BY JACK A. DIGLIANI, PHD, EDD, POLICE PSYCHOLOGIST
The ultimate goal of the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative is to positively alter the police culture by creating a new profession-wide standard for officers in distress.
Unavoidable occupational stressors
There are unavoidable work stressors associated with every occupation. Unavoidable work stressors are comprised of the demands and requirements specific to any particular occupation. For example, an unavoidable stressor of practicing family medicine is ill patients; an unavoidable stressor of bus driving is vehicle traffic. In law enforcement, there are numerous unavoidable stressors. Many of these combine to create the primary
danger of policing.
Police primary danger
The primary danger of policing is comprised of the inherent risks of the job, such as working in motor vehicle traffic, working in bad weather, confronting armed and violent persons, being a target of disgruntled persons, and so on. You need only to read a newspaper or watch a news broadcast to understand the primary danger of policing. Unfortunately, due to the differences among people and the divergence of various philosophical and belief systems, the risks that comprise the primary danger of policing will never be zero. Police officers counterbalance the risk inherent in policing by applying the three T’s of policing—Training, Tactics, and Technology. The three T’s represent factors designed to reduce the probability that officers will be injured or killed in the line of duty.
The primary danger of policing has two components: (1) physical primary danger and (2) psychological primary danger. The physical primary danger of policing is characterized by the examples previously mentioned. They represent circumstances in which an officer may be physically harmed. Most officers are at least somewhat trained to manage most of the circumstances that comprise the physical primary danger of policing. Such training usually includes instruction in safety driving, traffic control, use of safety equipment, disaster and hazardous material spill response, infectious diseases, officer safety and self-defense, arrest and control, and firearms. Because the type, quality, and subject matter of such training can vary widely among agencies, some officers are better prepared than others to deal with the physical primary danger of policing.
The psychological primary danger of policing is related to, but distinguishable from the physical primary danger of policing. The psychological primary danger of policing is represented in the increased probability that due to the nature of policing, officers will be exposed to critical incidents, work-related cumulative stress, and human tragedy. This higher probability of exposure results in an increased likelihood that officers will suffer psychological traumatization and stressor-related disorders. It is the increased likelihood of psychological traumatization and the increased likelihood of experiencing stressor-related disorders that comprises the psychological primary danger of policing. Another way of saying this is that the physical primary danger of policing constitutes a work environment that generates the psychological primary danger of policing.
Police psychological primary danger
The existence of an increased probability that police officers will suffer work-related psychological traumatization and stressor-related disorders (psychological primary danger) has been known for some time. Many modern law enforcement agencies have recognized this feature of policing and have attempted to address it. They have addressed it by initiating stress management training, contracting for employee assistance counseling programs, creating peer support teams, developing officer-involved critical incident protocols, and providing access to police psychologists. Some departments have gone so far as to engage comprehensive mental-wellness programs. These programs start at employment and extend beyond retirement. Regardless of the specific type or combination of police stress management programs, all have as their goal the prevention or reduction of the possible undesirable effects of the psychological primary danger of policing.
Properly developed support programs designed to help officers cope with the psychological primary danger of policing are effective only to the degree that they are personally implemented or utilized. Many officers benefit from these programs on a regular basis, some do not. Some officers choose not to engage the support programs available to them, even when confronting very difficult circumstances. Why? The answer to this question is associated with an insidious secondary danger of policing that has its foundation in the primary danger of policing.
Police secondary danger
There is a danger to police officers beyond that inherent in policing…themselves. The significance of this danger is readily observed in the number of recorded annual police officer suicides. For the years in which there is reasonably reliable officer-suicide/officer-line-ofduty- death data (2008, 2009, & 2012), the number of police officer suicides exceeded the number of officers killed by felonious assault or by accident. In fact, for these years, the number of police suicides exceeded the number of officer deaths from felonious assault and accidents combined*. With practical extrapolation, for most years of at least the past two decades, it is reasonable to conclude that suicide has been the number one killer of police officers. (*Based upon statistics reported by Officer Down Memorial Page, excluding officers that died as a result of 9/11/2001 related illness and heart attack, and the National Surveillance of Police Suicide Study) (http://www.odmp.org) (http://www.policesuicidestudy.com).
As a police psychologist, I have treated police officers that had become suicidal. I have also witnessed the aftermath of completed officer suicides. Some of these officers spiraled inexorably downward while attempting to put up a good front. They tried to look good and expended much effort to hide the fact that all was not well. They needed help but would not ask for it. If their spouse, coworker, or friend offered help, they rejected it. If anyone tried to compel them to seek help, they reacted forcefully against them. They concealed enough of their state of mind that involuntary treatment was not an option.
