Stress and Officer Safety

Chapter Thirteen examines officer stress and safety. Stress includes physiological stress that would encompass the biological effects to the individual. High blood pressure, ulcers, and heart disease would be examples of physiological stress. Stress also includes psychological stress. Anxiety would be an example of psychological stress.

Police officers may experience acute stress. This is the stress that results from a sudden emergency, such as a pursuit or shooting. The officer may also experience chronic stress. This stress is the result of the day-to-day routine of the job.

There have been a number of studies identifying police stressors. One of the first studies was conducted by Kroes, Margolis, and Hurrell in 1974. At that time, court leniency with criminals and scheduling court appearances on days off were the highest stressors. In a similar study conducted by Violanti and Aron in 1995, top stressors were killing someone in the line of duty and a fellow officer killed. The results of the 1995 study showed the dangerous stressors of the job.

In more recent studies, researchers have found new sources of stress for police. The transition to community policing has been found to be stressful for some officers. The negative media coverage is seen as another source of stress. Another stressor is coming into contact with diseases, including AIDS and hepatitis.

A source of psychological stress is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shooting someone or being shot may lead to PTSD. One study found that officers experienced the most stress reactions within three days after a critical incident. The officers would return to “feeling normal” in about 20 weeks after the event.

As departmental policy, officers should be required to seek counseling after involvement in a critical event. Counseling services should also be extended to the family of the officer.

Shift work is another source of stress for the police officer. The officer’s sleeping and eating habits are disrupted. The officer’s family must also deal with the changing patterns.

Many problems have been identified with stress. Alcohol abuse has often been associated with policing. One study discovered that as many as 25 percent of the officers had alcohol-abuse problems. Traditionally departments have responded to this problem by dismissing the officer.

Drug abuse has been another problem for police officers. Kraska and Kappeler (1988) found 20 percent of officers had used marijuana while on-duty in one department. Marijuana use was higher among middle management on that department. The overall performance ratings of the officers who used drugs while on-duty were higher than officers who did not use drugs while on-duty.

Anabolic steroids are an area of concern among police. Steroids may cause violent behavior. This behavior may result in citizen complaints. The police departments need to educate their officers and adopt departmental policies prohibiting the use of steroids.

According to the authors, suicide has become the most dreaded result of a police officer under stress. Police are more likely to commit suicide than be killed in a homicide. Studies have indicated that police are at a higher risk for suicide because of easy access to firearms, drinking problems, marital difficulties, and physical illness. One study showed that police officers tend to kill themselves because of personal problems, substance abuse, and depression, not job-related stress.

It is suggested that departments offer suicide prevention training so that officers recognize factors that lead to suicide. However, officers usually do not ask for help. Limiting availability to firearms is also suggested as a way to reduce officer suicides. Departments should change their policies requiring officers to carry off-duty weapons.

Problems with the family may also result from the stress of policing. Shift work, long hours, and vacation time make things difficult in a marriage. Some of the factors that contribute to problems in the marriage include overprotection of the family, problems with the children, hardening of emotions, and sexual problems.

There are a number of programs that departments may use to alleviate stress. Some of these programs include establishing support groups and peer-counseling programs, and establish physical fitness programs.

Officer safety is addressed in this chapter. Five hundred thirty police officers were feloniously killed on duty between 1999 and 2008. Seven hundred forty-six were killed in duty-related accidents in the same time. Arrest situations were the primary circumstances relating to officers being killed. Handling disturbance calls was the primary circumstance for officers being assaulted. For officers killed accidentally, automobile accidents were the number one cause.

Regarding danger and police work, many people perceive policing to be a very dangerous job. There is always the potential for danger in policing. One study discovered that, in situations in which the officer was killed, the officer initiated the contact with the citizen. Contrary to popular belief, traffic stops are not that dangerous. According to data collected, officers are killed in about 1 in every 9.2 million traffic stops. They are assaulted about 1 in every 20,512 stops.

Officers are more likely to be assaulted when (1) more than one officer was assaulted, (2) suspects used bodily force rather than a weapon, (3) there was a single assailant, (4) suspects were under arrest, attempting to escape, or fighting upon arrival, (5) the assailant was intoxicated, and (6) officers were responding to disturbances or other legal situations (rather than domestic disputes).

Compared to other occupations, policing is not as dangerous as many may believe. One study found that deckhands and tankermen had the highest mortality rating. Police ranked 31st.

Police are called on to interact with a variety of individuals. Because of deinstitutionalization, the police encounter more mentally ill individuals. The police are more likely to make an arrest when encountering a mentally ill individual compared to encountering other citizens.

Police officers must deal with high-risk citizens, including those with AIDS. Policies, procedures, and proper equipment must be available to the officer when handling high-risk citizens.

Concerning officer safety, many recommendations have been offered. These recommendations include the use of body armor, weapons retention, and educating the public.