all she can see in her mind’s eye is herself and her children at his funeral.

The prison environment has another unfortunate effect on staff and their families. The staff member is surrounded, all day, every day, by those he cannot and dare not trust. Every time they approach him, he has to wonder about their ulterior motives and hidden purposes, suspecting a trap or an attempt to deceive. When he gets home, it’s sometimes very hard not to let this perspective affect his attitudes towards his loved ones. What might be normal behavior in a child (lies, evasions, excuses, etc.) may attract a much stronger reaction than normal parental disapproval and correction, because he’s too used to exercising discipline (sometimes very physically) over real evildoers who do the same things. This leads to a great deal of stress and tension in families.

Stress like that takes its toll.  Street cops have it just as bad, with the sole exception that they can walk away from it, sometimes, in some circumstances.  That doesn’t always help, of course, because they know that’ll just mean another officer has to take the stress in their place.

Stress took the ultimate toll on Officer Robert Echeverría, NYPD, last week.  He leaves behind a wife and two children, 11 and 18 years old.  May Officer Echeverría find peace and forgiveness, and may his family receive what comfort they may in so terrible a situation.

For the rest of us . . . may we have a deeper appreciation for the burdens our law enforcement officers and agencies carry for the rest of us.  We may complain about law enforcement overreach from time to time (I certainly do), but we’d complain a lot harder if they weren’t around at all.



  1. I've shot a number of TV shows and movies inside jails and prisons that had been abandoned for use, but still intact.

    I had to go outside and sit in the sunshine, it was so oppressive.
    That's not an option for actual guards or actual prisoners.

    And that was empty, or just with fake Hollywood inmates.
    What passes for a one- or two-person cell?
    Merciful heaven, don't end up in one.
    You'd have to be a moron to want to try it, let alone go back.
    And it isn't much more fun on the inside for the staff.

    Thanks, but no thanks.

    The suicides are proof that the stresses of the job just reveals the broken people.
    Ask for help.

    In most cases, suicide is just a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

  2. It's not just law enforcement – firefighter/EMT/Paramedics deal with many of the same kinds of issues that you describe. And bear in mind that fully 2/3rds of the firefighters in this country volunteer their time and energies with no compensation. I'm not complaining – just pointing out that we deal with many of the same kinds of critical incidents.

  3. One wonders if the additional strain of upper management and City Hall (including Hizzoner) actively hating the rank and file and supporting the communities (that are the cause of so much stress) over the rank and file has in the recent trend of suicides.

    And now we have New Yorkers actively attacking police and police having worse rules of engagement than our military under the previous administration had.

    The job is bad enough. To have both admin and the people openly attacking the NYPD has to be a huge strain.

    And then, well, there's the suspicion that has been quietly voiced that these are as much suicides as Jeffrey Epstein's was.

    Really makes you wonder what the heck is going on in NYC.

    (No, I don't believe in the conspiracy theory, but…)

  4. It's quite sad but it's a reality everyone deals with every day. In NYC 9 out of 36,000 police took their lives. I don't know what it is for OIF/OEF Veterans but I'm pretty sure it's even more dire. A lot of them don't get the help that NYC and other large police agencies offer. I was on a flight out of Spain once sitting next to one of the investigators, first on scene types at Tenerife. He told me under no circumstance ever to go the scene of an airline crash. Evidently it is very hard to put those images out of one's head.

  5. When you force people to do things that are against human nature, the cognitive dissonance can result in suicide. I could never lock someone in a cage for inning a plant or extort $150 from a poor father trying to work hard at a poorly paying job to feed his family for the "crime" of traveling 10 miles per hour over some arbitrary speed.

  6. "for the "crime" of traveling 10 miles per hour over some arbitrary speed."

    you might feel differently after seeing the victims of a few traffic accidents, like a driver with their chest torn open on impact, or a decapitated kid.

    " for [burn]ing a plant"

    You might feel different after seeing a couple of kids shot over drug dealing turf, or a couple of kids sold into sexual slavery by the cartels that are growing and moving the dope.

    If you want to see the reality, even coddled and filtered to keep you reasonably safe while doing so, sign up for one of your local PD's community programs. Try for a Citizen's Police Academy, or Positive Interaction Program, or similar, that offers familiarization with both the laws and their enforcement, and ride alongs. Some aspects will certainly horrify you (their use of force guidelines, etc from a libertarian point of view) and some will just horrify you from a human point of view.

    Like the public schools, I'm finding that if you haven't been directly involved IN THE LAST FEW YEARS (less than 3) your knowledge and perspective is OUT OF DATE.

    By and large, cops are not hassling people over a joint, unless that's the easy thing to establish vs the other stuff the guy is involved in.


  7. zuk- I don't know if drug legalization is a good idea or not (drug addiction is indeed horrible), but the easiest way to get rid of drug cartels and gangsters shooting each other over drugs would be to legalize drugs.

    People would get their weed from Phillip Morris and their Heroin from the pharmacy, and the violent thugs would not have a market anymore.

    Sort of how gangsters only controlled the liquor market during Prohibition… when alcohol was legalized again, the alcohol market ceased to be violent (mostly).

  8. @Unknown

    You're new here, and to this entire dead horse discussion, huh?

    Cigarettes and alcohol are legal now, and we're still chasing people bringing in illegal supplies of both.

