Seven persistent, negative myths about law enforcement are needlessly deepening officer stress, damaging recruitment, and generating unnecessary anxiety and fear in cop families, says a popular researcher and trainer in the field of police psychology.
In a hard-hitting presentation at the ILEETA annual training conference, Dr. Alexis Artwohl challenged widely held misconceptions about the danger, emotional trauma, alcoholism, divorce rate, premature mortality, suicide incidence, and burnout associated with police work.
She set the record straight with well-documented findings that officers overwhelmingly are well-grounded, mentally healthy, and resilient.
“Of course, some people fail to thrive in law enforcement, as with any profession,” she says. “But certain prevailing beliefs about the personal risks of a policing career are extreme exaggerations and need to be corrected.”
Artwohl is a faculty member with the certification course in Force Science Analysis and is co-author of the best-selling book, Deadly Force Encounters. She formerly served law enforcement as a clinical and police psychologist in the Pacific Northwest.
Here’s a fiction-versus-fact summary of the fallacies she addressed at ILEETA.
MYTH #1: Law Enforcement is Among the Top Five Most Dangerous Jobs
“There’s no doubt policing can be dangerous, but it’s not even in the top 13 of the most dangerous occupations,” Artwohl says.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, loggers are the most likely to be killed on the job. Even farmers are twice as likely as cops to experience a work-related death.
Police rank 14th in danger, between heavy equipment operators and electricians.
When it comes to death from homicide, taxi drivers and chauffeurs are at greatest risk—more than four times likelier than cops to be murdered.
That’s not to belittle the risks officers are exposed to or to encourage complacency, Artwohl emphasizes. Rather, she says, it shows that “officers are pretty skilled at keeping themselves safe and alive in threatening circumstances.”
MYTH #2: A Shooting Will Likely Cause Significant Emotional Problems and a Career Change
“We’ve all heard alarming allegations about officer-involved shootings,” Artwohl says. “It’s claimed that two-thirds of officers in shootings have serious traumatic reactions and that 70 percent leave law enforcement within seven years.
“That’s absolutely untrue,” Artwohl says. Multiple studies have found that while short-term emotional reactions are common, “the vast majority of officers cope very well with shootings,” reporting only “mild, transitory symptoms.” In one study of 540 shooting survivors, only two ever filed workers comp claims for psychological problems afterward.
And quitting the job is extremely rare. In a study of nearly 1,000 officers, more than 80 percent reported no post-shooting change in their job satisfaction. Indeed, 8 percent even found their work “more enjoyable” after their OIS. One researcher reports that 30 percent of officers received a promotion post-shooting.
“Individual reactions vary,” Artwohl says. “If an officer does experience adverse emotional problems that seem overwhelming and chronic, he or she should definitely seek professional help, without being stigmatized.”
MYTH #3: LEOs Abuse Alcohol More than Other Occupations
After digging into this subject, Artwohl concluded that “there is no research whatsoever that documents an unusually high level of alcoholism among police officers.”
The same determination was reached by another police psychologist who examined data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, comparing alcoholism rates by occupation. Indeed, that researcher identified eight other occupations that have a significantly higher rate than cops, Artwohl says.
“Although there’s a widespread belief that massive amounts of alcohol are consumed by police, there is very little rigorous research on this topic,” she says. “If you hear people say this, challenge them to come up with studies to prove it.”
MYTH #4: LEOs Have a Higher Divorce Rate than Other People
“Again, absolutely not true,” Artwohl asserts. “An analysis of U.S. census data reveals that police officers, detectives, and their supervisors actually have a lower divorce rate than the national average for other occupations and for what would be expected from their demographic profile. This has held true for more than a century.”
A subcategory of transit and railroad police, for example, ranks among the five occupations with the lowest divorce rate, about the same as the clergy.
One social scientist concludes: “There are no data to demonstrate that law enforcement…has a statistically significant negative impact upon marriages.”
MYTH #5: Most Cops Die Within Five Years of Retirement
As a sampling, pension records in Arizona and California show otherwise, Artwohl points out. They document that male LEOs, who typically retire at age 55, live an average of 24 more years (to 79), while females live an average of 29 years post-retirement (to 84).
“It’s possible other jurisdictions have different death rates,” she says, “but there are no studies that prove a cop on the force today is automatically doomed to an early death as a result of serving in law enforcement.”
MYTH #6: LEOs Have a Higher-than-average Suicide Rate
“It’s always controversial to say this is a myth,” Artwohl admits, “because police officers do have a higher suicide rate when compared to the general population. But that’s an invalid comparison.
“Males as a whole are more likely to kill themselves than are women. Since law enforcement is predominately a male profession, that skews the statistics. If you compare cops to their demographic peers in other professions — matching for gender, age, race, and so on — you get an entirely different picture.”
With that comparison, multiple studies have shown the police suicide rate actually to be lower than the norm. “LEOs are 26 percent less likely to kill themselves than their demographically matched peers in nonpolice occupations,” Artwohl says. “To keep from feeding the myth, researchers need to be careful to always do demographic matching before reaching any conclusions and to be certain their statistics are gathered from a large sample over a long span of time.”
MYTH #7: Burnout is Inevitable in Law Enforcement
“The image of cynical, burned-out cops who hate their job and the public they serve is a disservice to law enforcement,” Artwohl says. “Again, responsible research shows a much more positive picture.”
She cites a study that surveyed officers and other workers on job satisfaction and “general happiness.” Nearly 60 percent of cops said they were “very satisfied” with their job. Overall, LEOs ranked “in the middle” among occupations, on a par with nurses and accountants.
About four in ten reported being “very happy.”
Another survey, of suburban departments in the Midwest, found that officers generally reported “low levels of emotional exhaustion” and moderate to high levels of “personal accomplishment.”
“There is simply no evidence to support the idea that police work produces more burnout than other occupations,” Artwohl says.
Reflecting on the seven myths, Artwohl stresses the importance of “dealing with the statistical realities” of law enforcement. “Being overly concerned about exaggerated problems creates more stress for officers, more worry and fear for their families, and hampers efforts to recruit good people to the profession,” she says.
“Also if a police career is viewed as being destructive, it encourages officers to think of themselves as victims of the profession rather than as resilient individuals who can determine their own outcomes.
“The truth is that law enforcement is a noble, challenging calling with many rewards that far outweigh the negatives for most officers.”
Dr. Artwohl can be reached viae mail.