Police Psychology: Law Enforcement Longevity and Loss of Self

Michael Tavolacci, PhD

Peak Performance Biofeedback, Inc.

(The interpretation of statistics and the opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own, not reflective of the website or the editor’s.)


In 2011 65 police officers were shot and killed! (Violanti, 2012)

In 2011 147 police officers committed suicide! (Violanti, 2012)

Ironically, the sad reality is police officers commit suicide more frequently than the civilian population. Admittedly, there are a myriad of possible explanations for the statistics, access to firearms being among the most commonly cited factors. I would suggest there is an important change that takes place in an individual who, previously determined to be of sound mind, commits suicide, weapon access notwithstanding. Degradation of self-worth, loss of hope, and feelings of helplessness are commonly understood to be elements in suicide and must have been prompted by some new variable in the officer’s life. Once the decision has been reached the weapon is merely a tool to do the job as there are various ways to end one’s life.

The Cumulative Career Traumatic Stress (CCTS) detailed by Marshall speaks directly to the hopelessness that accompanies suicide. I envision the three concepts of the suicide dynamic as the legs of a stool. As Marshall suggests that the officer’s sense of hopelessness is derived from constant, never-ending, stress, I see the leg weakening, at risk of collapse. The leg that represents the helplessness of suicide emerges as officers come to feel they cannot free themselves from the urge to help mankind, in the face of insurmountable cynicism for the very same. The third and final leg of the stool, worthlessness, represents the diminished public support perceived by most officers as they are often vilified for their mistakes and seen as representative of an increasingly distrusted government.

The three legs of the stool represent the contact points of the officer to stay grounded to the world. As those supports weaken and collapse the officer’s sense of self trembles and looses its footing. No longer grounded, feeling hopeless, helpless, and worthless the officer seeks relief and to regain control. Some choose suicide as a means to end the constant struggle and restore order to the chaos within them. At the most base level, police officers are trained to, and the demands of the job require them to, be in control. The term peace officer implies the directive to maintain the peace by controlling the chaos around them. Events that are inherently volatile, rapidly evolving, and both mentally and physically demanding are the standard of police work.

Police Officers are the “Hall Monitors” of the real world. As the hall monitor they are a necessary part of our society expected to keep everyone else in line so my day is issue free; a fact that is often difficult to swallow. A police officer is, what I call, a Utopia Tool. I describe a Utopia Tool as an assemblage necessary to continued movement toward an idealized existence and society. They are the, unfortunately, necessary structures and organizations required if society is to realize the Utopia that I feel is the unspoken goal of mankind.

The officer is needed to reach the Utopian society much like a shovel is needed to dig a hole. Once the hole is dug, the shovel has outlived its usefulness, just as the officer would no longer be necessary if society were ever free of anti-social behavior. If we accept the idea that police are here to help keep the peace, we have to admit there exist elements of our society that are predatory, that choose to create chaos, steal, destroy, and victimize the rest of us. We are forced to acknowledge the reality we are afraid and need help dealing with the predators in our midst. We would have to admit there are those who behave badly, thereby, diminishing the idealized opinion of humanity some hold and our hope for humankind to exist without the need for Utopia Tools.

It is rare to have an on-duty police officer at a family party and their attendance is most frequently prompted by some sort of crisis within familial relationships. We seek their guidance when at our wits end, we seek their protection when threatened, we seek their counsel when lost, and we seek forgiveness when caught hurrying to work, practice, dinner, or home. Normal people don’t call the police to their home to let them know the holiday dinner went off without a hitch or that they are turning in for the night after a loving and fulfilling day with their family.

There is a level of risk inherent in the day-to-day tasks of police officers. Their workdays are stressful, filled with conflict, loss, violence, and victimization. As a response to their experiences, officer’s bodies and minds have various reactions including but not limited to: fear, aggression, compassion, empathy, anger, sadness, pity, loathing, and spite. The physiological response demanded by these experiences cause the body to introduce chemicals and activates systems intended to affect the officer in multiple ways. The systems are intended to protect them emotionally, raise their performance physically, protect their vital organs, and speed cognitive processing (Gilmartin, 2002). These automatic responses by the body have both positive and negative consequences, which range in speed of onset and duration, from immediate to long-term, and every moment in between. Experiencing the undulation of the highs and lows results a predictable pattern of emotional responses that appear eerily similar to clinical depression when graphed (Gilmartin, 2002).

