Back to Top
The Spirit of the Law - Homepage
The Spirit of the Law -  Problems, Issues and Challenges
The Spirit of the Law - Intentional Spirituality: Benefits & Resources
The Spirit of the Law - Practical Legal Issues
The Spirit of the Law - About Us
The Spirit of the Law - Links
The Spirit of the Law - Scrapbook
  Print Article


Pitfalls of Police Work Leading to Domestic Violence

Daniel J. Tyler

Abstract: Many police officers engage in maladaptive behaviors, including domestic violence. The author, an experienced law enforcement chaplain, has compiled a list of these problem areas based upon his own observations.

KEY WORDS: police domestic violence, pitfalls, maladaptive behavior




          Many of the following dangers exist in the law enforcement community. The first step in preventing domestic violence among those sworn to uphold the law consists of an awareness of the mounting stress associated with such pitfalls.


          Job issues supercede family matters. Even during routine police actions, an officer's family often takes second place. But when emergencies arise, officers must put the job first. Police departments experience an almost 100 percent personnel response rate to such things as natural disasters, mass-casualty incidents and line-of-duty deaths. Often an entire department responds to work during an approaching hurricane, a bombing similar to the one at the World Trade Center, or the downing of an airline passenger jet, thus leaving family members to fend for themselves during a dangerous and vulnerable time.


          Officers often shield their loved ones from ugly realities. As a result of this practice, police officers do not discuss what happens on the job or how they feel. This may lead to alienation of family members. For example, a chaplain responded to a particularly gruesome automobile accident wherein a passenger's arm literally became ripped from his body. The chaplain's 12-year-old daughter apparently overheard a description of the incident. Less than a week later, from the back seat of the car, she exclaimed, "Dad, there's a man with his arm out the window. Make him pull it in before it gets cut off!" The chaplain never again described such an incident in the presence of family members. When faced with similar situations, officers begin to share less and less, keeping some of their most significant experiences to themselves.


          Police officers frequently suppress their emotions. Officers leam to show no emotion at work, and they often act the same at home. This strains relationships. Very little emotion equals very little intimacy. Instead of openly sharing their feelings with family members, they often become quiet and distant. Officers rarely discuss matters of the heart. This leaves spouses and children wondering where they stand with the officers. Meanwhile, unvented emotions can build within the officers. With no outlet, feelings can erupt in an outburst of negative energy directed at family members. One officer literally startled himself with an outburst of rage directed toward his teenage son. Upon further reflection he realized the incident had more to do with pent-up anger from work than it did with his boy.


          Some law enforcement officers misuse alcohol and/or drugs. Many officers believe if they attend "choir practice" often enough their stress will disappear. Because stress remains extremely subjective, alcohol and/or drug use constitutes only a short term solution. The long-range answer depends on eliminating the cause of the stress. For example, relieve financial stress by eliminating debts or increasing income rather than by getting drunk to forget financial problems. Close to 10 percent of the general population engages in drug abuse, compared to as much as 35 percent of the law enforcement community. Police often choose alcohol as their drug of choice due to its legality.

          Police officers assume their own kids do what the bad kids do. Promiscuity, drugs, crime, and gangs commonly exist among many young people today. By assuming their own children engage in the same behaviors, officers drive a wedge of suspicion between themselves and their loved ones. Sometimes this pushes kids into the very type of behavior they think their parent expects of them. Children of police officers routinely experience daily questioning (which sometimes reaches interrogation levels) concerning their activities. Where did you go? What did you do? Who went with you? Did you use drugs? Since perpetrators rarely tell the truth, cops often assume their children lie as well. Sometimes children respond by developing logic such as, "If I'm going to be accused of it, I might as well do it."


          Police officers often overgeneralize authority on the job to authoritarianism in the home. As a result, curfews, rules, security measures, and regulations stifle family life. Family members often feel overly regulated and frequently develop critical attitudes in response. One officer became so security conscious he required his wife and children to sit in the back seat of their privately owned vehicle in case of an attack on him. They learned and practiced how to take cover, where to sit in restaurants (with the officer's back to the wall facing the entrance), and various other "family policies." The wife became critical of her husband's overprotectiveness, while the young children became increasingly fearful.


          Police officers may overreact to a too structured work environment. Some officers enforce scores of rules each day while on the job. This includes numerous traffic regulations, domestic disturbance violations, retail theft laws, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other rules and regulations. At the end of the shift, many officers do not want to enforce anything, or make any decisions. The smooth functioning of any household requires decision making, behavioral guidelines, and good order. Sometimes officers expend all their emotional energy, forcing the spouses to take control or to allow chaos in the home.


