Police Psychology | Not-So-Fantastic Four
by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
The Human Torch, the Invisible Woman, the Thing and Mr. Fantastic are Marvel’s creation of four people with super powers who work together as a team to stop crime. Not one of their powers is complete, but together they are unstoppable. In fact in each adventure, at least one of them is in jeopardy, but gets saved by the other. They are effective as a team and that is why we like them so much.
“Stress” also is a team and is a powerful team that works together for one overall effect. It’s just not such a good team. You see, stress is cumulative, and one stress builds on top of the other. Individually, they might not be so effective, but together they can put you on the floor.
I would like to propose that when it comes to police psychology, we look at law enforcement as having four sources that contribute to police stress: institutional, lifestyle, traumatic, and operational. I call them the Not-So-Fantastic Four — The superheroes of making stress!
Police Psychology: The Four Stressors
The Human Torch can turn into a ball of flames at any time. Institutional stress will burn you the same way and it isn’t unique to “police psychology.” It is the type of stress that anyone involved in the corporate world experiences. This category includes dealing with annoying bosses, putting up with arbitrary company rules, managing work harassment, internal affairs violations, etc… So when you get a civilian complaint because someone wants to get out of a ticket and you wouldn’t let him go —that’s institutional stress. When two employees at your office don’t get along with each other, and they make everyone else take sides and it turns into an all-out battlefield—that’s institutional stress. When your department insists a new rule that everyone can’t sleep on the night shift — that’s institutional stress. Did I take that too far? The point is, any stress that comes along with being at your work place is considered institutional stress, and it’s a big one for police officers.
Bosses have a variety of types of control over people that depends on their philosophy of being a boss. To make it worse, many departments don’t even train their bosses to be bosses other than someone else telling them what to do. Bosses are picked in most department by a test which may be fair to all, but doesn’t pick the person that shows leadership or management skill, or ability to delegate well. And sometimes, I know it is rare in policing, outside forces put policies on departments that make no common sense but are politically motivated (sarcastic). These all add up to stress — institutional stress.
Lifestyle stress is an Invisible Woman who gets you when you aren’t suspecting anything is going on and beats on your when you can’t fight back. Lifestyle stress is dealing with life outside of work. The second you step outside the office building and into the reality of your regular life, you are bombarded with new stressors, new responsibilities. This can be as diverse as changing your new baby’s diaper, cooking dinner for your family, dealing with the in-laws, or even trying to get through a divorce. Everyone’s lifestyle stress will be different because it is so tied up with your specific living situation. For instance, when I get home from work, I get to see my beautiful family, but I’m subject to the constant noise of an nine-year-old who thinks she’s the new Beethoven and won’t stop playing her new instrument. Is that a big stress in my life? Not really, but when I have a hard day at work and all I wont to do is have some peace and quiet, the screech of the missed flute notes can certainly put a damper on my night’s plans (although as a ex-drummer I probably should understand).
Or, when you get home your spouse hits you with the five big disasters of the day and you have quite gotten over the fatal accident you just came from. You can’t just tell them to shut up, but boy you would like to. Drama added by those you love is part of the joy of life, but it has to be measured out at some point. For lifestyle stress, I like to recommended that one work on simplifying their life so these things do not totally destroy their lifestyle. Of course, very few listen to me, which keeps people in distress and keep me in business.
The Thing has superhuman strength and durability just like traumatic stress. It is dealing with the traumas from the job. This type of stress is more relevant to police psychology than other fields. Trauma can contribute significantly to police stress because cops are forced to confront it in some form all the time. Cops see things that many average individuals never have to witness. They expose themselves to images and realities of murder and violence and death. To many people, murder is more of an esoteric concern—it happens, but it won’t happen to me or someone I care about. This is a fairly typical statement people make, even if it’s not something they say out loud. Cops, on the other hand, don’t have this luxury. They are exposed to the horrors of this world almost every day, and even after the immediate exposure ends, they are forced to deal with the trauma that those images leave behind. One of those images can set you into traumatic stress.
And to make matters worse, stress is cumulative, meaning it builds up no matter what the source. So the stress of the car accident, builds on the stress of you marriage falling apart, builds on the boss yelling at you builds on the domestic which builds on the civilian complaint, etc. So cops get what is called shot-peened with all the stress build up and that can cause trauma.
Operational stress is like Mr. Fantastic, able to change shape and form on a seconds notice. It is the stress that comes from dealing with doing the work of policing. Every profession has a different version of operational trauma. For someone involved in financial analysis and investment banking, the stress may be more related to stock options and investments. For a teacher, the operational stress is how to deal with some of the more outspoken kids, or how to help bolster the children who are struggling. With cops, operational stress is how you arrest someone, or how to diffuse the tension of a situation, or how to break up a domestic spat, or how to disarm someone, or shoot someone. This is the day-to-day horrors of being on the job. Suppose an officer next to you is killed, or you get in a roll around. It isn’t strong enough to cause a trauma, but it wears on you a little. Hostage crises are always very stressful, and that is operational stress. Now they may be a little fun and exciting also, but fun and exciting can be stressful as well.
The Role of Training on Stress
Now for the good news (said sarcastically). The #1 stressor on police officers is their life outside of work. The number one on-the-job stressor on police is dealing with bosses and the drama at work. Then comes trauma then operational, actually doing the job is less of a stressor than anything else. Most cops will say, “I can deal with the dirtbags on the street, but my own boss is crazy,” or “I would rather go to a gun fight than deal with my own wife screaming at me.” But the stress that is number one is not trained first.
When it comes to law enforcement, police officers tend to get trained in the reverse order of how these stressors are felt. Their training first focuses on operational issues, then trauma, then institutional, then lifestyle. This means cops are being taught how to shoot a gun, to do their daily work, but not how to balance their work life and their home life. It means they are being taught how to organize a crime scene, but not how to deal with workplace drama. It means they are being trained how to stop a riot, but not how to read their own kids or their spouse. In order to develop a police force that is balanced, skilled, and in their prime, both physically and mentally, we need to train people by the need they have. We need to train our warriors how to live, how to deal with the institution, how to deal with trauma, then how to do their job. Good luck convincing anyone of that.
But that’s why I have my job. Maybe this site can help officers with their real needs. So bring others in your department to join us.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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