In truth, the statistics aggregated by The Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrate that the ratio of service calls to the number of officers, places a heavy burden on the individual and exposes the officer to significant levels of stress. Considered in the context of the negativity of a typical call for police, it is no surprise many officers show signs of succumbing to the risk factors of their occupation. The bulleted points below quickly highlight many of the factors that play a role in the overall psychological risk level for those in law enforcement. It is the prolonged exposure to that risk that eventually destroys the resilience.

  • In 2008 there were 883,600 individuals employed as Law Enforcement Officers (BLS, 2012)
  • More than 85% or ~750,000 officers worked for agencies smaller than 100 members (BLS, 2012)
  • 13,857 Chicago Police handled more than 3,700,000 calls for service in 2010 (Chicago Police Annual Report 2010)
  • 5,986 allegations of misconduct were made nationwide in 2010
  • 3,861 allegations of misconduct were made against Chicago Officers with 283 sustained in 2010 (CPD Annual Report 2010)
  • 3,298 attacks were perpetrated against officers by offenders in 2010, only 20% occurred while making an arrest (CPD Annual Report 2010)

As noted above, nearly 85% of active law enforcement officers are employed by agencies, which are home to less than 100 sworn officers. I believe this fact plays a major role in the overall sentiment held for police. The bulk of media coverage and media access is granted to the largest of agencies even though they comprise less than 15% of the industry. The coverage disparity combined with the sensational nature of modern news media, which holds to the old adage of if it bleeds it leads, results in a largely inaccurate and inflammatory portrayal of the law enforcement industry (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011). This process empowers the minority to speak for the majority.

Initially, the accountability created by news articles and media segments on police behavior served the citizens and industry well. As time has passed the concept of accountability has evolved into a skepticism bordering on contempt for police officers. No matter which perspective is employed, studies have tended to focus on individual’s experiences with the police and have largely overlooked the importance of the media in shaping attitudes towards law enforcement (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011).

Having no immediate safe outlet to express emotions that are largely rejected by their peer group, the individual officer is likely to deny the emotions, internalize them, or otherwise mishandle the processing of the events. It takes great courage for police officers to seek out professional assistance with the complex process of properly dealing with the things they experience. Complicating the urge to seek help is the limited number of skilled professionals, as I have experienced it first hand, who are qualified and experienced with the unique combination of complex and illusive elements of the police officer’s psyche.

Officers can fortify themselves against the risks of a successful law enforcement career. The fortification is subject to the acknowledgement and open admittance to several realities. First of these realities is that Cumulative Career Traumatic Stress exists and with rare exception it effects police officers in pervasive ways that impact every one. Second, that reliance on the natural resilience is ill advised and should be supplemented by extensive systems and programs to mitigate risk. Third, considerable attention to professional development must be paid including, but not limited to, thorough screening using Psychological batteries. The chosen assessments should have appropriate parameters set using realistic determinants not dictated by concern for political correctness, or fairness. Undue concern with fairness or being politically correct increases the potential for increased and unnecessary vulnerability. It is a disservice to, not only the recruit, but also the organization, the industry, the individual citizen, and society as a whole. Candid appraisal and assertion that police work is not like other professions and requires more stringent selection processes, unencumbered by concerns other than achieving the agreed on objective of keeping the peace, is vital to serving the citizenry and the individual.

Law Enforcement officers enjoy few rewards, little compensation, even less consideration, and steadily diminishing self-esteem resultant from a consistently weakening public opinion.


Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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Police Psychology: Merry Stressmas

Posted: December 20, 2017 in Police Stress

Police Psychology:  Merry Stressmas

by Gary S. Aumiller, PH.D.  ABPP


So I was riding on a train on Wednesday of last week, December 13, 2017, at 6 am in the morning going into New York City for a OASAS seminar.  OASAS is the certifying group that allows you to do evaluations on people who got a DWI  and recommend the type of treatment they need.  I sat down and noticed in the car I was riding on in the train every person, regardless of age, was looking at the phone.  I stood up to looked around and over the seats and every last person was looking at Facebook or YouTube or texting or for whatever reason was phone involved.  I had my phone packed away in my briefcase and wasn’t going to open it because I never really commuted into the city, so I wanted the experience of watching people on the phone.  Then I looked out the window and an absolutely gorgeous sunrise was starting.  It was one of those crisp cold clear winter days and the sunrise was there for all to see.  Dark shades of red and orange and it looked so absolutely beautiful contrasting some of the dark buildings of Queens New York.  It was a sunrise that perhaps you only get 15 of these gems in your whole life and it was there outside the window for all to admire.  At least if they’d lift their heads from the phone, which I was the only person on a crowded train that did.  I thanked God for giving me a stunning sunrise to watch all by myself, a show just for me apparently.  I hoped someone else saw it too, but in my car. Read the rest of this entry »

Police Psychology | Catholic, Police Officer, and Possibly a “Saint”?