          Shift work causes enormous stress. Officers experience a kind of jet lag with constantly changing shifts. The human body takes approximately one full 24 hour day to adjust to every hour of time change. Therefore, a routine change from midnight shift to morning shift may require as many as eight full days for the officer's biological clock to adjust. During this time coping skills and tolerance levels exist at their lowest levels while anxiety and frustration run high. Officers commonly suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. For the family, shift work means remaining quiet during the day, becoming awakened at night, and minimal times of sharing as family members "pass in the hallway." Opportunities for romance may prove elusive, even impossible.


          Law enforcement often entails accepting dangerous assignments. Spouses and children have difficulty understanding such assignments, especially when the officers volunteer for dangerous duty. Not knowing whether the officers will survive the day becomes a very real stressor, potentially causing an undercurrent of anger and resentment within the families. Because the potential death of an officer rarely becomes openly discussed openly at home, this fear can remain unaddressed and unresolved.


          Police officers tend to isolate themselves. Cops associate with other cops. Those outside the circle of law enforcement simply do not understand the officers' world, so most officers rarely have civilian friends. The situation becomes compounded because when cops get together they talk mainly about law enforcement. Spouses sometimes feel jealous or totally left out and may respond by finding their own non-law enforcement friends, further aggravating the situation.


          Police work can promote cynicism. Most officers enter the field because they want to make a difference in the world. But within a few years they become hardened by the perception they do not make much of a difference. It feels like crime increases no matter how hard an officer works. The old adage, "The harder I work, the behinder I get," often holds true in police work. As a result, a morose contempt of the pleasures of life can make joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction elusive. In the experience of the author, cynicism begins to creep in after about two years of duty and fully develops after five years. Dr. Daniel A. Goldfarb and Dr. Gary S. Aumiller, authors of "The Heavy Badge," state the following: "As the police officers' career progresses, they become more cynical. No one questions this anymore. The only questions in the research... how cynical and how soon." Some studies suggest cynicism develops in the Academy and just gets worse from there.


          Law enforcement officers often face negative stereotyping. There exists a growing sentiment in many communities about the badness of all cops. For instance, during the last decade a number of high profile cases have emerged involving alleged police brutality and corruption. Just mention names like [the] Rodney King [case], Mark Furman or Aldrich Ames and most Americans immediately think "bad cops." As a result, police officers no longer receive automatic respect and admiration in many levels of society. Increasing antigovemment sentiment breeds disrespect, suspicion, and the challenge of authority. Even the FBI has been subjected to increased public scrutiny and criticism resulting from mass media cases like "Ruby Ridge," "Waco, Texas," and the "Atlanta Olympic Park Bombing."


          Hypervigilance represents a real danger. Some officers never consider themselves off duty. They exist in a constant state of vigilance, finding relaxation nearly impossible. Often an off duty officer who monitors the radio or scanner at all times appears as the first officer on a critical incident scene. Beginning at the training academy, officers assume a vigilant state except in certain "safe" environments. Even the home fails to afford a safe environment because an irate perpetrator can easily follow the officer home from the station. With a marked squad car parked in the driveway each night, neighbors feel safer, but the practice can leave the family and officer feeling vulnerable and easily identifiable to anyone intent on harming an officer or family member. To maintain a balanced lifestyle, all law enforcement employees need times of total relaxation and safety.


          Police officers may develop the "instant problem solver syndrome." Officers make instantaneous decisions based upon limited knowledge. If they make good decisions, all remains well. But, if things go badly, their families and friends suffer the repercussions. For instance, one officer made an instant "shoot, don't shoot" decision when faced with an armed, apparently aggressive individual coming out of a house. After shooting and killing the suspect, the officer learned the man suffered from a mental illness and could not load or fire the weapon. While the officer and his family dealt with personal issues of guilt and distress, the surrounding community rose up against the officer demanding his immediate termination and indictment for murder. Eventually, authorities ruled the shooting as justifiable, but it did not lessen the impact on the officer and his family.


          Police officers work uncertain hours. Sometimes officers work eight hours; sometimes they work ten or more. Frustration builds when an officer gets a call right at a shift change, knowing it will take several hours to complete the paperwork while his/her spouse waits at home with dinner on the table. A spouse, on the other hand, may not understand why the paperwork can't wait until tomorrow.


          Continuing education becomes problematic. There exists increasing emphasis within our society on obtaining an advanced education. The schedule of the police officer almost completely prohibits this. Typically, colleges have responded slowly to the needs of law enforcement officers. Without a degree, the possibility for career advancement dwindles.


