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Combat stress in law enforcement: Does it exist?

Command officers must anticipate an officer's reactions to stressful conditions

Combat in law enforcement can be sudden, intense, and life threatening. However, does "combat stress" exist in law enforcement?

The stresses of combat experienced by officers can be substantial. Commanding officers of an officer exposed to a traumatic incident are duty bound to anticipate, recognize and evaluate an officer's ability to perform his job when exposed to combat stress.

Command officers must first understand this human dimension and anticipate an officer's reactions to stressful conditions for the welfare of their officers.

Law enforcement must first recognize the possibility that "combat stress" even exists in our profession. Combat stress usually is a term associated with military veterans fighting a war.

Here is a classic definition of combat stress as provided from the Department of Defense.

Combat Stress: The expected and predictable emotional, intellectual, physical, and/or behavioral reactions of service members who have been exposed to stressful events in war or military operations other than war. Combat stress reactions vary in quality and severity as a function of operational conditions, such as intensity, duration, rules of engagement, leadership, effective communication, unit morale, unit cohesion, and perceived importance of the mission.
- Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, U.S. Department of Defense 2005.

Police officers are exposed to dangerous situations on various levels and duration dependent on assignment, and working conditions. However, at some point most police officers are exposed to some type of traumatic incident.

I think we can all agree that responding to a domestic call is stressful. We have been conditioned to respond to these runs in the highest state of situational awareness our minds will allow.

It’s not a far reach that big city and suburban officers respond to unpredictable and dangerous domestic calls every day. When we effect arrests and resolve these situations, our emotions fluctuate from a stressful peak, which keeps our situational awareness in its clearest form, to a less stressful and more relaxed tempo.

This type of exposure to stress moving through your emotional, intellectual, physical, and behavioral reactions, is in my opinion, similar to the military's "combat stress." The difference being, law enforcement's exposure to combat stress isn't on a military battlefield; it can come from the many and various types of police calls for service we deal with on a daily basis.

I am not a medical professional, nor do I profess to be an expert in any form on this subject. However, I have spent enough time on this job — and seen everything under the sun that cops deal with on a regular basis — to recognize the parallels that exist in how the military prepares for and treats combat stress.

This is where we as police trainers, commanding officers and even partners can learn from our military comrades to possibly prevent an officer from falling victim to combat stress, which can ultimately lead to depression and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As we all know cops are reluctant to admit they have fallen victim to stress. Men and women of law enforcement sometimes will hide and suppress their fears, anxiety and stress, which can lead to a dangerous mindset while working the streets.

Police trainers and command officers must thoroughly condition their officers to deal with combat stress before incidents occur, during these stressful incidents and after any traumatic event.

Traumatic incidents don't just apply to domestic calls that I mentioned previously.

A traumatic event may include responding to a child that drowned in a swimming pool, an infant that died in a crib while sleeping, a CPR run on a young father as his family stands nearby while expecting the Super Man cop to save the one they love (and even though you did all you could he still dies).

How many fatal accidents have you been to where teenage girls are mangled beyond recognition?
Have you ever been assaulted on a patrol run or traffic stop?
How many homicides have you responded to or investigated?
Have you ever been shot at or ambushed?
How many autopsies have you attended of not just adults but children also?

I think you get my point by now: How do cops NOT suffer from combat stress?

Why does the military have a system in place for preventing, recognizing, and treating combat stress and many law enforcement agencies don't?

We have all gone home after our shifts after dealing with the previously-mentioned traumatic incidents, only to act is if nothing even happened on our tour that day.

We are expected as fathers, husbands, wives and citizens to go to Johnny's soccer practice, to see a movie with a girlfriend, attend a family BBQ and every other daily function without any emotion or reaction to what we have just dealt with on the previous tour of duty.

The fact is many police agencies only send officers to see a counselor or therapist only after an "officer involved shooting" or an officer's death.

Somehow we are expected to navigate through all the other traumatic incidents as a matter of routine. That philosophy is where we fall short in law enforcement in keeping the welfare of our officers.  

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