Reconceptualizing Traumatic Incidents
Experienced by Law Enforcement Personnel
Police officers perform work events and situations that are generally routine and arise from either the bureaucratic law enforcement organization or working in the field. Four major categories describe the nature of these events and their source. A review of the literature suggests that an additional classification of work events and situations may be warranted. More specifically, due to the potentially negative psychological effects of traumatic incidents on police officers' psychological well being and the specialized mental health services provided following exposure to a traumatic incident, these incidents characterize an additional classification of events for law enforcement. This paper reviews the relevant literature pertaining to law enforcement stress, traumatic incidents in law enforcement, and suggests such incidents can be reconceptualized as a separate category of stressful work events and situations experienced by law enforcement personnel.
Reconceptualizing Traumatic Incidents
Experienced by Law Enforcement Personnel
Following an extensive literature review pertaining to law enforcement stress and traumatic incidents in law enforcement, this paper examines the four major categories and sources of stress for police officers. Next, this paper suggests that traumatic incidents can be reconceptualized as an another source of law enforcement stress due to the potentially negative psychological effects of traumatic incidents on police officers' psychological well being and the specialized mental health services provided following exposure to a traumatic incident. Finally, conclusions are presented for mental health services provided to police officers following exposure to a traumatic incident.
An extensive review of the police stress literature describes four major categories of police stress (Fain & McCormick, 1988; Finn & Tomz, 1997; Kroes, 1976; McGuire, 1979; Territo & Vetter, 1981; Terry, 1981). Wexler and Logan (1983) described these categories in their research among a sample of female police officers and added to this list a fifth category of stressful events and situations specific to female police officers. This additional category included events and situations such as experiencing negative attitudes from male officers and being blamed as a group for other female officers' mistakes. While Stratton (1978) recognized the effects of traumatic incidents, such as killing another human being, being shot at, and exposed to battered children, he did not include such incidents as an additional category.
These four major categories also describe the source of the stress for police officers: (1) external stressful events are those work events and situations that arise outside of the bureaucratic law enforcement organization. These events are not related to the law enforcement bureaucracy nor the occupational tasks officers perform in the field. Examples include officer's negative perceptions about other parts of the criminal justice system, such as the lenient treatment of criminal offenders by the court system and negative images of police officers in the media (Stratton, 1978), (2) internal stressful events are those work events and situations that arise from the bureaucratic policies and procedures within the law enforcement organization. Examples include events such as officers feeling a lack of administrative support, inadequate training, equipment, and supervision, insufficient pay, and excessive paperwork (Cooper, Davidson, & Robinson, 1982; Gudjonsson & Adlam, 1985). Previous research suggests that police officers rank organizational events and situations as more stressful than the field work events and situations they experience while working within the community (Coman & Evans, 1991; Crank & Caldero, 1991; Reiser, 1974). For instance, Evans and Coman (1988) examined organizational work events such as the lack of effective communication, inadequate career opportunities, and supervision problems, in a survey of 134 police officers regarding the reasons they resigned. The most frequent reasons given were poor pay, quality of supervision, shiftwork, and inability to transfer to other sections, (3) task-related stressful events are those events and situations that arise from performing the work tasks involved in law enforcement. Examples include role conflicts, shift work, and work overload (Gudjonsson & Adlam, 1985; Kroes, 1985), and (4) individual stressful events are those life events and situations officers experience that do not have their source within the work environment. However, some individual stressful events and situations experienced by police officers are associated with their role as a police officer. For instance, Stratton (1978) observes that situations such as being a female or minority officer, concerns about competency, and the necessity to conform are individual events and situations in the same manner as life events, which include examples such as marital problems, working a second job, and pursuing college education. Marital conflict, alcohol problems, and health problems have frequently been described as the consequences of law enforcement work stress (Territo & Vetter,1981; Terry, 1981) rather than events which may occur independently of stressful work events and situations. Alcoholism, divorce, and suicide are the most commonly examined stress outcomes among police officers (Ayres & Flanagan, 1992).
The most common approach found in the literature to categorizing law enforcement work stress separates the events and situations into job content and job context events. Job content are field work events and situations such as shift work and excessive paperwork while job context are events and situations within the bureaucratic law enforcement organization such as the lack of say about departmental policies and limited promotional opportunities (Coman & Evans, 1991). When considering these two broad categorizations of law enforcement work stress together with the four major categories previously discussed, it becomes apparent that events and situations experienced by law enforcement personnel in the field are not the equal in their psychological effects on officers since some events are routine or even boring, while others are traumatic.
Recently, several authors have addressed traumatic incidents in law enforcement (Brown & Campbell, 1994; Reese, Horn, & Dunning, 1991; Kirschman, 1997; Paton & Violanti, 1996; Violanti & Paton, 1991). This extensive literature suggests that due to the potentially negative psychological effects of traumatic incidents on police officers' psychological well being and the specialized mental health services provided following exposure to traumatic incidents, these incidents characterize an additional classification of events.