          Moonlighting represents a challenge. Special details almost always involve additional law enforcement responsibilities, including those of security officer, traffic control, etc. One common scenario involves the officer who receives housing allowances in exchange for on premises security. This demands the officer nearly always remain on duty. Officers generally take such side jobs or special details out of a need or desire for extra income. Money issues, even without the added stress of moonlighting, may create enormous stress. Officers know that many criminals, including drug dealers, can make ten times the average police officer's pay. Add to this the fact that many spouses must work to make ends meet, and financial issues can often overshadow an otherwise good family life.


          Many law enforcement officers develop promotion or transfer anxiety. There exists a limited number of upper level jobs. Nevertheless, half of the new officer applicants in one department applied to become the Police Chief. In smaller departments few positions above sergeant exist. Because of the nature of the organization, most officers remain non-promotable "beat-cops" or "street officers" throughout their careers. Many officers also suffer frustration over the inability to get a preferred job assignment or duty station. Highly competitive fields include SWAT teams, hostage rescue teams, negotiation teams, and bomb squads. An officer's career may stagnate indefinitely while waiting for an opening in a preferred job or assignment.


          Constant exposure to negative events promotes chronic suspicion. Perpetrators rarely admit to any wrongdoing. The most innocent sounding suspect can, in a matter of seconds, become an extremely aggressive and violent individual. Police officers soon learn to never let their guard down. They perceive the one time they do as the day they will not go home. They become suspicious of everyone, including friends and family members. Obviously this does not promote an atmosphere of trust. An officer's imagination can magnify the significance of a minor event so it becomes a point of contention. For example, when an officer's spouse returned home from work late as a result of a minor traffic delay, the officer went ballistic with accusations of infidelity. Obviously, other family dynamics played a part in this situation, but chronic suspicion precipitated the event.


          Certain conditions promote prejudice. Police officers must often respond repeatedly to the same part of town for the same problem. In smaller departments they recognize the names of perpetrators or addresses when the call comes in over the radio. After several years of this, an officer can become prejudiced toward those who live in certain, generally socioeconomically underdeveloped areas. Police often view people from these areas as troublemakers even though they may obey the law. Ask any officer where most domestic disturbances take place and he will tell you about the upper-middle-class part of town. Ask where most retail theft occurs and you will hear something like in stores located on the fringes of poor areas." Crime statistics may prove otherwise, but certain perceptions predominate among officers. The average police officer typically learns through experience drivers of certain kinds of cars manifesting specific behaviors, like swerving across a solid line and other potential problems. In reality, however, someone may have an insect sting. In what the author refers to as "reversed prejudice" some officers would hesitate to uphold the law in certain circumstances. For instance, ask any officer if he would pull over a speeding late model American car with multiple antennas, tinted windows, and black side walls, and you would normally get a negative answer. Why? Because officers assume an unmarked vehicle rushing to the scene of some crime belongs to a cop, while in reality it may contain very wise bad guys in a getaway car.


          Hypochondriac tendencies may emerge. As a result of job anxiety, some officers complain of hard to diagnose health problems. Even though they may have excellent physical health they may experience a general feeling of ill health. Officers report physical weakness and mental tiredness at times when no visible cause exists. Officers sometimes experience chronic headaches, back pain stomach problems, and insomnia without an obvious clinical or biological cause Officers who receive no immediate relief from medical doctors tend to keep these issues to themselves while silently suffering physical aches and pains.


          Family life does not provide the thrill factor police work produces. Officers describe their first traumatic death scene as scary, shocking, and exhilarating. When comparing this to an average day at home, many officers find their families boring and mundane. For instance, the author responded to an extremely gory accidental shotgun death. The person's brain lay on the floor next to the body and a piece of skull stuck to the ceiling. Upon arriving home from this scene, the author's wife greeted him with excitement at the front door with the following news: "Guess what happened today^ Our daughter lost her first tooth!" Obviously, compared to the earlier crime scene, this news did not evoke an adrenaline rush. Officers who routinely face exhilarating experiences on the job must realize family life may appear mundane by comparison.


          The overall functioning of the criminal justice system causes police frustration. Every cop has a story to share of how a criminal became released from jail before the officer had time to complete the paperwork. When this happens often enough, especially with more serious crimes it can lead to the belief that all institutions are corrupt and ineffective.


