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Police Psychological Trauma

 John M. Violanti, PhD


Police officers are under enormous stress on a daily basis for prolonged periods of time that far surpasses combat veterans….. we as a society and members of the community where these public servants work, must be far more diligent in caring for them. Just as war veterans deserve our continued appreciation, so it is with our law enforcement community who keeps us safe.
~Charles Figley

Military combat and civilian police work share similar conditions and outcomes. Both soldiers and police officers experience events in their work which significantly increase the risk of psychological trauma. It is the psychological impact of what we choose to call "police civilian combat" that concerns us, an impact as powerful and sustaining as any military venture. We hope to clarify many of the issues concerned with traumatic stress and PTSD in policing.

Williams (1987) describes police officers as being involved in "peacetime combat":

.. for cops, the war never ends.... they are out there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to protect and serve, to fight the criminal-------- our peacetime enemy. The police officer is expected to be combat-ready at all times while remaining normal and socially adaptive when away from the job. The psychological toll for many is great, unexpected, and not well understood.

The Vietnam war has taught us many lessons about exposure to psychological trauma and its adverse impact on combatants. Although police officers are not in military combat, it appears that they are exposed to conditions similar to soldiers who were in Vietnam. A continual sense of danger brought about by an unknown enemy, witnessing violence and death, depersonalization of emotion , and lack of public support all come together to exacerbate harmful psychological and social consequences . For example, both Vietnam veterans and police officers have an increased risk of suicide, substance abuse, disrupted family life, and integration into an uncaring society.

While the Vietnam veteran was away at war for a minimum of nine months, the police officer must on a daily basis go from the violence of the street to the normalcy of civilian life. Interesting were the similarity of incidents reported by Vietnam veterans and police officers, such as witnessing death, being shot at, witnessing atrocities, and reporting an extremely stressful police experience.

Of the factors associated with stress in policing, incidents outside the range of normal activity appear to considerably affect officers. Such events may include shootings, witnessing death and mutilation, attending to disasters, and dealing with abused or maltreated children. These incidents are rated as highly stressful by police officers. Associated with such incidents may be a psychological reaction classified as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is triggered by experiencing, witnessing, or being confronted with events that involve death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others and a person’s response of intense fear helplessness, or horror. The affected officer may persistently re-experience and avoid stimuli associated with the event, and experience symptoms of increased physiological arousal.