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Negative influences of police stress.

Ian Campbell believed that what most policemen shared was an abhorrence of the predictable, a distaste for the foreseeable experiences of working life.... He felt that the job was not particularly hazardous physically but was incredibly hazardous emotionally and too often led to divorce, alcoholism, and suicide.... Never mind whether they could interpret, never mind if it was potentially hazardous to the soul. To be there was the thing.

Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field (1)

Many variables exist in the battle against the negative influences of stress. While people can control some variables more easily than others, choice remains the one that they can exercise the most influence over. Officers have chosen a career in law enforcement, rather than having someone force them to join the profession. Other decisions, such as living with a mate, having a family, or attending college, represent examples of controlled choices that officers make.

However, choosing to live as healthy a life as possible remains one of the most important choices that officers should make. Deciding to battle the negative influences of life by developing and accentuating positive influences reduces stress in officers' daily activities. Research has shown that negative influences increase distress (negative stress), which, in large enough quantities, may cause some individuals to become sick. (2)


What is stress? One researcher defined stress as "a nonspecific response of the body to any demand placed on it." (3) What does that really mean? It simply means that each person responds differently to internal and external demands of life, but that each person does experience stress. Denying its existence does not alleviate the body's response to daily stress.

The day-to-day stress of dealing with people and their problems, especially the deeply disturbing aspects of dealing with critical incidents, can traumatize officers and poison their spirits. Friederich Nietzsche said, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And, when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." (4) This aptly applies to the law enforcement profession because officers look into the abyss of evil and negative behavior every day. The quote at the beginning of this article provides insight into what happens to police officers who, during the course of their duties, daily look into the abyss. Although they may face physical jeopardy, their souls remain constantly susceptible to poisoning with each encounter at the edge of the abyss.

Historically, the law enforcement profession has not acknowledged the negative stress related to being an officer. For example, law enforcement academies throughout the United States rarely have addressed stress in police work. Notwithstanding unmistakable cries for help disclosed in internal reviews, academies have been particularly lax in suggesting appropriate methods for identifying this potentially debilitating disorder. In addition, until recently, many law enforcement agencies did not implement programs to assist officers struggling with stress-related issues. One case, in particular, illustrates this problem all too well.


In The Onion Field, author Joseph Wambaugh described the horrible tale of two Los Angeles police officers' abduction while on duty one night in 1963. Criminals took the officers to an onion field outside of Bakersfield, California, and murdered one officer at the feet of the other. Somehow, miraculously, the second officer escaped and survived, only to experience second guessing by his colleagues and the criminal justice system and incredible effects of negative stress without any assistance or support.

The surviving officer not only was victimized by watching his partner murdered but was second-guessed by his colleagues because he escaped and survived. The result was a second victimization. How-ever, in 1963, no critical incident stress management debriefings or employee assistance programs existed, so he had no place to turn for support within his agency. His family members could not support him because no family education programs existed to teach them about the job and its negative stressors. He could not communicate with a police chaplain because his agency had no chaplain program. To make matters worse, a main aspect of the police personality dictated that officers, regardless of traumatic experiences, must endure repeated emotional and physical exposure to the abyss as if nothing had happened. In such an environment, the surviving officer's agency would not have had meaningful peer discussions or formal peer support programs in place to encourage him to talk about his problems.

The case ultimately went to court. For the next 9 years, the surviving officer had to recount the horror of the night over and over again during all of the hearings and appeals of the case. This left an open and infected psychological wound that never properly healed so that he could return to duty as a fully functional officer.

The gardener was a thief. That's the thing that bothered him the most... It was getting so hard to remember... something flashed in his mind.... He began getting afraid for no reason... a throbbing pain started at the base of his skull... The fear was weakening him and the pain was ferocious. He wanted to work it off.... Even the pain would not stop the gardener from thinking about his crimes.... He used to think about the night in the onion field... before he became a thief. (5)

In recounting this true story, Wambaugh described the effects of what has come to be known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with some of the symptoms that someone with PTSD may exhibit. Tragically, the surviving officer ultimately was lost to PTSD and to the law enforcement profession because he became a thief himself by shoplifting some tools that he could have paid for but did not.

Fortunately, the law enforcement profession has made great strides since 1963 in the development of programs to treat officers exposed to such horrific incidents. However, room exists for improving these treatment efforts and for enhancing the credibility of such programs so that officers will participate in them. Most important, however, the law enforcement community must remind officers of the negative effects of stress and provide them with the skills to deal with the demands of their profession.