          Police officers tend to have multiple marriages. Many officers have had two, three or even four marriages. This increases the number of people, in the form of stepchildren, ex-wives or ex-husbands, and in laws, to whom the officer has some obligation. Divorce rates among law enforcement personnel parallel those of other high stress professions such as doctors and lawyers. The national divorce rate hovers somewhere around fifty percent according to the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Divorce rates among police officers may range from sixty to seventy-five percent, or higher. A U.S. News and World Report article, titled "Cops Under Fire," places the divorce rate among police officers as much as twice the rate of the general population. This increases the number of people in the form of stepchildren, ex-wives, ex-husbands and in laws to whom the officer has some degree of moral and financial obligation.


          Temptation, in its many forms, confronts officers daily. Historically, society considered sex, alcohol, and money the greatest temptations. Today's law enforcement officer, however, must contend with issues of excessive force, discretionary non-enforcement of laws, gifts and graft, lying, covering up for fellow officers, and deceptive undercover practices.


          Guns can make salient the negative aspects of police work to family members. The presence of guns and ammunition may disturb spouses and children. Weapons remind them law enforcement work consists of dangerous and violent work. Spouses and children sometimes worry the service revolver might accidentally discharge in the home, causing harm or death to family members. Officers sometimes wrestle with the issue of keeping a loaded service revolver readily available in the home where children live. Parents worry inquisitive children might accidentally or purposely discharge a weapon out of curiosity. In some cases the police officer may suffer over the idea of taking another person's life, even in the line of duty.


          Police officers can easily develop an "us versus them" mentality. Police officers share an affinity with other officers and often have difficulty relating to those outside of law enforcement. The term "us" refers to anyone in law enforcement; "them" refers to everyone else. Cops regularly withstand verbal abuse from the general public and frequently from suspects and criminals. Situations can escalate to physical abuse on officers during the performance of their duties. This deepens the perceived rift between civilians and sworn personnel.


          Police officers often view the spiritual dimension of their lives as irrelevant. Many law enforcement officers do not relate well to the church. Many churches, in turn, find it a challenge to meet the needs of law enforcement personnel. Like four wheels on a car, officers have physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs. Too often the spiritual flat goes unrepaired.


          Critical incident stress remains an occupational hazard. Police officers experience traumatic scenes of death and destruction that most people can't imagine. This can result in nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and a wide range of related symptoms. For instance, the author coun^ seled an officer who was having nightmares more than 25 years after responding to an automobile accident involving no survivors. After everyone had cleared the scene, including the medical examiner, the officer accidentally dislodged from under the dashboard the undiscovered body of a baby killed in the crash. Most officers can recall a similar incident that haunts them to this day.


          Any one of the pitfalls listed above could sufficiently precipitate a domestic violence incident. If five, ten or twenty of these combine within one household, the potential for such an incident increases dramatically. For instance, I went to a hospital at the request of an officer's wife who had a cut near her mouth from an alleged scuffle with her husband. The couple had drunk (first pitfall) to the point they could not stand up without support. While trying to maneuver through the living room the wife fell against the sharp edge of a stereo cabinet, causing the cut. Almost immediately, her angry son (the officer's stepson - second pitfall) entered the room, yelling at the officer and threatening to call 911, which he did. The call went out as a domestic disturbance by a police officer. When the responding deputies arrived, they did not believe the officer or his wife (chronic suspicion - third pit-fall) and sided with the stepson who did not directly witness the event. At this point, hypervigilence (fourth pitfall) manifested itself. In an attempt to solve the problem (fifth pitfall), the deputies "cuffed and stuffed" the officer and hauled his wife down to the hospital for examination. The media got involved (sixth pitfall) and the situation immediately became headline news. Although authorities later dropped the charges, the officer lost his career, his friends, his coworkers, and his self esteem through an incident involving no less than six pitfalls discussed in this article.




          An individual officer may experience any or all of these threats depending upon the type of law enforcement agency involved, and upon the officer's specific duties. For instance, an administrative officer may not have the stress of shift work but may experience a higher level of promotion or transfer anxiety than a street cop.


          Awareness of these issues provides just the first step toward determining a solution. In some cases, such as those involving cynicism, chronic suspicion, or increased prejudice, awareness of the problem may sufficiently enable the officer to avoid the pitfall. In other cases, such as those involving the perils of shift work, promotion/transfer anxiety and work hours, the solutions involve departmental policies and require attention from the agencies involved.

Address correspondence concerning this article to Daniel J. Tyler, D.Min., International Seminary, Post Office Box 1208, Plymouth, Florida 37268-1208.



          Aumiller, Gary. (1993). Cops are Different. The Heavy Badge. Aumiller/Goldfarh Psychological Services. 1.


          Witkin, Gordon. (1990, December). Cops Under Fire. U.S. News and World Report. 109. 32.