Police Psychology | Too Much Ugly
By Robin Kroll, PsyD ABPP
When officer Frank arrived at the scene of the crash, he knew immediately there was a fatality. He found the teenage driver ejected, lying on the side of the road, dying. In his attempt to give aid, he heard the gurgling sound that was all too familiar, the sound of death. He detested that sound. Officer Frank has a 16-year-old son of his own and immediately felt the parent’s pain.
He knew he had to pull it together so, without emotion, he mechanically and procedurally finished his tour and headed home. In his 17 years on the job, Frank had seen a lot of violence; a lot of death; a lot of “ugly.” He thought he would be used to it, but today he felt “off.” Today he thought of his own son. Today he felt intense pain.
Frank worked afternoons. He was hoping his son would be up when he got home. He needed to see his face. He needed to hug him. He walked through the door and found him sitting on the couch. He had an urge to cry but held it together. Even though it was a school night, they played video games for the next couple hours. Frank’s wife asked how his day went and he answered the way he always had – “it was fine.”
When the family went to sleep, Frank went to the family room to watch TV. He did not pay attention to the screen; instead he watched the movie in his head. He replayed the image of the car accident, the teenager’s face, and all the blood. And like the opening of floodgates, other distressing calls raced through his mind.
Frank spent the next hour crying silently. This was going to be his secret. This was also a wake up call. Frank loved being the police. Resenting the job was not an option; neither was stuffing his emotions. From this day on, he would spend the remainder of his career balancing out the “ugly” by enjoying the gifts in his life.
How to manage the “ugly”
Officers spend their careers serving and protecting their communities. As first responders, they make sacrifices that the civilian world may never understand. Forfeiting emotions to be productive on the job is one of the prime sacrifices. It is also the most misunderstood. While withholding feelings is a coping mechanism on the job, it is not a healthy strategy off the job. It will typically lead to feelings of frustration that often transfer into anger. When this happens, noticeable decay in mental health occurs.
One of the greatest accomplishments an officer can achieve throughout a career in law enforcement is to maintain good mental health. As officers, it’s vital to find satisfaction in your job by concentrating on the positive aspects of your day. Officers all too often forget to focus on why they became the police and instead place an unhealthy emphasis on the negativities of the organization and pessimistic public perceptions.
It is easy to remember all of the unpleasant calls you responded to, but what about the calls that produced great outcomes – outcomes that saved lives. Calls that produced accommodations, Medals of Honor, and letters from citizens that appreciate who you are and what you do.
It is important to maintain or develop personal activities that allow you to have multiple identities, not just that of law enforcement. Remember, you had skills before you were the police: continue to develop your other talents and potentials. Officers spend much of their time focusing on what their second careers will be after retirement, and how these second careers will bring fulfillment. It is possible to enhance the quality of your life and fulfill your aspirations while you’re still on the job. Have a purpose, a hobby, and of course, spend quality time with your family. Evaluate your numerous “side” jobs. Can you give up one to enjoy family time and socialize within your community?
Make sure to maintain a healthy expression of emotions. Communication is key. All officers feel emotions, including pain and fear. Most officers think they are the only one that feels that way, when in fact, most officers do – it’s both normal and healthy. Expressing your emotions with family, friends, and other officers you trust will open the door to communication and officer wellness. You will quickly learn you are not alone. Listen and share experiences and critical incidents: you won’t believe the similarities. You will not only be helping yourself but your fellow officers as well.
As officers, recognize that you are not limited by your job; in fact you are limitless. Officers are comprised of many things. You are teachers and counselors. You manage and mentor. You inspire. You are disciplined and loyal. You never quit. You wake up every day and continue to do your job even in the throes of controversy. You represent safety, strength and bravery – even when there’s too much ugly.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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