    Did you figure a drug tax war is going to go better than an ordinary drug war? (We'll ignore for the moment the point that never, at any time in history, have we mounted more than a Mutually Beneficial Slap Fight On (Some) Drugs, and not anything close to a "war", since forever.)

    And when junkies can't afford that heroin at the pharmacy, they'll just politely go cold turkey, and not rob or steal to buy more, right?
    And they won't get so hooked they'll need more and more, until they're penniless after shooting up their savings, house, car, and anything they can hock to get it, and can't work either, right?
    Because once it's legalized, the laws of human physiology will no longer apply?
    Or were you just planning to tax everyone so you could have "government" (that would be everyone who works for a living, in reality) give the dope away for free?
    Just wondering.
    That latter plan should really go over good with working class families trying to make ends meet, knowing they're being robbed by official decree to pay for free drugs for dopers.

    And the cartels won't give heroin away free to keep their current market share, and put the drug pharmacies out of business, like they've done with pot shops in CA already? They'll just quietly go find some other way to make a buck, rather than burning out those pharmacies, or taking them over, or threatening the people that work in them and run them. Or all of the above. Like they do. Maybe they'll just open up Starbuck's franchises instead, yeah?

    Oh, wait, you didn't think through the legalization plan two steps down the road, you were just parroting no-thought magical thinking talking points, because thinking is hard work?

    Okay, got it.
    Let us know how that works out for you.

    So…when have you ever seen government "fix" anything without making it orders of magnitude worse?
    What's that?
    "It'll be different this time?"

  9. @Aesop, I would suggest that you look at what's happening in places where Pot has been legalized, it's turned out to be a big boon for criminal growers.

  10. Unknown at 11:38AM.

    There is an increase in DUI accidents where pot is legalized. There is an increase of marijuana overdoses in places where pot is legalized. And nowhere where pot is legalized has illegal sales stopped or been reduced, since legal pot is more expensive than illegal (untaxed, unregulated) pot.

    There is also a large increase in underage usage of pot, which has been shown (even by some pro-pot researchers) to adversely affect the developing minds of children.

    So you want to legalize pot to allow the growers to make money legally? While selling a toxin that destroys the ability of the body to develop mentally, and with today's overly charged THC pot also has negative effects on adults, permanent negative effects?

    Tell me again why Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer is regulated and this carp isn't?

    That's not even getting into the supposed 'opioid crisis' which has been proven not to be caused by doctors prescribing pain meds but more due to pushers and suppliers (including Mexico and Communist China) wanting to make money, AND addictive persons who want to separate from reality.

    Or Meth.

    Or LSD.

    Or PCP.

    Or… or… or…

    So, well, I'll tentatively support legalization of deadly drugs and substances as soon as all the city, state and national laws that restrict my right to bear arms are removed.

    Please do antagonize Aesop some more, though, as I love reading his comments.

  11. @Unknown,

    I live in a state where pot is legal, and I deal daily with the unrestrained chaos that's created, on a personal level, in the course and scope of my employment.

    For the last 5 years, and the first time in recorded history, we're dealing with multiple pot overdoses on a daily basis in every ER in the state.

    And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    Legalization subsidizes drug cartels, because once they get here, it's "king's X", and no consequences, which helps fund them bringing in heroin, deadly home-cooked carfentanil, methamphetamine, cocaine, and anything else with which they feel like poisoning this country. Just to patronize the fevered addictions of a bunch of wastrels who should be on chain gangs.

    You wanna philosophize in dorm room b.s. sessions, it's a free country.

    But stop proposing flatly jack@$$ical suggestions like they were actual thoughtful input. Drug legalization proposals are the candy of retarded kids. It's quite simply a disastrous boondoggle, using live human test subjects, as anyone not angling to get their pot without a legal hassle told everyone for decades.

    Experiment on people your own time, in your own super-villain lair lab, and not with my home, livelihood, and earnings.
    It's just stupid, top to bottom, beginning to end, and no end of it in sight.

    Colloquially, and in the trade, that goes by the handy name of "insanity".

    It should receive the solution usually reserved for rabid dogs on the loose, but I would relent on that solely if we simply re-opened Alcatraz and Yuma as federal prisons, and abolished parole.

  12. "you might feel differently after seeing the victims of a few traffic accidents, like a driver with their chest torn open on impact, or a decapitated kid."

    I have. Worked on an ambulance for about 5 years.

    Try this perspective on: if you wouldn't do it with a gun, the government shouldn't do it on your behalf with a gun.

    Would you stop a rape with a gun? I would.
    Would you stop a murder with a gun? I would.
    Would you stop a speeder with a gun? Nope.
    Would you use a gun to force someone to give money to Planned Parenthood, build a library, fund a school, build a road, invade Poland, fly to the Moon, or study fruit flies? I wouldn't. Yet that's what you're asking the government to do on your behalf.

  13. Want to be a waste on society? I'll fully approve of government funds to set up drug places kind of like what Aesop was talking about. Johnston Atoll sounds better than Alcatraz. So does Yucca Flats, or White Sands. Treat it like a one-way Burning Man meets Hotel California. Once in, you can do anything you want, you just can never leave, alive. Maybe let you out after you've proven to be drug and disease clean for 6 months of daily or weekly tests.

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