Residuals of Police
AbstractThis paper describes possible consequences of exposure to trauma in the police occupation. During the span of a career, police officers are generally exposed to traumatic events more often and more intensely than those in other occupations. Under such conditions, the probability of addiction to and residual effects of trauma increases. Trauma addiction may be a result of physiological and psychological processes that increase the need for exciting or dangerous activities. Residual impact of trauma may be the result of separating from police service, diminishing stimulation from police activities, and loss of social support from a cohesive police culture. The paper concludes with suggestions for therapy.
This paper examines after-effects of trauma in police work and draws upon a
more extensive military literature to highlight problems and issues in police
work. The exposure of police officers to trauma, while generally not as intense
as combat, may be for a period of twenty years or more. With such long term
exposure, officers who separate from policing are still likely to experience
symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Paton &
Violanti, 1996). Police officers are in many ways similar to military combatants,
experiencing events in their work that involve treachery, violence, and death.
It is argued here that police officers with long term exposure to trauma may,
like the soldier, experience the after-effects of trauma long after separation
from the war. For some, symptomatology may be full-blown, for others, a
residual condition may exist.
With return to civilian life, police officers take with them emotional baggage
remaining from traumatic work experiences. Solomon (1992) suggests that
persons who leave traumatic situations tend to generalize avoidance to stimuli
resembling the trauma in their new environment. As a result they constrict
their scope of activity, social ties and civilian functioning. This is viewed as a
detrimental pattern of residual trauma carried over into the new environment
of the separated police officer. The officer's family and close friends may also
contribute to this problem by adapting themselves to this widened avoidance.
Officers may experience full or residual PTSD at the time of their separation
from service. The "residual stress hypothesis" proposes that prior trauma
exposure leaves residual effects which are widespread, deep, and long lasting
(Figley, 1978). Solomon (1989; 1990; 1993) in studies of Israeli Veterans,
concluded that the trauma of combat leaves marked stress residues among
combatants. On the whole, Solomon found that trauma-related
symptomatology declined over time, but psychiatric symptomatology remained
stable. Her conclusion was that war becomes internalized and continues to
cast a shadow on the lives of veterans. Repeated trauma during the combat
experience appears to be progressively more severe and limiting and leads to
the deepening of symptoms. Scaturo and Hayman (1992) report clinical
observations of separated combatants as displaying acute generalized anxiety,
worry, and depression. Many of the patients seemed to experience a strong
desire to resolve whatever ongoing psychological conflict they struggled with
regarding the war. Yet is possible that, unless diagnosed with full PTSD, those
presenting with partial symptoms may not receive the attention they deserve,
laying a foundation for future and more entrenched difficulties.
Weiss, Marmar, Schlenger, Fairbank, et al (1992) conclude that PTSD
morbidity rates should include those individuals who experience partial as well
as full PTSD symptoms. Evans (1987) states that it is necessary to attend to
subclinical phenomena because individuals who only partially meet the full set
of diagnostic criteria for PTSD also contribute to the level of morbidity.
Egendorf, Kadushin, Laufer, Rothbart, and Sloan (1981) noted that literature
on problems of combat veterans seldom distinguishes between those with full
or "partial" PTSD. The terminology of the person being in a "residual state" is
used to describe the disorder. Weiss, et al (1992) commented that individuals
who, on a life-time basis, never meet the full criteria for PTSD are
indistinguishable from those who do.
Persons who experience long term exposure to trauma and separate may have
what Horowitz (1986) describes as "post-traumatic character disorder", or what
Brown and Fromm (1986) call "complicated PTSD". These categories would
better describe individuals who have exposure to repetitive, prolonged trauma
(Kroll, Habennicht, & Mackenzie, 1989). Symptoms of persons chronically
exposed to trauma appear to be amplified. Hilberman (1980) states that
chronically traumatized people are hypervigilant, anxious and irritated, and
without any recognizable baseline of "calm". Studies of returning POWs
exposed to repetitive trauma document increased mortality as a result of
homicide, suicide, and suspicious accidents (Segal, Hunter, & Segal, 1976).
