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Effects of Traumatic Events on Police Officers

The ambiguity in the definition means that the provision of critical incident stress debriefing is left to the discretion of the department and therefore, almost never used. If the incident sufficiently bothers an officer, she or he is left to, independently, seek counseling and ask for help.

Most officers will rarely experience departmentally defined critical incidents. Nevertheless, all officers experience what the mental health and civilian community would consider “overwhelming” scenes in the form of homicides, suicides or violent rapes or domestic assaults.

Traumatic responses are speculated to differ between people who appraise situations and orient themselves toward saving others or goal achievement.

These two different orientations are very characteristic of traditional gender-role behavior, the first one being traditionally feminine. When exposed either directly or indirectly to traumatic situations people who are other-oriented tend to feel empathy, and responsibility to rescue, protect and/or provide the victim with solutions.

The person who is goal-oriented deals a sense of strength, power and control and a need to succeed at providing justice. Unfortunately not all victims can be rescued and justice is not always served. The result affects LEOs emotionally, mentally, physically, socially and vocationally.

Emotionally, LEOs often experience a sense of a loss of power and purpose in their work leading to a sense of being burdened, resentful, rejecting, guilty, frustrated, demoralized, not in control, exhausted and "burned out."

Gary Patton conducted a study aimed at gaining an understanding the impact of law enforcement work on spirituality, as opposed to religion. Three basic research questions are asked. How is spirituality affected by continuous exposure to crime, danger, suffering, and violence? Does a strong sense of spirituality assist officers in coping with stress, and if so how? Third, what interventions might be useful in providing a holistic approach to counseling with police officers?

Qualitative data was gathered through observation, a written survey, and interviews. Eight police officers in Huntington, West Virginia, participated in the research. The observation component included accompanying the officers on patrol for a minimum of five, eight-hour patrol shifts. Interviews were informal and loosely structured.

Questions and topics for the interview emerged in the course of the time spent with the officers. This research supported the notion that law enforcement officers’ spirituality is adversely affected by continuous exposure to crime, danger, suffering, and violence.

The most salient factors associated with the development of burnout include the chronicity, complexity and acuity of exposure to situations. Since the early 1980s, Ronald Burke has been conducting studies to illuminate the causes, consequences and solutions to police burnout. One of his most recent investigations evaluated a model of police burnout.

This model theorizes that the following components: demographic characteristics, chronic job stressors, acute stressful events, work-family conflict and coping responses, all contribute to the development of burnout. This study was completed by 828 Canadian police officers. Ninety two percent of them were male and more than half had been officers for less than five years. The protocol included a questionnaire that measured the five components of the model and the Malasch Burnout Inventory. Packets were anonymously completed by each officer.

The data indicated that: 1) demographic characteristics were weakly related to burnout, 2) chronic job stressors were consistently and strongly related to burnout, 3) acute stressful events and work family conflict were only moderately related to burnout and 4) coping responses were only related to the burnout dimension of depersonalization.

Over the past two decades, police psychologists John Volianti, Douglass Patton and Fred Aron have identified differences in the impact of chronic stress versus critical incident stress, and supported the notion that, although critical incidents are extremely stressful, the debilitating stressors are often the seemingly innocuous daily stressors.

This was further supported by the study funded by the National Institute of Justice, Developing a Law Enforcement Stress Program for Officers and Their Families.

“It probably won't be a bullet that strikes and officer down, but the effects of chronic stress” according to Sgt. Robin Klein, Long Beach California Police Department / FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Pynoos and Nader (1990) devised a triage method for screening victims for the development post-traumatic stress symptoms. Indicators for the severity of the traumatic reaction included: victim familiarity/similarity, current psychopathology, previous trauma within12 months, safety concerns, and family response. The degree of unpredictability of the event, source of the traumatic experience, extent to which the event violated assumptions about the world or others, presence of manipulation or exploitation, and whether the officer was alone during the experience have also been found to affect impact severity.

Behaviors of victims/perpetrators such as negative affect, resistances to intervention/thwarted efforts, psychopathological symptoms, suicidal threats and passive-aggressive behaviors, have been found to account for a large part of the variance in work related stress experienced by officers. When these benchmarks are considered, officers experience traumatic stress on a daily basis, not just in the course of “critical incidents”.

Police Psychologist, Beverly Anderson, developed a multi-phase model for explaining how police officers integrate a traumatic event into their schema. The first phase is characterized by exposure to the crisis. Officers then move into a “period of safety.” The initial incident is over--they have left the scene and done the paperwork. The third phase is characterized by assimilation or accommodation of the experience. Often this involves changing schema related to their perceptions about the world. In the fourth phase, officers successfully cope and integrate the experience, or they adopt a victim mentality and develop of a sense of futility.

Police Trauma Stress Disorder Victimization
Idealism shattered
Loss of a sense of personal control
Loss of a sense of purpose

Feelings of detatchent, frustration, guilt,
Self-consciousness about their sense of vulnerability, otional reactions
John Wayne
"Badge-heavy adrenaline junkie"
Obsessed with regaining control
Little sleep
Lose contact with civilians / withdrawal
Sense of hoplessness about the job
Rigid in probl-solving and conceptualization

Life threatening re-enactments
Self-destructive or impulsive behavior
Desire and/or plans to get revenge/justice
Abrupt shifts in interpersonal relationships
Professional Control
Depersonalization / otional numbing
Loss of a sense of purpose/ increased apathy
Question the goodness of humanity
Alienation/ Isolation from peers and family
Lack a sense of accomplishment
Beginning of addictions /eating probls/ ulcers

Post-traumatic acting out behavior: sexual acting out, addictions, otional overeating
Radical Changes in life attitudes and personal identity
otional exhaustion
Numbing rage
Lack of belongingness
Sense of hopelessness

Police Trauma (PTSD)
Loss of ability to function

1  (Anderson, 1998 #75)(Tye, 1995 #55) 2  (McCann, 1988 #11)(van der Kolk, 1989 #21)

These responses are aimed at protecting the officer from becoming overwhelmed, but often interfere with communication, information processing and decision-making. Changes in schema are often related to their perception of the world especially regarding issues of trust, safety, personal power, freedom/independence, and goodness of human nature.

Cynicism, pessimism and helplessness can be inferred from the observation that officers are three to six times as likely to develop addictions to substances that blunt emotions, provide a means of escape and help them sleep.

Since a high percentage of officers burnout within their first five years, and as cops become more stressed, they tend to have difficulty exercising appropriate judgment, police psychologists have created a developmental model that highlights the progression toward burnout when officers inadequately resolve stress. Interestingly, the symptoms officers show are very similar to those of victims with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

According to Volianti (1993) and Blau (1994), the research done by Peter Finn and Julie Tomz (1996) and police supervisors and officers who were interviewed as a part of this initial information gathering process, LEOs are often frustrated by a lack of creativity and autonomy They are expected to conform to protocol and, although they have great control over other’s lives, have little autonomy with regard to exercising their own judgments and behaviors. To date, this point is founded in observation and speculation by law enforcement professionals, but not empirically investigated.

Vocationally, as LEOs become progressively stressed, their reactions turn to anger at the department, a sense of entitlement and reduced morale. The result is increased absenteeism and turnover, reduced quality and quantity of work while on duty, and increased rebellion and instigation of feelings of unrest among teammates.

Sources and full bibliography provided upon request: editor@policeone.com

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