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Volume 2001-2

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2001-2

John M. Violanti, Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, School of Medicine and Biomedical sciences, State University of NY at Buffalo, NY 14214. Email: jmv@mail.rit.edu

Volume : 2001-2

John M. Violanti

Department of Social and Preventive Medicine
School of Medicine and Biomedical sciences
State University of NY at Buffalo, NY 14214
Department of Criminal Justice
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY


This special edition is dedicated to the police officers, firefighters, rescue workers, and all emergency personnel who without regard for their own safety faced the brutal terrorist attack on New York City and Washington, DC. We owe a debt of gratitude to the service of these brave men and women. Our sincere condolences to the survivors of those officers and firefighters who perished as a result of their bravery. We feel the pain of your loss, and sincerely hope that the sacrifices made will ensure the future of freedom throughout the world.

It was like walking in a cloud. My uniform was covered with white dust, my eyes were stinging from the flying debris. Papers were blowing around in the windstorm produced by the building fallout. It reminded me of pictures I had seen of a nuclear winter. People were walking around aimlessly, looking for friends or family. Firefighters were digging up body parts, child toys, photographs. Hell had come to earth, and I was right in the middle of it.

NYPD Police Officer

Police Trauma

The police are an occupational group at high risk for exposure to traumatic incidents and for subsequent development of post traumatic stress disorder. Officers confront crime, social indignity, and human carnage, resulting in a physical and psychological battering sometimes to the extent of death. This edition of the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies focuses on the psychological impact of police work. During a police career, the men and women of our police agencies are exposed to distressing events that go far beyond the experience of an ordinary citizen. There is an increased need today to help police officers deal with these traumatic experiences. As police work becomes increasingly complex, this need will grow further. Mental health and other professionals need to be made aware of the conditions and precipitants and trauma stress among the police. Our hope is that this information may be used to help in establishing improved interventions and preventive measures for the police.

The first article by Buchanan, Stephens, and Long investigates the number of traumatic events experienced by police recruits and serving police. Findings indicate that field staff reported more lifetime events and significantly more lifetime exposure to assault, disasters, hazards and motor vehicle accidents, but fewer motor accidents in the previous year than recruits. Male recruits reported significantly more lifetime assaults than females and females reported high lifetime levels of sexual assaults. Surprisingly, both female and male recruits reported similar high lifetime experiences of other events. It is suggested that the number of traumatic events experienced as young adults is an important variable in determining vulnerability to developing psychological symptoms if exposed to future trauma.

Patterson suggests that traumatic stress is often buried into categories of stressful events by police and should be brought out as a separate problem. He bases his new taxonomy on the fact that police officers experience potentially negative traumatic incidents on a regular basis, separate from the daily routine stress of policing. In addition, specialized mental health services provided following exposure to a traumatic incident are often required.

Patterson follows up with an article on demographic variables and the number of traumatic incidents reported among a sample of police officers. Results suggested that only age and the section assignment of the officer was a significant predictor of fewer traumatic incidents, while prior military service experience predicted more traumatic incidents. Results are discussed relative to mental health services provided to police officers exposure to traumatic incidents.

Greene explores the little researched area of police exposure to dead bodies and body handling. She records her professional observations as a police psychiatrist working in the field. Her essay-style writing provides clear picture of the impact on police officers of handling dead bodies, collecting artifacts for evidence, notification procedures, and traumatic sequalae.

Suicide in policing has reached epidemic proportions. Departments are often left in the wake of trauma and grief, unable or unwilling to deal with the suicide of an officer. Loo lucidly outlines procedures a police department might enact to deal with the trauma of an officer suicide.

Traumatic stress intervention in policing has long been the subject of controversy. Violanti challenges the present conventional methodology of pathogenic intervention, pointing to the notion that such intervention may negatively impact those officers who participate. Violanti proposes that individuals and not the departmental trauma programs can best handle trauma, and officers should not be forced to attend debriefings. Individuals possess their own level of coping abilities, vulnerability, and resiliency in the wake of trauma, and often grow personally from their untoward work experiences.

This edition has addressed but a few of the issues surrounding trauma stress in the occupation of policing. More research is needed to help officers deal with the hidden psychological danger of this work.


John M. Violanti © 2001. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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