The primary dangers in police work stem from the inherent risks of the job, such as working in close proximity to motor vehicle traffic, confronting violent persons, and exposure to traumatic incidents. But what are the secondary dangers of policing?
According to Jack Digliani — a former deputy sheriff, police officer and detective who now serves as police psychologist for the Loveland Police Department and Larimer County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado — there are “three seconds” in police work danger.
They are secondary danger, secondary injury, and secondary trauma.
“The secondary danger of policing is the idea that equates ‘asking for help’ with ‘personal and professional weakness’,” Digliani told me recently.
“Secondary injury is the harm that can be caused to officers when they are poorly treated following involvement in a critical incident,” Digliani explained further.
Secondary trauma — also known as vicarious trauma — refers to the indirect traumatization that can occur when a person is exposed to persons who have been directly traumatized. Secondary traumatization is a real concern for the spouses and family members of officers that have been involved in a critical incident, as well as previously non-traumatized officers and others participating in departmental critical incident debriefings.
I first came to know Jack Digliani earlier this year when he submitted an excellent PoliceOne First Person essay submission entitled “Primary and secondary danger.”
Jack’s essay was the starting point for a friendship he and I have begun — and through that relationship I’ve come to know that Jack is the creator of the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative.
“The 12 elements of the Make it Safe Initiative are designed to reduce secondary danger, prevent second injury, and diminish the risks of secondary trauma,” Digliani explained.
Digliani developed Make it Safe by combining the concepts of police primary and secondary danger with the concepts of the Below 100 program (which we’ve covered on PoliceOne here and here and here).
“While Below 100 aims to reduce line-of-duty deaths, Make it Safe is an effort to reduce the number of officer suicides by making it easier for officers to ask for help and by increasing the general level of officer mental wellness. To accomplish this, major changes in the police culture must take place,” said Digliani.
Gap in Officer-Support Programs
Digliani believes — and I agree — that there is a wide disparity in officer-support programs from one law enforcement agency to the next, and the Make it Safe Initiative is an effort to close the gap.
Some departments seem unaware of the secondary danger of policing and therefore have done little to address it. Others have implemented programs that are intended to support officer mental wellness and thereby reduce secondary danger. These departments have developed officer-involved critical incident policy and protocol, provide specialized in-service training, provide easily accessible and confidential counseling services, and have created functional peer support teams.
However, Digliani pointed out that the effectiveness of these programs can be undermined when internal mistrust exists. For example, well-intentioned programs that have been implemented by the most enlightened administrators will be limited in what they can accomplish if officers dismiss them or refuse to utilize them due to fear of administrative or peer reprisal or ridicule. This is the change needed in the police culture, and the primary reason for the Make it Safe Initiative.
And fears of administrative and peer reprisal and ridicule don’t tell the whole story, Digliani said.
“If you’re an officer fortunate enough to work for an agency that has implemented viable officer-support programs, remember that department good intentions and supportive programs can only do so much. Officers themselves must assume responsibility for their mental wellness,” Digliani said.
For some officers, it is not concerns of administrative reprisal or peer ridicule that keeps them from reaching out when they are in trouble. It is the way in which they think about themselves as police officers.
Too many officers maintain the mindset, “I’m a cop. I give help. I don’t ask for help.” Or “I will handle this on my own even if it kills me.”
We all know that this this way of thinking is often reinforced by other officers.
“Police officers must rethink what it means to be a police officer. Everyone has a limit to what they can cope with alone. A healthier police mindset includes a willingness to seek support when things get tough. To encourage this, police agencies must make it safe to do so,” said Digliani.
Managing Job Stress
All occupations include unavoidable stressors. When dealing with the unavoidable stressors of policing, some officers believe, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” This is a colorful way of expressing the idea that if things become too stressful, you should withdraw.
While withdrawal from a stressful environment is a recognized stressor management strategy, it is not always desirable, nor is it the only way to deal with job stress, Digliani said.
Digliani told me me that while withdrawal (“getting out of the kitchen”) may sometimes be a viable option, there’s another strategy that police officers should consider.
“Let’s lower the heat in the kitchen when possible, and when not possible, let’s help one another to better manage the heat,” he said. “The Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative is designed to help officers lower and better manage the heat.”
I encourage officers to visit Digliani’s website to learn more about the Make it Safe Initiative. I also encourage officers to bring the Initiative to the attention of their administrators.
Stay safe, my friends.