Fr. Joseph D’Angelo, Catholic Priest, Police Chaplain

Witness the unknown story of one such individual who risked his life amidst grave danger to save over five thousand perfect strangers. The following narrative is an inspiring story about keeping faith in the midst of tribulation, even to the point of sacrificing his own life to martyrdom.


Between 1938 and 1944, Giovanni Palatucci, who was in charge of the Italian Government’s Foreigners Office, and later Chief of Police in PalatucciFiume, northern Italy, saved the lives of 5,000 Jews, destined to extermination camps. Palatucci obtained false documents and safe-conducts for individuals persecuted by Nazism. He carried out this endeavor with the help of his uncle, Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci of Campagna. Read the rest of this entry »

Police Psychology | Christmas

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP



Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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My Guardian Angel Testimony

by Deputy Sheriff Michael Lutz

York County Sheriff’s Office, Criminal Response Unit


On June 9th, 2016, my unit was dispatched to assist the York City Police Department in the apprehension of a man with an arrest warrant named James Nickol.  He was wanted for felony escape and had prior burglary charges.   Our team met up with the City Police and developed a plan of action.  However, none of us could have predicted what was going to happen next.  I would soon find myself face to face with an armed gunman, fighting for my life.  It was vicious. It was bloody. It was a close quarters gun battle; as close as it gets.  This is my story as seen through my eyes.

When I reached the end of that narrow breezeway, I was the first to make contact with the individual we were looking for.  He was about three feet away from me, standing on a small wooden deck of the residence.  I immediately gave him commands, in full duty uniform and at gun point, to show me his hands.  I could tell by the look on his face that he was shocked to see me.  I expected him to give up and allow me to handcuff him, but instead, he ignored my commands, and turned away from me.  I held my position and continued to repeatedly shout, “Police! Let me see your hands!”  He kept his back turned to me, bent down, and started doing  something with his hands, but I couldn’t see what that something was.  At this point, my instincts kicked in and something was telling me to move in and grab him, and that’s exactly what I did.  I brought my pistol down to my right hip, stepped up onto the deck, and grabbed ahold of him with my left hand.  My intent was to bring him down, handcuff him, and end the situation peacefully.  Instead, he quickly turned into me, and fired a revolver directly into my face.  My head got rocked from the impact as his bullet struck me through the nose, shattering the bones in my right cheek.  It continued to bore its way through my face, striking my jaw, and finally deflecting out the right side.  Blood started pouring out of my face and both of my ears started ringing loudly.  Though an incredibly hard hit, it didn’t knock me down.  My feet didn’t move, and I came right back into the fight.  I immediately placed my finger into the trigger-well of my pistol, and returned fire, striking him with two simultaneous rounds.  I stopped firing, punched out with my left hand and grabbed his gun in an attempt to disarm him, but he again pulled the trigger.  The bullet struck my left thumb and the force of the blast caused me to lose the grip on his weapon, and my left arm flew back into my chest.  His bullet sheared off the top of my thumb, and now I was bleeding from the face and hand. 

I knew at that moment I had no choice but to put him down to stop his violent actions.  It was fight or flight but flight was not an option.  Bleeding profusely, I fired two more simultaneous rounds again from the hip as he continued to fire at me.  Our gunfire exchange sounded muffled as if we were fighting inside of a tunnel.  I started bringing my gun up, firing two right-handed shots.  I then used every ounce of strength left in me to put my hands together.  I zeroed in, seeing my front sight post and my left thumb which was spewing blood like a geyser.  I was able to get one last round off, striking him.  His eyes widened, he turned, and fell face down onto the deck.  I felt like the fight was finally over.  I started stumbling backwards trying to make my way off the deck while blood continued to pour out of my face.  It felt like a warm shower.  I had lost so much blood that I was too weak to hold onto my pistol anymore, and it slipped out of my hands.  Though dizzy and disoriented, I stayed on my feet, staggering towards the back yard.

