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Avoiding law enforcement's emotional landmines

By Megan Foucht, PoliceOne.com

Police work is anything but gentle. All cops are familiar with the physical toll, to say nothing of the mental and emotional effects. And it’s not just you. Your family and friends can’t help but feel the effects of your long nights or administrative stressors.

You know what you’re supposed to do to take care of your body, but do you know what you need to take care of the metaphysical bumps and bruises that come with the territory? How do you deal with emotional stress?

The Officer

Street Survival's dynamic duo Dave Smith and Betsy Brantner Smith.

PoliceOne columnist and Street Survival Seminar instructor Betsy Brantner Smith learned early on the emotional challenges of being in law enforcement. Raised on a farm in a small Illinois town, Smith was unprepared for the police culture when she joined the force in 1980.

“I had never seen (such) things… and never experienced sexual harassment or discrimination, seeing what people do to each other,” she said. “It was shocking.”

But despite the initial culture shock, Brantner-Smith stayed on the job. “I never envisioned myself being anything other than a police officer,” she said.

In his book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, nationally recognized psychologist and pioneering law enforcement trainer Kevin Gillmartin explores the tendency of officers who have left the force to ultimately return.

Gilmartin argues that extreme experiences such as Brantner-Smith’s are exactly what keep officers in the line of duty. The adrenaline and the stress, which some may view as negatives, can be addictive to many.

But the high can’t last forever. So what happens when it disappears?

Brantner-Smith’s husband, Street Survival Seminar instructor Dave Smith, said it took him years to learn how to deal with on-duty stress.

“In hindsight, I had too much emotion invested in the agency,” Smith said. “I didn’t do a good job of balancing my job and my family. Now I have a firm belief that you need to keep a distance between you and your department.”

Law enforcement psychologist Ellen Kirschman said that officers will often arrive home still in work mode – a mental state that can be detrimental to their relationships with their families.

“Remember - you’ve got two families to support,” she said. “You need two different sets of interpersonal communication skills: One for work and one for home.”

The good skills for street survival don’t translate to the home. People have trouble when they bring their command presence home and talk to the family like they’re perpetrators.”

Brantner-Smith said it’s key to remember that just because your daily experiences are more intense than those of your family members, they’re not automatically more important.

“Law enforcement officers go home and tend to think it’s all about them,” she said. “I think we’d do a lot better to go home and ask ‘Hey, how was your day honey?’ I think sometimes we lose the perspective that our families have lives too: Our spouses are doing things in our absence. Our children have lives outside of us.”

The Family

Kirschman’s book, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, attempts to provide healthy ways that families can deal with the introduction of “law enforcement stress” into their lives.

The key to talking about job stress with the family, Kirschman says, is how and when it is discussed.

“Families need to remember that sometimes the officer doesn’t want to revisit whatever happened,” she said. “They may have already been debriefed, it was talked about in the locker room or they had a psychiatric evaluation. That doesn’t necessarily mean the officer wants to avoid thinking about it; it just means they want to leave it at work.”

This rings true for Brantner-Smith, who recalled a traumatic instance when she needed her family, especially her daughter, Alexa, to understand her needs when she got home.

“About four years ago we had a really terrible accident in a home involving the death of a baby,” she said. “I called Dave and said, ‘Here’s the kind of day I had, can you tell Alexa?’” 

When she got home, her daughter was at the door waiting to give her a hug and offer support and sympathy.

“Immediately my perspective changed,” she said, “because here’s my baby – my baby’s O.K. Instead of wallowing in that horrible experience I was able to pull out of it.”

Both Dave and Betsy say that a large part of their focus is maintaining a positive perspective and educating their children about what it means to be in a law enforcement family.

“Sit down and talk to your kids and explain that bad things are going to happen,” Brantner-Smith said. "Just make sure they don’t happen to you.”
From the beginning, Brantner-Smith and her husband have been open and honest with their family.

“We’ve always been up front with the kids about what we did and the things we’ve experienced: ‘Mom and dad put bad guys in jail and we carry guns and practice with guns because we might have to shoot bad guys,’” she said. “We never pretended that mommy and daddy go to the office.”
Tools for Emotional Survival

Both the Smiths and Kirschman said a frequently underused yet valuable tool available to officers is the department psychologist.

When Dave Smith needed help, he went to Kevin Gillmartin, who was his departmental psychologist at the time.

“He taught me to cope,” Smith said. “We need people who have that insight to give us those coping mechanisms.”

Kirschman said that in her more than 20 years as a departmental psychologist she has seen some major changes, but still encounters some old insecurities.

“I’ve seen major changes in departments’ willingness to provide departmental counseling, to provide debriefings after incidents,” Kirschman said. “There are more peer support groups to deal with critical incidents and work or family problems.”

But, she said, much of the resistance to psychiatric help is still alive and well among police officers — not so much at the administrative level, but rather within the rank and file.

Brantner-Smith said this resistance may have something to do with a mindset that exists among the general population: Police officers don’t have problems – they solve them.

“We’re a culture that tends to stuff our feelings,” she said.

Although the departmental psychiatrist can be a beneficial tool to overcome extreme emotional stress, Dave Smith said that his strong faith helps him keep his perspective. He reads the Bible, attends church functions and prays before starting his day.

“We seem to think of religion as a sign of weakness,” he said, “but at the end of the day we have to appreciate the little things that go on in life.”

Keeping perspective

Kirschman also said it’s important for officers and their families to stay connected to and engaged in a broad range of interests so law enforcement doesn’t become the single, defining theme for the family.

“The most important thing to remember is that it’s not one thing - it’s a constellation of several things,” she said. “Don’t bring home the police officer’s paradox. Take the long-range view. Stay connected to other things outside of law enforcement.”

Failing to gain a broader perspective about life can drive officers under severe emotional stress to turn to negative methods – such as heavy drinking or unhealthy eating habits – to deal with the pressure.

“Examine your risky behaviors,” said Brantner-Smith. “Significant self-reflection is important.”

In other words, be vigilant about your emotional survival. Train just as hard for your relationships as you do for your survival on the street.

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