Why was it so difficult for these officers to ask for help? Why was it so difficult for these officers to accept help when offered, even if they felt incapable of asking for it? Why did some of these officers act upon suicidal thoughts instead of reaching out for support? These are important and probing questions. A large part of the answer to these questions is traumatization, anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders – and everything that these conditions entail. But there is another contributing and influencing factor – and it is already known to every police officer.
What is this secondary danger? The secondary danger of policing is a powerful conceptual undercurrent that pervades the policing profession. It is often unspecified and seldom discussed. It is an artifact of the police culture and is frequently reinforced by police officers themselves. The secondary danger of policing is the idea that equates “asking for psychological help” with “personal and professional weakness.” This is the contributing and influencing factor mentioned previously, and it is the factor that every police officer knows only too well. Secondary danger is: (1) reinforced by actual department or peer ridicule or reprisal for seeking psychological help and (2) strengthened by the fear of department or peer ridicule or reprisal for seeking psychological help. Interestingly, fears of department or peer ridicule or reprisal are seldom observed in officers confronting what they view as physical illness or physical injury. This is because physical illness and physical injury retain a personal and social acceptability not yet observed in perceived psychological conditions. Unfortunately, there still exists a bias in the personal and social acceptability of what is viewed as “psychological” versus “physical” when it comes to police officer illness and injury.
How serious is police secondary danger? So serious that some officers will act out their suicidal plan or suicidal impulse instead of asking for help.
The policing profession is not alone. There is a similar secondary danger in numerous other occupations, and it is also a characteristic of some dysfunctional family and other social systems.
To act comprehensively, law enforcement agencies must not only concern themselves with training officers how to do the job – thereby addressing the physical primary danger of policing. They must also initiate and maintain programs aimed at officer mental wellness – thereby addressing psychological primary danger and the secondary danger of policing. Such wellness programs should include efforts to:
1. Educate officers in stress management, stress inoculation, posttraumatic stress, posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatization, alcohol and substance abuse, the warning signs of depression, and officer suicide prevention
2. Engage more pre-emptive, earlywarning, and periodic officer support interventions
3. Initiate incident-specific protocols to support officers and their families when officers are involved in critical incidents
4. Create properly trained and clinically supervised peer support teams
5. Provide easy and confidential access to psychological support services
6. Enhance the agency organizational climate so that officers are encouraged to ask for help when experiencing psychological or emotional difficulties instead of keeping and acting out a deadly secret.
The Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative
The Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative represents a concerted effort to reduce the secondary danger of policing. It was developed in 2013 and consists of 12 elements. It is designed to promote police officer mental wellness and reduce the frequency of police officer suicide. The core of the initiative is simple – make it safe for officers to seek or ask for psychological support.
The Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative seeks to:
1. Make it personally and professionally acceptable for officers to engage peer and professional psychological support services without fear of agency or peer ridicule or reprisal.
2. Reduce officer fears about asking for psychological support when confronting potentially overwhelming job or other life difficulties.
3. Change organizational climates that discourage officers from seeking psychological help by reducing explicit and implicit organizational messages that imply asking for help is indicative of personal and professional weakness.
4. Alter the profession-wide law enforcement culture that generally views asking for psychological help as a
personal or professional weakness.
5. Improve the career-long psychological wellness of officers by encouraging police agencies to adopt long-term and comprehensive officer-support strategies such as the Comprehensive Model for Police (COMPASS).
The twelve elements of the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative
The Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative encourages:
1. Every officer to “self-monitor” and to take personal responsibility for his or her mental wellness.
2. Every officer to seek psychological support when confronting potentially overwhelming difficulties (officers do not have to “go it alone”).
3. Every officer to diminish the sometimes deadly effects of secondary danger by reaching out to other officers known to be facing difficult circumstances.
4. Veteran and ranking officers to use their status to help reduce secondary danger (veteran and ranking officers can reduce secondary danger by openly discussing it, appropriately sharing selected personal experiences, avoiding the use of pejorative terms to describe officers seeking or engaging psychological support, and talking about the acceptability of seeking psychological support when confronting stressful circumstances).
5. Law enforcement administrators to better educate themselves about the nature of secondary danger and to take the lead in secondary danger reduction.
6. Law enforcement administrators to issue a departmental memo encouraging officers to engage psychological support services when confronting potentially overwhelming stress (the memo should include information about confidentiality and available support resources
7. Basic training in stress management, stress inoculation, critical incidents, posttraumatic stress, police family dynamics, substance use and addiction, and the warning signs of depression and suicide.