The general conclusion that can be drawn from these studies is that, although
not presenting with full PTSD following isolated traumatic episodes, repeat
exposure can, over time, increase risk status. Consequently, it becomes
necessary to consider the wider implications of such experiences, including the
risk becoming addicted to traumatic incidents and carrying the effects of work
experiences beyond the point of separation from police work.
Police officers spend much of their careers preparing for the worse. Training
generally emphasizes the "worst possible case scenario" and prepares officers
to deal with that event only. As a result, many officers become occupationally
and personally socialized into approaching situations with considerable
suspicion. This defensive stance towards life activities can become an
obsession and a liability for officers (Williams, 1987; Gilmartin; 1986). As one
result of learned defensiveness, it is not uncommon to find a proportion of
what Wilson (1980) refers to as "action junkies"; officers who are addicted to
risk behavior. Police work is mostly routine, but it is also interspersed with
acts of violence, excitement, and trauma. Some officers become addicted to this
excitement and cannot function effectively without it when they separate from
Addiction to highly stimulating and dangerous encounters has been explored
by several authors. Solursh (1989) defined two factors which appear to
exacerbate the addiction of those exposed to such encounters. The first is the
"existence of a series of mutually reinforcing excitatory states beginning with
multiple combat experiences and the recurring exciting recall of such
experiences" (Solursh, 1988). Such "highs" are frequently followed by a
depression of a "downer" mood which borders on numbing (Kolb, 1984).
Solursh (1989, p. 251) describes such "highs" in his clinical experiences with
"They (the experiences) appear to be highly reinforcing in the presence of a history of multiple combat exposures and seem to interact with other related excitatory experiences such as a compulsive need for presence of readied weapons, reenacting combat-like activities, seeking physical confrontation, and self-administered substance abuse patterns."
van der Kolk (1987) has discussed an "addiction to traumatic re-exposure"
and theorizes that an endogenous opiod release could account for the calm
upon re-exposure to stress that is reported by many traumatized persons. van
der Kolk (1988) states that increased physiological arousal of traumatized
persons decrease their ability to assess the nature of current challenges, and
interferes with the resolution of the trauma. Such persons have difficulty in
making calm and rational decisions and tend to rely on instant action rather
than thought. Kolb (1993) hypothesizes that arousal of intense emotional
response to traumatic events lead to hypersensitivity and impaired potential
for habituation and relearning.
Grigsby (1991) states that "combat rush" is a conditioned emotional response
to trauma. While war is frightening and traumatic, combat may be
characterized by periods of intense pleasurable stimulation. These experiences
may be reinforcing, leading persons to "seek out" similar trauma. Solursh
(1989) views the "rush" experienced by traumatized persons as a response to
dullness and boredom in life. They crave excitement as an alternative to a calm
An interesting hypothesis by Gilmartin (1986) purports that adrenaline
addiction may be a result of learned behavior. The author suggests that police
work creates a learned perceptual set which causes officers to alter the manner
in which they interact with the environment. Statement by officers that "cop
work gets into the blood" are provided as evidence describing a physiological
change that becomes inseparable from the police role. The interpretation of the
environment as always dangerous may subsequently reprogram the reticular
activating system and set into motion physiological consequences. This will be
interpreted by the officer as a feeling of energization, rapid thought patterns,
and a general "speeding up" of physical and cognitive reactions
Gilmartin adds that police work often leads officers to perceive even mundane
activities not from a neutral physiological resting phase, but from a state of
hypervigilance, scanning the environment for threats. Once a hypervigilant
perception set becomes a daily occurrence, officers alter their physiology daily
without being exposed to any types of threatening events. Thus, officers may
continuously be on a physiological "high" without stimulation.
Many authors speak of the existence of a police subculture, a closed
mini-society where officers maintain a sense of strong cohesion, a code of
silence and secrecy, and dependence upon one another for survival (Westley,
1970; Reiss & Bordua, 1967; Wilson, 1973; Skolnick, 1972; Neiderhoffer,
1967). The police subculture resembles military sub-groups, where teamwork
is necessary for survival against the enemy. One police officer commented that
"the job is too tough without having to battle the public, the administration
and the courts by yourself". It is not easy for police officers to leave this
interpersonal web of protection. One of the major regrets of separated officers
is that they no longer feel a part of the department. It is as if someone had
removed an integral part of their personality (Violanti, 1992).