The U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice conducted research involving one of the major law enforcement agencies in the United States. (6) Through an anonymous survey of the officers in this agency, researchers discovered that, apparently, the law enforcement profession had not learned from the history of negative influences of job stress and what that stress does to officers exposed to it. The study, Project Shield, provided information about the negative effects of stress and broke these down into categories of psychological, physical, behavioral, and organizational public health.

During this research project, officers admitted anonymously to increased vulnerability to alcohol abuse and anxiety within the first 5 years of employment. Project Shield also found that officers experienced increased risk of mortality and morbidity from cancer, heart disease, hypertension, acute migraine headaches, reproductive problems, chronic back problems, foot problems, and insomnia.

Project Shield showed that profound emotional effects from stress occurred most often when officers attended a police funeral, were the subject of an internal affairs investigation, experienced a needle stick or exposure to body fluids, made a violent arrest, or personally knew victims. In addition, the study discovered that officers experienced organizational, or job-related, stress most often when making split-second decisions with serious consequences; hearing media reports of police wrongdoing biased against police; having administrators who did not support their officers; putting work ahead of anything, including family; and not having enough time for personal or family responsibilities.

In the psychological area, Project Shield revealed that officers lost energy or interest, including loss of sexual interest, along with experiencing pounding in their chests and feelings of impending doom. Most important, 1 percent of these officers considered ending their lives. (7)

Regarding behavioral problems due to negative job stress, officers reported smoking and drinking problems; more injuries; and physical abuse of spouses, children, and even their police partners. Based on the laws associated with police officers convicted of domestic violence having to give up their guns, the potential exists to lose officers to this problem if they are convicted of domestic violence or child abuse. Of course, physically abusing their police partners also can result in tragedy in the workplace.

Project Shield demonstrated that whereas only a small percentage of officers in this agency reported these problems, they also were 30 percent more likely to report health problems than other officers in the agency, 3 times more likely to abuse their spouses, 5 times more likely to report alcoholism, 5 times more likely to have somatization (multiple, recurrent, and long-term physical complaints apparently not due to any physical disorder), (8) 6 times more likely to have anxiety, 10 times more likely to be depressed, and the least likely to seek help.


More important than discovering that the negative impact of stress still exists is developing a comprehensive strategy to prevent or reduce it. Sadly, little is being done to inoculate new law enforcement personnel against the poisonous effects of negative stress. One story illustrates the need for action. "There were two doctors standing in the middle of a river. Gradually, dead bodies began coming toward them. At first, there were only a few, and the doctors were successful in pulling them out of the river. Later though, more bodies were coming downstream, and it was becoming impossible to get them all out of the river. At that point, one of the doctors got out of the water and went up on the bank. The other doctor, still in the river, said, 'Hey, where are you going? I can't get all of these bodies out of the water by myself.' With that, the doctor on the bank replied, 'I am going upstream to find out who is throwing all of these bodies in the river.'" (9)

Likewise, the law enforcement profession must go upstream to prevent the negative impact of stress. Prevention, or at least the reduction, of the negative impact of stress proves crucial to the health of law enforcement officers. Comparing stress prevention or reduction to similar efforts, such as crime or disease prevention and reduction, can lead to a better understanding of how to approach the problem.

Crime Prevention Model

Since 1970, the National Crime Prevention Institute (NCPI) in Louisville, Kentucky, has taught that crime prevention is "the anticipation, recognition, appraisal of a crime risk; and the initiation of some action to remove or reduce it." (10) Prior to the advent of a formal crime prevention philosophy at NCPI in 1970, a basic example of such action would have involved officers who worked the midnight shift checking for unlocked or open doors of businesses. When they found a door open or unlocked, they surmised that a thief could enter and steal what was inside. Recognizing this as a crime risk, officers understood that something had to be done to remove this opportunity from the criminal. Therefore, officers would have called the business owner to come and secure the business, which would have removed or at least reduced the opportunity for theft.