8. The development of programs that engage pre-emptive, early-warning, and periodic department-wide officer support interventions (for example, proactive annual check in, “early warning” policies designed to support officers displaying signs of stress, and regularly scheduled stress inoculation and critical incident stressor management training).
9. Agencies to initiate incident-specific protocols to support officers and their families when officers are involved in critical incidents.
10. Agencies to create appropriately structured, properly trained, and clinically supervised peer support teams.
11. Agencies to provide easy and confidential access to counseling and specialized police psychological support services.
12. Officers at all levels of the organization to enhance the agency climate so that others are encouraged to ask for help when experiencing psychological or emotional difficulties instead of keeping and acting out a deadly secret.
Officers and the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative
For some officers, it is not a concern about administrative or peer reprisal or ridicule that keeps them from reaching out when they are in stressor-related trouble. It is the way in which they think about themselves as persons and police officers that restricts their behavior. Too many officers maintain the mindset, “I’m a cop, I give help, I don’t ask for help” or “I will handle this on my own even if it kills me.” This way of thinking is not only characteristic of some officers, it is also reinforced by other similar-thinking or bravado-persona officers. For these officers, this combination of personal belief and peer reinforcement makes PRIMARY DANGER — continued from page 33 the probability that they will seek appropriate support in times of difficulty nearly non-existent. To do better, officers must reconsider and re-conceptualize what it means to be a police officer. Everyone has a limit to what they can successfully cope with alone. A healthier police mindset includes a willingness to seek appropriate psychological support when things get tough. It helps to remember that all occupations have a core of unavoidable stressors. When dealing with the unavoidable stressors of policing, some officers believe “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” This is a colorful way of expressing the belief that if “you can’t handle the stressors of policing, get out” (other police expressions used to capture this idea are “suck it up” “man up” “cowboy up” and “put on your big girl panties” or leave). But think about this for a minute. Does it make sense? Does it make sense to deny that any person can be overwhelmed by a constellation of job and life stressors? Does it make sense to believe that if you or another officer feel overwhelmed, your only option is to get out? And just what does “get out” mean…quitting, retiring, suicide? Thinking that you must “handle it or get out” creates a false dilemma and is psychologically naïve. The “handle it or get out” way of thinking contributes to and strengthens police secondary danger.
While getting out of a stressful environment is a recognized stressor management strategy (the strategy of withdrawal), it is not the only one. When thinking about the “kitchen” and “heat”, withdrawal may be a viable option but other strategies should also be considered. How about, “let’s lower the heat in the kitchen when possible, and when not possible, let’s help ourselves to better manage the heat.” The Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative is designed to help officers lower and better manage the heat. If you are an officer fortunate enough to work for an agency that has implemented viable officer-support programs, remember Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative element 1. Police department good intentions and supportive programs can only do so much. Officers themselves must assume responsibility for their health and mental-wellness; police departments must assume responsibility for making it safe for officers to do so.
The effects of the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative are cumulative: the more elements implemented, the greater the effect.
To help accomplish this, officers are encouraged to bring the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative to the attention of their administrators. Administrators are encouraged to take the time to consider it. Police Administrators and the Make it Safe Police officer initiative Police administrators are in a unique position to reduce the secondary danger of policing within their agencies. As mentioned in element 6 of the Make It Safe Police Officer Initiative, something as simple as a memo to employees can go a long way to encourage officer wellness and diminish secondary danger. Such a memo can be sent out initially, periodically, and in response to a critical incident. For example: “I just wanted to reach out and acknowledge everyone who played a part in the response to the fatal train/pedestrian accident in (name of town) last night – whether you were on scene, on the phone or just working in support of the incident. Those types of incidents can take an excessive toll on responders…In the wake of incidents like these, remember to take care of yourselves and don’t be afraid to reach out to the members of the peer support team if you just want to talk about your experience with someone.” (from a memo sent February 10, 2015 by Sheriff Justin Smith, Larimer County, Fort Collins ,CO) (implements elements 4, 6, 10, and 12 of the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative) (reprinted with permission) Police Culture and the Make it Safe Police Officer initiative The ultimate goal of the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative is to positively alter the police culture by creating a new profession- wide standard for officers in distress. This new standard would make it agency-safe and personally-acceptable for officers to seek or ask for psychological help when experiencing difficulty.
In spite of the fact that changing the police culture is a daunting task, we can begin this effort by first shifting organizational climates. Every officer in every department, in every assignment and at every rank, has the potential to influence organizational climate. Together we can make a difference. Together we can positively change the police culture.
Adapted from: Contemporary Issues in Police Psychology (Digliani, J.A., 2015). For more information
about the Make it Safe Police Officer Initiative and COMPASS visit www.jackdigliani.com