I started taking off my gloves to assess my hand injury and that’s when I looked up and saw my partner, Deputy Nate Payne, coming to my aid.  I remember telling him “He got me good bro! He got me good!” I was mumbling my words as it was difficult to speak.  It felt like the entire right side of my face was missing.  Nate grabbed ahold of me and pulled me to safety in the alleyway.  He got me behind the cover of a fence and started applying pressure to my face to stop the bleeding.  I was standing there slumped over, holding myself up by my knees, looking down at the ground, watching my blood pour out onto the pavement.  I was completely soaked from my face down to my boots in my own blood.  I could hear Nate telling me to “get down on the ground,” but I didn’t want to.  If I was going to die, I wanted to die on my feet!  I figured that it would only be a matter of seconds until I’d go out.  I felt certain I was about to die.

Nate had to force me down to the ground.  I heard him call out Deputy Rich Drum, for help.  I felt more pressure against my face as Rich had placed his hand over Nate’s, but the blood still needed somewhere to go.  It started running down the back of my throat.  I began swallowing and spitting it out.  I told Nate “I’m swallowing too much blood, brother I’m swallowing too much blood!”  I started desperately reaching for my phone in my right cargo pants pocket because I wanted to be able to talk to my wife one last time, but it was still plugged into the charger of my patrol car.  That’s when I looked up at Nate and gave him what I thought was going to be my final request before I died.  I asked him to promise me he’d tell my wife and boys that I love them and would always be with them.  Nate responded, “Stay with me Lutz, you’re going to make it, the ambulance is on the way!”  He wouldn’t let me give up, as I started to choke on all the blood I’d been swallowing.

I felt him take my injured and bloodied left hand and place it on his uniform.  He said “Grab onto me and don’t you let go!”  I began to pray.  I was praying to Jesus, preparing myself to meet Him.  I asked that my wife and children would always be watched over and protected, and that my partners would be kept safe from harm.  The next thing I remember was being placed into the back of an ambulance.  Nate never left my side; he was still with me, applying pressure to my face.  The medic had to forcefully remove my hand from the grip I had on Nate so he could start an IV in my arm.  Hearing Nate’s voice, knowing he was there, gave me great comfort as I hung on to life.

The ambulance was moving, but I was getting weaker by the moment.  I continued to pray.  I prayed for the man that I had just exchanged gunfire with.  I prayed that he would be OK, and I prayed for his family.  In and out of consciousness, I don’t remember much after that until the doors of the ambulance swung open and I was being carted into the trauma room at the York Hospital.  They started cutting off my uniform and were preparing me for a CAT scan.  One of the nurses held my right hand.  I looked up at her.  She told me that they were working on saving the other guy.  That’s when I remember first starting to cry as if the whirlwind of my emotions and adrenaline had just collided.  I told her “I didn’t want to have to shoot him, but he gave me no choice.”  While tears rolled down my face, she let go of my hand as I started moving into the machine.

Inside, it felt like an eternity.  I was crying, bleeding, and in pain.  All I could hear was the loud sound of the machine running and the ringing in my ears.

Later, in recovery, a doctor entered the room.  He told me he had been working on Mr. Nickol.  I remember seeing blood on his scrubs.  He took off his gloves, grasped my right hand and told me he was sorry.  He said “We did everything we could, but he didn’t make it.”  I took this news very hard, but thanked him for all he did to try and save him.

The events of that day have been very difficult to process. Every time I think about the gun battle, though everything happened so quickly, I see it all, every detail, replaying over and over again in slow motion.  One moment in particular was especially hard for me to accept for the longest time, when I had that grip on his gun.  I would think to myself, if only my thumb hadn’t been covering his barrel.  I might have been able to disarm him, and the outcome may have been different.  Instead, he fired at me five times, emptying his weapon.  I was somehow able to avoid being struck by three additional rounds.  I wasn’t wearing eye protection, my ballistic sunglasses were up on top of my head, but yet everything but my eyes got peppered with gun powder.  Psalm 91:11 tells us “For He will command his Angels to protect you in all you do.”  God did just that; He sent His Angels to protect me, and I now understand that it was Nickol’s decision to pull the trigger.  There was nothing I could do to stop him.

Some people have told me how lucky I am to have survived such a shot to the face and are amazed that it didn’t knock me off my feet.  But I do not believe in luck.  I am a man of faith as I have been my entire life.  I believe that when he fired that first shot directly into my face, my Guardian Angel rose up a shield and deflected his bullet causing it to take the path that it did.  If it had been just a fraction of an inch one way or the other, it could have killed me instantly.  This was truly a miracle and divine intervention at its finest.  Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”  God gave me strength that day.  The strength to stand and not fall!  The strength to fight back and survive!  He protected me, and my partners, Deputies Nate Payne and Rich Drum, saved me.  If it weren’t for their actions to slow the bleeding, I may not be here today.  They are true examples of the meaning “I got your six.”  I will always be indebted to them for this, and they will forever be my brothers.

