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The Relationship Between Demographic Variables
and Exposure to Traumatic Incidents
Among Police Officers

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

The Relationship Between Demographic Variables
and Exposure to Traumatic Incidents
Among Police Officers

George T. Patterson, New York University, Ehrenkranz School of Social Work, 1 Washington Square North, New York, New York 10003, USA. Email: gtp1@nyu.edu
Keywords: Police officers, traumatic incidents, demographic variables, mental health services

George T. Patterson

New York University
Ehrenkranz School of Social Work
1 Washington Square North
New York, New York 10003


The present study examined the relationship between demographic variables and the number of traumatic incidents reported among a sample of police officers. A sample of 233 police officers completed a survey requesting demographic information and assessing their exposure to traumatic incidents. Age, gender, race, years of police experience, and section assignment were significantly correlated with fewer reported traumatic incidents. Multiple regression analysis results suggest 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 exposured to traumatic incidents.

The Relationship Between Demographic Variables
and Exposure to Traumatic Incidents
Among Police Officers


Various demographic variables have been linked to law enforcement work stress and include age, education, gender, race, rank, section assignment, and years of police experience. Race, ethnicity, and gender are not associated with experiences of law enforcement work stress (Violanti & Aron, 1995). The effects of college education are inconclusive. Ayres and Flanagan (1992) assert that college education results in greater dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic organization of law enforcement agencies while Worden (1990) did not find empirical support for these assumptions. Sergeants report a greater number of work events than other ranks (Brown & Campbell, 1990) and greater perceptions of stress than patrol officers (Savery, Soutar, & Weaver, 1993). As years of police experience increase, perceptions of work stress decrease (Violanti, 1983) and officers with more years of experience report lower levels of perceived work stress (Patterson, 1992). These demographic characteristics influence values, goals, and beliefs and help explain how stressful events and situations are appraised by individuals (Folkman & Lazarus, 1988).

Demographic Characteristics and Traumatic Incidents in Law Enforcement

Alexander (1991) asserts that in addition to the stressful work events and situations experienced in law enforcement, such as traumatic incidents, some officers due to their gender or race experience additional environmental factors as a result of these demographic characteristics which in turn influence cultural differences in coping and social support. In studies among non-police samples, gender differences are associated with the number and types of traumatic incidents as well as psychological reactions to such incidents (Kessler, Sonnega, Bromet, Hughes, & Nelson, 1995; Vrana & Lauterbach, 1994). In a study among police officers, Martin, McKean, and Veltkamp (1986) found that female officers reported exposure to more traumatic incidents than male officers, such as a natural disaster, suicide, child and spouse abuse. They suggest that female officers are perhaps more exposed to such incidents, not more exposed to stressful events and situations, and that gender differences in psychological reactions are related to the degree of identification with victims, frequency of exposure to victims, and coping styles.

Police experience is associated with traumatic incidents such that officers with less than one year of experience are exposed to a wide range of incidents such as the death or injury of children and the removal of body parts (Westerink, 1990). In general, little is known about the effects of a range of demographic characteristics on exposure to traumatic incidents in law enforcement. While police officers are not affected in the same manner following exposure to traumatic incidents, for instance, Stratton, Parker, and Snibbe (1984) found that 35% of the police officers in their sample involved in a shooting situation described not being affected at all psychologically or physically, 33% described moderate effects, and 30% felt very affected, the role of demographic characteristics has not been fully investigated. Psychological symptoms associated with traumatic incidents among police officers may be associated with exposure to such incidents as well as demographic characteristics. Moreover, such factors as appraisal, personality characteristics, coping, and previous exposure, among others may influence officers' experiences following exposure to traumatic incidents.

The aim of the present study was to examine the influence of demographic characteristics on exposure to traumatic incidents among police officers. Because traumatic incidents, such as shooting a partner or being killed in the line of duty occur infrequently in law enforcement (Coman, 1987; Coman & Evans, 1991; Cooper, Davidson, & Robinson, 1982; Gudjonsson & Adlam, 1985; Sewell, 1983) frequently occurring incidents such as family violence, child abuse, and situations requiring the use of force were examined in the present study.


Participants were police officers employed within a mid-sized urban law enforcement organization located in the Northeastern United States who volunteered for the study. From a total of 347 self-report questionnaires, 233 were returned resulting in a response rate of 67%. Of the respondents who completed surveys, the average age was 37, the average length of police experience was 12 years, and 89% were male, 11% female. Table 1 provides a description of the demographic characteristics of the sample.

