Coping with the daily mental, physical and emotional hazards of police work can be a challenge for any officer or for that matter first responder. Even what would be considered normal or routine activity can lead to real physical or emotional stress.
Take for example what the public may perceive as a “routine” traffic stop, or assisting a stranded motorist. While to the police, nothing is ever “routine”, it’s understandable how the public may consider an officer making a safe tactically sound approach to a driver stranded in a broken vehicle a bit of “overkill”. Remember, as the police do, that even bad guys who steal or car-jack vehicles, or are in transit to or from a criminal action, drive cars that break down or suffer flat tires. This puts the officer in a mental state of hyper-vigilance, at least at the onset of the encounter. Repeating this state of mind multiple times a day takes a toll on the physical and mental state of the officer due to the release of adrenaline and other natural body chemicals. This can and does lead to hyperactivity and hypertension, a very real physical condition. Police officers see threats everywhere and in everything, even “routine” items, events and activities. These things tend to lead to the often quoted “Us vs. Them” mentality and saying.
So taking the potential for threats resulting from “routine” activity, and adding to this the police officers general belief that while not all, but most enforcement encounters with the public will likely result in being lied to. An inside common believe amongst police officers regarding drinking is summed up with “I’ve only had 2 beers”. This is based on the perceived belief that almost every driver stopped for suspected drunk driving will answer this way, “I’ve only had 2 beers (or drinks)” when questioned about drinking. Many officers, even myself at times over my career come to the conclusion, false as it may be. The opinion is; that if your lips are moving, you’re lying. By the way, for the record, I can attest personally that I can count on one hand the number of times a suspected drunk driver actually said something different than this, and only once someone told me something like; oh yeah officer, I’ve lost count, been slamming ‘em back all night! Granted I’m not sure I would self-incriminate given the situation either. Now keep in mind we are not talking about general public interaction here, we are speaking of police\public criminal or vehicle code enforcement interactions.
So now we have an officer who sees potential threats from everyone and who are likely to be lying to them as well. Toss in some dangerous physical encounters, the sometimes rapid call to call responses ranging from simple community service assistance to calls involving violence or death and the officer who walks in the front door at home at the end of their shift is not the Mike Brady of the Brady Bunch or Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver fame that graced the TV screens of the 60’s and 70’s, and you can completely forget about “your” officer channeling Howard Cunningham, good ole Mr.C of Happy Days! More often than not, in keeping with my TV dad theme, I came home as Al Bundy in Married with Children or “Red” in that 70’s show! Neither a recipient of the “father of year” award to be sure.
You may have noticed I’ve used male gender and male\father examples here. There is a reason for that which I will explain later. It’s not by accident.
Once home, most officers need a short “rest” period, a winding down from the shifts activity, emotions and physical strains. Perhaps the officer also had a court call that day as well. This depending on the jurisdiction can leave the officer with a feeling of justice being accomplished or just the opposite, where no one is held accountable.
Honey, I’m, home and by the way... I am a threat seeing, don’t believe a word you say, aggravated, unfulfilled, unsatisfied and the rules are meant to be followed “Attila the Hun” crime fighter! What do you mean the kids did not do their chores or they failed a test and what did you say the neighbor said what about our lawn not being mowed?!?!
These are everyday things that happen to every family member, or at least parent upon return home from work. These are not special nor unique to police officers. But far more often than not, at least with newer officers who have not yet mastered coping and relaxation skills, these are met with the “overkill” that the public thinks is the officer's approach to a stranded driver.
In my case in the early years being a police officer in Cook county, working what sadly is known as the “catch and release” criminal justice system would often come home this way. I was not seeing justice in my day to day duties, I was encountering many repeat offenders and by gosh, I was going to see justice at home. Don’t jump to conclusions, there was never physical violence, but my words, my actions, and intents certainly gave the impression that I was interacting with my family like they were criminals who were always lying to me. I was often even told and accused of doing this almost word for word by my wife and others. I was not bringing the job home with me, I was bringing the criminals. I was not talking to my kids, I was interrogating them.
The one and only side benefit of this is that my one son rarely if ever lied to me growing up, he knew I would know and almost into adulthood, no matter the consequences, he told me the truth. He would tell his friends that questioned his blunt honesty that either way, his dad would know the truth, and it was always would turn out better for him than whatever he did, and a lie on top of it to boot. We laugh about it now, thank goodness.
Each and every little “violation” was met with lengthy lectures and severe (non-physical) punishments. Bet you didn’t know you could ground your kids for 106 years and take away all their toys for not taking out the trash did you? Well, it seemed reasonable at the time, at least to me. Thankfully calmer heads prevailed.
