Improving the Emotional Health of Police

 police grief 2Years have passed, but I remember that night.

My partner and I had spotted a stolen car one dark night on the north side of Minneapolis and as we turned around the car took off. After a short, but harrowing pursuit, two persons bailed out of the car and took off running. I shouted into the radio that we were on foot and in pursuit.

As I ran down an alley and then between two houses and a fence something caught my eye and a I ducked just in time to avoid a 2×4 to my head. Then the suspect jumped over a fence as I pulled out my revolver. Just as I was about to fire I pulled back and the round went into the ground in front of me. In the back of my mind was my experience talking to me, “hey, slow down, take it easy, kids steal cars, you don’t want to shoot a kid, do you?”

I often think about how my life would have been changed by that event. Could I have survived this?

Yet day in and day out, police officers throughout America make deadly force decisions, are forced to shoot suspects, respond to other horrendous tragedies that involve death and disfigurement. Towards the end of my police career I started thinking about how I could help improve the emotional lives of my officers.

As chief, I was thankfully able to enlist the support of the police officer’s association to do this. We decided to implement mandatory counseling for every officer who experienced the death or serious injury to another person regardless if the officer had contributed to the incident or not.

I knew this would not work if I tried to do it by implementing an order.  It had to come from the bottom-up. We formed a working team to study the problem. It was chaired by an officer who had suffered a tragic incident early in his career — responding to an emergency call, he struck and killed a child playing in the street.  It is a fear many police officers share. The incident was a nightmare for the officer and his family. It turned out that the officer was a godsend. Out of his pain (which was still very present) he and his study group recommended the above policy.  Whether an officer goes to counseling after such an event should not be the officer’s decision — it should be required — mandatory.

A number of years later, I came under the purview of this policy. Each summer I worked at night, in a marked patrol car, talked with officers, and responded to calls. One evening when I was on duty I responded to a highway traffic accident. Just as I got there, a young officer whom I had recently hired stopped by and offered to relieve me. As I drove away, a drunk driver came barreling down the highway and slammed into him just as he was getting out of his vehicle. When I turned around, he was not moving and lying in the roadway. I began first aid, and in a matter of seconds other officers arrived at the scene. Minutes later the EMS team had him on the way to the ER.

On one hand, all in a night’s work. Yet on a much deeper level, his accident deeply affected me emotionally.

After getting an encouraging report from the ER, his supervisor and I went to notify his wife.  As we approached their home, I felt my worst fear rising uncontrollably inside of me. The situation was not unlike that which I deeply dreaded — to make a death notification to an officer’s family member. Walking up to his home, that evening, was too much like the real thing but I was able to push those feelings down and tell his wife what had happened.

As this was an incident that came under our new policy, those of us at the scene were called to attend a debriefing session led by the therapist we had retained to do this work for the department.

As I sat with the officers, I really didn’t think any of this applied to me. I was past it.  But as we shared our feelings, I suddenly found myself choked up and unable to speak when it came to me.  I remember tears welling up in my eyes.

After the debriefing, I began to realize some things. By failing to address the emotional impact death and violence has on our officer’s work life will continue to cause them to emotionally burnout, increasing job stress, the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and eventually the disintegration of their primary relationships. This is a tremendous cost to pay for protecting others.

I began to think back to my diving days. What was the emotional and psychological cost I paid in being part of these extreme grief situations?  Bringing up a child’s body. The waiting, hoping parents on the shoreline.

The suppression of one’s feelings is usually not a good thing. It prevents a person from emotionally connecting with others. Most people want emotional connection and availability — even from their police. What they do not want is emotional, paralysis from them and constantly burying their feelings year after year — until?

What often happens to police officers is that they feel they must control their feelings and everything around them in order to be an effective officer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most officers know that it never works at home.  Police need to have a safe place, like a debriefing session, to be able to process their grief, loss, and near-death experiences.

Unfortunately, in most police departments today, there is no safe or comfortable way to talk about these feelings.  For an officer to voluntarily submit to therapy is often considered a weakness among one’s peers and supervisors. Officers who do so are often avoided or shunned.

We need to ask, what is the impact of this failure on the public who depends on their police to be emotionally balanced at all times? It’s not that police officers don’t deal with their feelings. Most do. But the way in which they do it is often not healthy or effective because it’s unstructured and usually involves various kinds of self-medication.

Many of us who serve or have served as police know colleagues who did not survive the traumatic events they encountered on the job. Their relationships fell apart, they got fired, they died. Looking back, I have known far too many officers to whom this happened.

This kind of emotional work can lead to increased self-awareness; an awareness that enables police officers to be more effective in their work and live fuller and happier lives. When this work is done, I predict there will be fewer long-term job disabilities, and, yes, even fewer critical mistakes on the street.

I finally learned how to feel again and to process grief and loss in my life. It began one night so long ago when a young officer nearly died. Seconds earlier, it could have been me. While debriefing the incident and talking about our feelings that night, I realized I needed help and, as their leader, I needed to help my officers. This needed to happen even if they (like me) didn’t think they needed it at the time.

Some suggestions:

  • Police departments need to have a policy that recognizes the importance of their officers’ emotional health and a process for maintaining it.
  • Police departments must recognize the emotional lives of their police officers and be prepared to offer support through periods of grief, long-term illnesses, depression, or other family dysfunction such as relational problems with their spouses and children.
  • Police departments must require counselling for all officers involved in fatal shootings.