The researcher attended police departmental roll call periods to request participants for this study which was part of a larger study examining stress among police officers. The self-report questionnaires were distributed at roll calls using convenience sample procedures. Participants were fully informed about the purpose of the study and signed an informed consent form prior to participating. They were informed that the study was unrelated to police departmental business, their participation was completely voluntary, and provided with postage paid envelopes to return the anonymous questionnaires by mail to the researcher.


Demographic variables.
Age, education, gender, race, rank, section assignment, and years of police experience, as previously discussed, are perhaps the most frequently examined demographic variables in stress studies among police officers and were examined in the present study. In view of the frequent comparisons of exposure to traumatic incidents among police officers and military personnel, prior military service experience was also included as a demographic variable.

Traumatic incidents.
Traumatic incidents were conceptualized as “any situation faced by emergency personnel that causes them to experience strong emotional reactions which have the potential to interfere with their ability to function either at the scene or later” (Mitchell & Resnick, 1981). To measure exposure to traumatic incidents five items were taken from the 60-item Police Stress Survey (Speilberger, Westberry, Grier, & Greenfield, 1981) and one item; “confronting a person with a gun” was taken from the work of Coman and Evans (1991) based on their revision of the item “incidents involving firearms” (Sewell, 1983). These six incidents represent potentially dangerous situations in which there exists a high probability that either the officer or another individual can be seriously injured or killed. To assess the number of traumatic incidents participants experienced, they were asked to indicate whether an incident occurred within the past six months and to respond using a dichotomous scale of (0) 'no' or (1) 'yes'. The alpha reliability was .81.

Data Analysis

The data were analyzed using the Statistical Package for the Social Science (SPSS).

First, Pearson correlations were used to examine the strength of the association between the independent and dependent variables. Next, multiple regression analysis was used to examine the effects of the eight demographic variables (age, education, gender, race, rank, military experience, section assignment, and years of police experience) on the number of traumatic incidents. The scale scores for the number of traumatic incidents officers reported was used to develop the traumatic incident scale which was the dependent variable. Age and police experience were coded in years, education was coded according to the highest degree earned; (1) High school, no diploma, (2) High school graduate, (3) Associates degree, (4) BA/BS, and (5) MA/MS. The remaining demographic variables were coded in the following manner: gender, (0) male and (1) female; race, (0) white and (1) nonwhite minority; rank, (1) patrol officer, (2) investigator, (3) sergeant, (4) lieutenant, and (5) captain; military experience, (0) no and (1) yes; and section assignment, (0) patrol units (1) specialty units. These demographic characteristics were independent variables in the analysis.

Table 1 – Demographic Characteristics of Sample

Demographic Variable %
Race Caucasian
Asian American
Native American.
Education High school, no diploma
High school graduate
Associates degree
Military Experience Yes No
Rank Patrol officer
Section Assignment Patrol units
Specialty units


Police officers in the sample reported an average of 3.41 (SD = 2.05) traumatic incidents in the 6 month period prior to data collection, 25% reported experiencing 0-1 incidents (n = 58), 22% experienced 2-3 incidents (n = 52), 32% reported 3-4 incidents (n = 74), and 21% reported experiencing 6 incidents (n = 48). As Table 2 indicates, traumatic incidents such as handling domestic disputes and child abuse situations occurred more frequently than incidents such as confronting a person gun and engaging in a high speed car chase through city streets.

Table 2 – Reported Frequency of Traumatic Incidents

Traumatic Event M SD
Handling a domestic dispute
Handling a child abuse/neglect situation
A situation requiring the use of force
Confronting an aggressive crowd
Confronting a person with a gun
High speed car chase through city streets
Note. Range = 0-1.

The Pearson correlation coefficients between the predictor variables and traumatic incidents are presented in Table 3.

Table 3 – Correlations among Demographic Variables and Traumatic Incidents

Variable 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1. Age --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
2. Sex (0 = male, 1 = female) -.01 --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
3. Race (0= white, 1 = nonwhite) -.01 .30*** --- --- --- --- --- ---
4. Education -.17* -.02 -.01 --- --- --- --- ---
5. Military Experience ( 0 = No, 1 = Yes) .33*** -.06 .16* -20** --- --- --- ---
6. Police Experience (Years) .86*** -.06 -.05 -.14* .23*** --- --- ---
7. Police Rank .45*** -.11 -.14* .18** .07 .44*** --- ---
8. Section .23*** .14* .26*** -.05 .06 .26*** .04 ---
9. Traumatic incidents -.38*** -16* -.20** .09 .01 -.34*** -.09 -.57***
Note. *p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001, listwise deletion, one-tailed.