Separation and loss of support from the police group may serve to increase the
already heightened physiological and psychological state associated with PTSD.
Social interactions with such groups is important after a traumatic event to
reduce psychological symptomatology (Green, Wilson, & Lindy, 1985; Green,
1993). Lindy, Grace, & Green (1981) first described this function as the
"trauma membrane" effect, where a network of trusted, close persons served
to protect traumatized persons from further distress.
Lin (1982, 1983) and Lin, Woelfel and Light (1985) found that strong social
ties, which resulted from association with others of similar characteristics,
lifestyles, and attitudes were successful in ameliorating distress. Kazak (1991)
found that near-group "social context" is an important element in recovery
from distress. Boman (1979) found that a cohesive social network helps to
reduce the effects of trauma stress.
Tyler and Gifford (1991) found that cohesive military units facilitated trauma
resolution in soldiers and their families. Studies of the absence of close ties
have also demonstrated effects on psychological distress. Ottenberg (1987)
suggested that members of dissimilar groups who experience trauma do not
feel a sense of "connectedness" and therefore do not cope well with the
traumatic event. Young and Erickson (1988) noted that victims who experience
isolation from strong cultural ties had an increased vulnerability to traumatic
Matsakis (1987), found that military wives who experienced isolation from
cohesive military social groups did not cope well with emotional distress.
Ursano, Holloway, Jones, Rodriguez and Belenky (1989) reported that military
families who experience prolonged absences of spouses, isolation from the
civilian community, and potential loss of a family member to war do not cope
well with trauma.
The powerful role of social support, particularly in groups with a strong,
cohesive identity, in ameliorating distress has been acknowledged. Upon
separation from police service, officers exposed to trauma will lose ready access
to the group and may no longer be able depend on other officers, the police
agency, or police benevolent groups to reinforce a sense of understanding and
recognition of their trauma (Williams, 1987; Reiser & Geiger, 1984).
For police as well as military families, traumatic duty experiences and
emotions that follow are a genuine disruption of emotional attachment and
bond (Scaturo & Hayman, 1992). Solomon, Mikulineer, Fried, and Wosner
(1987) found that married soldiers had higher rates of PTSD than unmarried
soldiers. Solomon attributed these results to many of the added pressures of
marriage, including leadership, companionship and taking care of one's family
and other marital responsibilities. Married soldiers carried traumatic
symptoms back to the family which made many of these responsibilities seem
Another factor that police officers must face upon separation is getting another
job. Many officers who leave at mid-life and are too young to actually retire. For
the officer who has been exposed to trauma, job related concerns may be
affected in different ways. Blank (1983) has observed that persons involved
with trauma in their lives often devote considerable amounts of psychic energy
to deal with those traumas. This leaves the person void of energy to direct
towards career and marriage.
Scaturo and Hayman (1992) note the lack of adequate and satisfying work for
the trauma-exposed person has its emotional costs in the family. Often there
is an "assault" upon the person's sense of accomplishment and place in the
family. The authors add that therapy may help the traumatized person to
reappraise previously unexamined aspects of their lives, including traumatic
Police family members may have never experienced or cannot fully understand
the nature of trauma that officers faced in their daily work. What they see are
the effects of such trauma. As Scaturo and Hayman (1992) state: "the therapist
must asses the impact of two phenomenologically separate worlds which have
collided in the family system". The integration of these two systems is
necessarily the way to family well-being.
Retiring or leaving police work may not leave officers or their families free of
the haunting vestiges of trauma. A recognition of this fact is needed among
persons who work in this occupation. There are no easy answers to this
dilemma, but effective intervention during the police career may help. Officers
separated from the force may benefit from therapy which reorients the officer's
perceptual set into other roles. As a civilian, the officer must learn to adjust to
a role which does not involve constant scanning for threats. Therapy may
require teaching the officer to learn new reactive patterns. In addition, the
wider family consequences of trauma work must be recognised. More research
into the implications of repetitive and addictive traumatic stress phenomena is required to augment support and therapeutic strategies.
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