Traumatic incidents in law enforcement generally occur within three categories; incidents involving injury or violence to the officer or others, incidents associated with major disasters such as mutilated bodies and fatalities, and incidents managing public disorder (Brown & Campbell, 1994). Kirschman (1997) observes that most traumatic incidents experienced by law enforcement personnel are intentional, human-made disasters as opposed to natural, accidental disasters. These include incidents involving rape, assault, and abuse, officers involved in shootings, hostage situations, the death of an officer in the line of duty, and the death or serious injury of children. Some of these traumatic incidents occur infrequently in law enforcement (Coman, 1987; Cooper, Davidson, & Robinson, 1982; Gudjonsson & Adlam, 1985; Sewell, 1983). The frequency of such incidents is associated with the geographic location of the law enforcement organization. Officers employed in large urban organizations are more likely to experience these incidents than officers employed in suburban or rural organizations (McCafferty, Godofredo, & McCafferty, 1990). In their study among a sample of 271 police officers, Coman and Evans (1991) found that the violent death of a partner in the line of duty, participating in an act of corruption, and shooting another human being in the line of duty where the three most stressful field work related events officers reported. However, the most frequently occurring field work related events were giving evidence in court, shift work, and having to take command.
Acute events and situations experienced in law enforcement last for short periods of time and include changes or transfers in work assignment. Chronic work events and situations include functioning in the paramilitary law enforcement organization and the quality of working relationships with others (Coman & Evans, 1991). These chronic situations are repetitive and last over a period of time while traumatic incidents tend to be acute situations. Although Lazarus and Folkman (1984) suggest that individuals become accustomed to the negative behavioral and physiological effects of chronic stress, acute traumatic incidents require specialized mental health treatment in law enforcement.
The symptoms police officers experience following exposure to traumatic incidents has been well documented in the literature (Carlier, 1999; Danieli, 1999; Machell, 1993; McCafferty, Godofredo, & McCafferty, 1990; Stratton, 1983; Stratton, Parker, & Snibee, 1984; van der Kolk, 1991) and post traumatic stress symptoms among police officers are highly correlated with the officer's exposure to traumatic incidents (Martin, McKean, & Veltkamp, 1986). The primary mental health service provided to police officers to assist them with the potentially negative psychological effects of traumatic incidents is critical incident stress debriefing. Numerous approaches to critical incident debriefing are found in the literature. Mitchell (1983) describes a seven-phase debriefing method using Critical Incident Stress Management Teams that provide psychological and educational support to emergency services workers following exposure to traumatic incidents and offers guidelines to enhance workers' health and careers (Mitchell & Bray, 1990). A similar approach, the Critical Incident Debriefing (CIDB) was developed specifically for police officers in the United Kingdom (Mitchell, 1999). Blak (1991) also describes a critical incident debriefing model for law enforcement personnel in which the group facilitator shares personal reactions to officers' experiences. Whatever the approach, Brown and Campbell (1994) suggest that the primary goals of debriefing provided to police officers are; to establish mutual support, provide education, allow officers to express their emotional responses to the traumatic incident, and establish organizational support for their reactions and emotional responses.
The effectiveness of critical incident debriefing on psychological well being has been established (Bohl, 1990; Mitchell & Bray, 1990). However, in a review of the anecdotal and empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of debriefing, Dunning (1999) finds that the evidence is inconclusive, contradictory, and that debriefing is negatively associated with psychological well being. Dunning (1995) and others (Avery & Orner, 1998; Herman, 1992; Paton & Stephens, 1996) have found support for these assumptions.
Reese (1991) reports that police officers as an occupational group resist critical incident debriefing due to beliefs that seeking help is a sign of weakness. Similarly, Stephens (1997) observed that officers participating in critical incident debriefing indicated that they preferred to speak with other individuals who shared similar experiences and resented mandatory debriefing. Although police officers resist manadatory critical incident debriefing and the empirical evidence supporting its effectiveness on psychological well being is inconclusive, Bohl (1991) and Reese (1991) advocate for mandatory critical incident debriefing within law enforcement organizations.
Goldstein (1990) identified several issues related to the field work environment of police officers which may contribute to their resistance to critical incident debriefing. First, he describes the social problems confronting police officers; hostile citizens, poverty, child abuse, violent crime, drug abuse, and gangs, among others. Second, dealing with angry and hostile citizens, dilemmas arising from the functions of law enforcement, and the law enforcement organization itself all converge to create an environment in which a subculture develops based on perceptions that only other police officers can understand their occupation. He asserts that this subculture is often a major obstacle for police administrators, community leaders, courts, and legislators attempting to implement new initiatives within law enforcement organizations. It stands to reason that this subculture may also pose difficulties for mental health service providers treating police officers exposed to traumatic incidents.
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