Of the eight demographic variables, the number of traumatic incidents officers reported were significantly and negatively associated with five. Age was associated with fewer traumatic incidents, such that older officers reported fewer traumatic incidents (r = -. 38, p < .001), female officers reported fewer traumatic incidents than males (r = -. 16, p < .05), nonwhites reported fewer traumatic incidents than whites (r = -. 20, p < .01), officers with more years of police experience reported fewer traumatic incidents than officers with less years of experience (r = -.34, p < .001), and officers assigned to specialty units where they perform less patrol duties reported fewer traumatic incidents than officers assigned to patrol units (r = -.57, p < .001).

The multiple regression analysis results are presented in Table 4, which shows the unstandardized and standardized regression coefficients.

Table 4 – Multiple Regression Coefficients for Predicators of Traumatic Incidents

Independent Variables B SE B b
Age -.11 .04 -.38**
Sex (0 = male, 1 = female) -.33 .41 -.05
Race (0= white, 1 = nonwhite) -.43 .34 -.08
Education .06 .15 .03
Military Experience ( 0 = No, 1 = Yes) .80 .32 .16*
Police Experience (Years) .10 .27 .04
Police Rank .10 .16 .05
Section Assignment -.19 .03 -.48***
Note. R2 = .43, *p <.05, **p< .01, *p<.001, listwise deletion.

Age was a significant predictor of fewer traumatic incidents, such that older officers reported fewer traumatic incidents (b = -. 38, p < .01). The section in which the officer was employed was also a predictor of fewer traumatic incidents, such that officers employed in specialty units, mounted patrol, canine unit, forgery unit, etc., reported fewer traumatic incidents. Military experience was a significant predictor of more traumatic incidents, such that officers with prior military service experience reported more traumatic incidents than officers without such experience (b =. 16, p < .05). The amount of variance explained by the model was 43% and F test results show that the predictors in the model were significant, F = (8, 165) = 15.25, p < .001.


The aim of the present study was to examine the relationship between demographic variables and exposure to traumatic incidents among police officers. Traumatic incidents in which family members and children were involved were the most frequently occurring traumatic incidents for police officers in the sample, followed by situations in which officers or other individuals were at risk or being seriously injured or killed in primarily non-family related situations. When considered together with Violanti and Aron's (1994) findings in which police officers ranked situations such as battered children, high speed car chases, use of force, and aggressive crowds as among the most stressful situations, the present results suggest that these incidents are both traumatic and present the greatest source of stress for police officers.

Age, gender, race, military service experience and section assignment were all associated with fewer reported traumatic incidents. Age was significantly correlated with years of police experience, rank, and military service experience. Rank was significantly correlated years of police experience. These results indicate that older officers have been in law enforcement longer, achieved higher rank, and were more likely to report prior military service experience. Although the correlations were modest, older police officers were also more likely to be assigned to sections where they performed less patrol duties. When considered together, these results also suggest that as officers age, they are likely to be promoted in rank and transferred to sections where they perform less patrol duties.

Age and section assignment predicted fewer traumatic incidents. As we saw, older officers were more likely to be working in sections where they performed less patrol duties. Previous research shows that younger officers tend to be more aggressive, more involved in situations that require the use of force, and make more arrests than older officers (Cohen & Chaiken, 1972; Sherman, 1980). The majority of officers in the sample (75%) were assigned to sections where they performed more patrol duties and consequently were exposed to more traumatic incidents. Taken together, these results support previous research which shows that police officers experience a wide range of critical incidents within one year of being hired as police officers (Westerink, 1990).

Although prior military service experience was associated with fewer traumatic incidents, such experience did not predict fewer traumatic incidents and actually predicted more traumatic incidents. Perhaps because the field work events and situations officers perform within law enforcement are different from the work events performed in military service, and since police officers are not engaged in warfare activities throughout their careers these experiences may have affected officers' self report of such incidents.

Mental health services provided to police officers following exposure to traumatic incidents should consider the effects of demographic characteristics on exposure to traumatic incidents. Considering these characteristics can provide officers with services that are culturally relevant based on such information. Because the present results indicate that the age of the officer and length of police experience are highly correlated, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of age from the effects of years of experience on exposure to traumatic incidents. Future research should consider longitudinal research designs to further investigate this relationship. Finally, the present results must be interpreted with caution. Similar to Coyne and Downey's (1991) cautions about linking social factors and psychopathology, some of the antecedent demographic characteristics examined in the present study, such as age, education, and section assignment should not be viewed as static characteristics. Exposure to traumatic incidents is a process that unfolds over time and interacts with environmental factors. Consequently exposure to traumatic incidents occur as demographic characteristics and environmental factors interact.


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George T. Patterson © 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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