The York County 911 Dispatchers sent out the call, and law enforcement, medics, and fire fighters answered it.  The medics got me to the hospital as quickly as they could.  Then gifted nurses and doctors at the York Hospital kept me alive and took great care of me.  They all deserve the utmost admiration for the heroic, selfless work that they do.

I found out later the vast police response that took place after the officer down call went out over the radio.  All they knew was that a fellow officer had been shot and came to my aid.  This is true bravery, how law enforcement looks out for each other, and what the thin blue line is all about.  I may never know everyone who responded, but I want them all to know how grateful I am for what they did.

I want to thank my Sheriff, Chiefs and leadership, and all my fellow Deputies for their unwavering support.

The recovery process is long and hasn’t been easy.  The nerve damage in my face continues to heal.  I have seven pieces of bullet shrapnel in my face, each piece encapsulated with scar tissue, five small fragments and two larger ones.  The largest piece is so deeply imbedded between the bone of my sinus cavity and nerve endings in my right eye that surgeons are unable to remove it.  I was told that if attempted, it could cause both loss of vision and loss of strength in the entire right side of my face.  The second largest fragment, however, can be removed and I am set to undergo surgery soon.  The medications for pain management and therapies designed to help me with these discomforts are ongoing as my body continues to heal.  The concussion from the gun blast causes me to suffer from headaches and other neurological complications.  I lost 60% of the hearing in my left ear.  The ringing in my right ear stopped, but my left which was closest to the gun blast continues to ring.  I was told that I will have permanent tinnitus in this ear and have been trying to deal with it the best I can.  Though I suffer these afflictions, I am working hard to retrain my body and mind to accept them for what they are.  All the support from my doctors, family, and friends has been a big help in pushing me onward.

People have asked me if I would still have attempted that warrant not knowing how it was going to happen but knowing I’d be severely injured.  My reply without question is yes as I have always been prepared to put my life on the line to save someone in trouble.  It’s all I’ve known my entire life, protecting and saving people no matter what the cost, and without regard for my own personal safety.  I am comforted in knowing that my actions that day saved innocent civilian lives by stopping a man who had, among other items found at the scene, additional weapons, ammunition, and the intent to kill.  I am glad that it was me who took the bullets that day.  I was able to stop the threat and keep my partners and York City Officers safe from harm.

 My prior military and police training instilled in me what I call the Spartan Mindset.  Modeled after the ancient Spartan warrior, it is best described as never give up, never let anything stop you, and never accept defeat.  This is not something you are born with; it is what you learn by overcoming the most difficult situations in both training and real life.  That first shot I took to the face should have knocked me down, but it didn’t.  That’s the Spartan Mindset.  It’s about courage, self-discipline, teamwork, strength, and perseverance.  You cannot let fear control you.  From my experiences, if you go into a dangerous situation afraid, you are more likely to make a mistake.  You must be confident in everything you do and have a sense of fearlessness about you.  You have to train your mind to channel that fear into positive energy.  Once you’ve learned to do this, you will be prepared to face whatever comes your way.  As a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army, I taught this to my soldiers.  I also taught them that just because you are wounded, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the fight.  You pick up your weapon, and you get back in the fight.  You fight until the battle is won or you die trying, and that’s it.  No retreat.  No surrender.  I hope that they are proud of me for leading by example.

I have searched for reasons to explain why this all happened.  I believe one reason I survived is to be able to share my story as a testament to my faith. I would like you to use what happened to me and for all that I’ve endured, if for nothing else; as a sign of hope.  I am proud to be a living example of how powerful God is and proof of His existence.  If my story isn’t proof enough, then I don’t know what is.  In John 20:29 Jesus says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; but blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have believed.”  Always remember that in the battle of good versus evil, good will always prevail in the end.

I turned 35 three days before the shooting.  I had a 2 month old son, a 2 year old son, and a loving wife at home that morning.  I thank God every day that I am still here to continue to be a husband and father.

Mothers and fathers, hold your children close.  Hug them, kiss them, and tell them every day how much you love them.  Husbands, tell your wives every day that you love them.  You never know just how short life really is until it’s almost taken away from you.


Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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