The Law Enforcement Stress Factor

I found the following article interesting and a predictor of what many of our LEO (law enforcement officers) go through because of their occupations.  Either as a friend or family member lets all be aware of what they face on a daily basis.


PLAINFIELD — Retired Plainfield Police Capt. Mark Edwards was "shocked, but not surprised" when he heard on the radio Monday morning that a veteran Piscataway police officer had been killed after exchanging gunfire with police during a nine-hour standoff at his home.

Edwards was on his way to the funeral of 52-year-old Plainfield Police Lt. Ronald S. Lattimore, who fatally shot himself last week, when the news about 46-year-old Piscataway Sgt. David Powell hit the airwaves. Little sense could be made of either incident Monday, but Edwards said both underscored the notion that the mental health of police, fire and emergency workers is something that demands close and constant scrutiny.

"It's not uncommon for there to be a domino effect (with incidents like these)," Edwards said. "This is stressful work."

Edwards, who served as a stress counselor to Plainfield officers during much of his nearly 27-year career in law enforcement, today remains an active counselor and board member of the New Jersey Critical Incident Stress Management Team, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that offers support to emergency service personnel and their family members during and following periods of personal or professional crisis.

Those workers are twice as likely as the average person to get divorced, three times more likely to suffer from alcoholism and between three and seven times as likely to commit suicide, Edwards explained, citing national statistics. Edwards's organization focuses closely on "critical incidents" that can include the on-duty use of a service weapon, a traumatic injury or even an investigation into a child's death. Edwards said he experienced a "critical incident" of his own early in his law-enforcement career, when he responded to a robbery in progress at a local McDonald's.

"There was a point where we were gun barrel to gun barrel," Edwards said of his experience with a suspect, noting that he ultimately was able to convince him to surrender his weapon before anyone was hurt. "There are a lot of things something like that does to your head."

Plainfield Police Sgt. Larry Brown, a 25-year veteran with the force, added that stress can stem from a single ugly incident or build up slowly over time.

"Seeing the dead bodies, the kids being shot, it's rough," Brown explained. "You deal with it, but one day all of that comes down on you at some point."

It's part of what Edwards calls "general police stress," something city Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said Monday can be "overwhelming." The job often consists of long periods of relative monotony followed by short bursts of extreme stress, Edwards explained.

"It's the shifts. It's time away from the family when other families would normally have that time together," Edwards said. "Plus your diet is crap. We tend to not take care of ourselves as well either."

The concept of safeguarding the mental health of emergency workers remained a fringe topic until only relatively recently, Edwards added.

"The old concept from old-timers was to "bite your lip, be a man, man up,' " Edwards explained.

Police suicide, specifically, is a phenomenon that only recently has been examined closely on a national level — the National Surveillance of Police Suicide Study was the first report of its kind to study actual suicides on a daily basis across all 50 states for an entire year.

The study found that a little more than 140 U.S. police officers killed themselves in 2008, a figure that rose slightly in 2009. Both years, New Jersey ranked among the top three states in the nation in police suicides.

However, New Jersey also is a national leader when it comes to actively working to prevent police suicide. Aside from the efforts of nonprofit groups, the state's Cop 2 Cop initiative, the first program of its kind in the nation, was legislated into law in 1998 to focus on suicide prevention and mental health support for law enforcement officers. The program, which falls under the umbrella of the New Jersey Department of Human Services' Division of Mental Health, provides crisis intervention services, including a 24-hour hot line for officers (1-866-COP2COP).

Edwards spoke highly of the Cop 2 Cop program, but added that it's critical that leaders of police departments everywhere make their officers aware of the availability of help in facing mental health issues. Hellwig said he is committed to doing just that, noting that counseling was made available to the entire division in the wake of Lattimore's death.

"Sometimes, we feel we're invincible," Edwards said. "Like it will never happen to us."

This makes me thankful for the counseling sessions Dan's department offers to the family for free!  I feel like they are doing their part in taking care of their officers and their loved ones.

1 comment:

John Marx said...

Hi Dan and Kendra,

Thank you for passing on important information about two very tragic situations. The issues of suicide and stress are just part of the many side effects of how a career in law enforcement can be very toxic and take its toll on the officers and their families. I would also say that the Cop2Cop program has a great reputation and is doing important work but we all have to keep spreading the word because there are still too many of our law enforcement families that are suffering unnecessarily and we all need to be working together to change that.
Best wishes to you guys, I love your blog!