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THE STRESS OF WEARING THE BADGE

By: Tom Gillan

Nothing can fully prepare an officer for what he or she will encounter in their chosen profession. As I reflect upon my experiences on the violent streets of the nation's Capitol, I have come to believe that stress education is a critical necessity.

A cop is tough and although allowed to be afraid, can never convey this fear. A cop is unemotional and appropriately cynical; the horrors of the street don't affect him, he is not given to the emotion of the norm. At least that was how this rookie police officer naively perceived the turbulent world he was entering.

The first three years were spent learning the ropes while driving around in a scout car on uniform patrol. It was a unbelievable eye - opener; it was the real Twilight Zone; it was scary and it was exciting ! There was the spinning confusion of walking into a armed robbery in progress; the mindless blur of high speed chases; the first hand to hand combat with a crazed man with a knife; the absurd innocence of deciding to attempt to disarm him as opposed to the sensible alternative of using my handgun; the first maggot-ridden body; the introduction to the literal smell of death; hot summer nights of endless ugly and volatile domestic dispute, a sweat covered woman screaming spittle in your face, her drunken common-law-husband threatening and disorder and the wide-eyed, unbathed children clutching my trousers with sticky fingers. The constant "domestics" were what prompted me to leave uniform assignment and seek my next adventure - vice.

Vice/narcotics enforcement are different names for the same thing, one big adrenaline rush. The ultimate thrill was the undercover buy. A close second is being the first officer through the door during the execution of a search warrant, knowing this might very well be the last doorway you ever enter, but so pumped up you crave it, the intensity grips you; the foot chases; the investigations, informants, interrogations, surveillances; the frustrating judicial system. Then there are the shootings, the overdoses, death, and the violent deaths.

All in all, I felt my experiences during those first ten years were normal and that I was a classic big city police officer. Apparently normal was not the right word. Recently I have been made aware that these typical daily encounters are exceptionally abnormal. It is not normal for any person to observe and be involved in traumatic violence on a continual basis, despite the commonly perceived Hollywood image of the hardened cop. My formal stress education began when I requested the assistance of the department's Employee Assistance Program for marital counseling. My wife and I were barely on speaking terms and we realized we needed another perspective to understand why this alienation was occurring.

As explained to me by the professionals, the unique thrill of police work is not to be had cheaply. The price to forfeit in my, and apparently many other officers' lives, is individual emotion. Since so much of what a cop deals with is so very unnatural and painful, we have learned to avoid the normal human reaction to these events and disassociate ourselves.

The critical problem with this reaction is that a person cannot selectively choose to suppress only the harmful segments, The caring side of our emotions is also shut down. Hence the high incidence of alcoholism, divorce and suicide among law enforcement officers. The term for this is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder --- PTSD.

Take it from someone who has witnessed the stress first hand.... Don't go it alone.

There is someone you can talk to and work through the stress that can kill !!