Eventually, I learned how to compartmentalize these feelings and thoughts. I learned to separate them from the real world. Surprisingly, this was much easier to do the job when going from call to call (as in my article titled Cradle to Grave) than it was at home. The reason I came to believe is that while one environment is my job in which I have taken an oath to perform in a certain manner which I could not control or dictate how. This was determined by law, by courts, by the public and departmental policy. The other environment was home, this was a different set of rules, ones that I could and did dictate, create and had control over. It’s much like I believe a “micro-manager” to be. If you can’t manage and control the big things, you tend to over-manage the little ones. And over-manage I did!
Another leading cause of this type of action I believe, at least for me is a form of “victimization” I have found to be unique to police officers as well as a small handful of other occupations. In the early days, I tended to adopt this “don’t you know what I’ve been through” kind of response, of being the “victim” in this situation. It not only affected the “everyone is a bad guy” trying to hurt me viewpoint, but would also permeate true victim\police encounters and interactions. Many times, which I’m ashamed to say now, my response to something bad happening to a family member and them doing what I felt was victimizing themselves to me was something similar to “really, you think that’s bad? You have nothing to whine about, you know what happened today too so and so”?!?! What I was doing was completely minimizing my family members true feelings and replacing and comparing it to not only someone else but also inserting my own victimization as well because I had to deal.
This kind of behavior does not lead to a happy home life, which in turn does not lead to a mentally and emotionally healthy or happy work life either.
As I said, fortunately, I did learn to cope with this. I am a fast study and have a loving family and support group that managed to find the strength to endure and we all grew as a police family.
In many ways, I was the lucky one. From my experience and interactions across many decades and jurisdictions, all police officers go through some form or fashion of this, of bringing the criminals or victims home with them. Each officer deals with it differently. Some sadly find their “unwinding” coping mechanisms in alcohol or other substances, the same as anyone who may struggle with emotional and mental assaults and the ability to cope.
While I am not opposed to an occasional glass of red wine for medical heart healthy reasons only, of course, I was never one to hit the bars after a shift to unwind. Although in the early days I was clumsy and bad at it, I was at least smart enough to know that my support group was at home, with those that loved me. My family without a doubt made me a better person, police officer, husband, and father. Not sure I made them better in any such form or fashion resulting from my early day's behavior.
Eventually then and even to this day, over 3 decades later my approach is fairly simple. I still don’t and may never come home as Mike Brady, Mr. C or Ward Cleaver. But now when having one of those days, I’m afforded a bit of uninterrupted quiet downtime. Time before my wife, or kids when they were little, or granddaughters now bombard me with news or events of the day, to just take a moment, prioritize the events and encounters of the day, appreciate them, or learn from them for what they are and pack them in their little mental compartments to either store them away or flush them out at a later time. I don’t ignore them, but I don’t overreact to them either. They are what they are and I evaluated and process them for exactly that and nothing more.
As I have grown not only as a police officer but as a person as well, I’ve learned that not everything is a crisis, not every encounter even a bad violent or heart-wrenching one requires 100% of my heart and soul. What it requires is 100% of my abilities, my attention, and skills, my devotion to duty, this they do require, just not a totality of every fiber of my being. I have a job to do, due to the physical risks of injury and death my decision to serve is personal and accept it as that, but I can’t take it “personally”. It’s a job, an important one to be sure, and one that I believe you have to be “called” to do, but it’s still a job. One that thousands of police officers, brothers and sisters in blue do every day, both before me and will long after me.
As to my male gender and “dad” examples above. Many females have taken the same oath of office to serve and protect as I have. Much more today than when I became a police officer. While the duties and oath require the exact same thing from both men and women, the same sacrifices, risks and far too often require your life, where the differences are pronounced are in the home. I don’t pretend to know how each person grew up, their experiences, beliefs or upbringing, but mine as allowed my downtime as “dad” and “husband” when I come home if needed. I have rarely seen or experienced similar in downtime for the “wife”, and never for “mom”. Female officers, especially moms face not only the difficulties that all police officers do but a whole range of ones I will never experience. I have never been “mom” coming home to small children, or worse, sick ones. It’s like that old saying - Moms never get a sick day! My police hat goes off to these mothers in blue!
Next week: Packing away your feelings.
About the Author: Al is a retired police detective from the metro Chicago area. He has been a Law Enforcement Officer at the City, County, State and Federal level in excess of 35 years. His career has taken him all over the nation and the world. Al has been involved in all aspects of criminal investigation as well as general police duties. He is once again on the street as an active LEO for a North Shore community, just North of Chicago in Illinois.