The law enforcement community can apply this definition of crime prevention to the concept of negative stress reduction by simply substituting "negative stress," or, more correctly, "distress" (as opposed to eustress or positive stress, such as winning the lottery), in the place of "a crime risk." Now, officers have a working definition of stress reduction: "the anticipation, recognition, appraisal of distress; and the initiation of some action to remove or reduce it." Anticipation means that anyone can experience distress. The importance of recognition lies in the awareness of the particular distress that bothers someone the most. Appraisal relates to understanding stress and how it affects people in general and why certain distress bothers a person. With these concepts in mind, the law enforcement community can begin to "initiate some action to remove or reduce it (distress)."

To bring the reduction or prevention of negative stress about, however, law enforcement officers first must consider some contributing factors inherent in their profession. For example, research in criminal victimization has shown that those who have become victims are never the same as they were prior to their criminal victimization. (11) Likewise, officers are never the same as they were prior to entering the law enforcement profession. When they come in contact with individuals who have been victimized by criminals, officers also are victimized because people naturally relate to the pain of others. Victims of crime have experienced a violation of their inner selves, and officers easily can empathize because of the realization that this could have happened to anyone. Each time officers encounter this poisonous contact, the potential exists for their spirits to erode. After a period of time, the mind begins to build a wall to protect itself from experiencing any more pain. When this occurs, officers may disp lay cold, unfeeling, or cynical attitudes, even though they do not mean to. To prevent this from occurring, officers need the skills to combat this exposure and avoid becoming sick and dispirited. Anticipation through education may develop a better understanding of how this distress may be contagious and will help to initiate action to guard against this phenomenon.

Disease Prevention Model

Just as with the crime prevention comparison, the law enforcement community can borrow the three phases of disease prevention from public health medicine to help in the battle against stress. In the primary phase of disease prevention, doctors focus on educating people who live healthy lifestyles about unhealthy behaviors so that they will not choose to engage in those behaviors and become ill. For example, they teach people who do not smoke about the dangers of smoking so that they will choose not to smoke and, thus, reduce their chances of becoming ill.

In the secondary phase of disease prevention, doctors target those individuals engaged in behavior that may lead to disease, but who are still healthy. The doctors attempt to educate these people so that they will stop the dangerous behavior (e.g., smoking) before they contract such ailments as lung cancer, emphysema, or heart disease. The final, or tertiary, prevention phase involves treating sick individuals and educating them to choose not to continue the behavior that resulted in their illness. This represents the most costly phase of the three, and the one that stands the least chance of being effective because treatment usually offers no guarantee of success once a serious illness has developed. (12)

If the law enforcement community applies the three phases of public health medicine's concept of prevention to developing a stress reduction model, then choosing the primary phase makes the most sense. Why wait until the negative influences have broken into a healthy lifestyle and the individual is so sick with stress that the tertiary phase is required to attempt to restore health? (13)

However, even in the secondary phase, officers can choose to "initiate some action to remove or reduce" the negative influences of stress by employing various coping methods. Some of these include deep breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation/prayer, positive thinking and self-talk, and mental imagery. (14) Officers can choose one of these or use them in combination, whatever works the best. Each person is different and what might work well for one might not work for another. These various techniques do work, and when officers find a technique that works the best, they have to practice it to increase its effectiveness. Most important, officers can refine these coping skills to the point that they can employ them as stressful situations occur. (15) Using these techniques gives a hopefulness in dealing with most stressful situations and even preventing them from becoming destructive to an officer's overall health.

Practicing stress management also must be used in the context of practicing a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, wholesome nutrition and diet, spiritual renewal, and enriching social interactions. Officer choices determine the health of the body, mind, spirit, and social interactions. If any one of these four areas sickens, other areas can become ill as well. Conversely, if officers choose to practice a healthy lifestyle in these four areas, then they choose to take care of their bodies.

Finally, officers also can choose to think positive thoughts. (16) Plato said that "thinking is the soul talking to itself." (17) This should be a positive dialogue. Officers should choose to cultivate an energetic, positive, and loving spirit. To help in this effort, they also should choose to associate or interact with others who think and act in a positive manner as well.


As law enforcement officers become healthier, their agencies need to consider their health as well. "Police agencies need to be healthy before they can treat the community's illnesses and injuries. Signs of good health include pride, self-esteem, quality leadership, comprehensive training, and board certification." (18) Also, "...they always should demonstrate an appropriate bedside manner and always practice what they preach." (19)

Choosing to be healthy is the best weapon against the negative influences of stress. Once a commitment is made to fight back against the negative factors of stress, life becomes healthier and more enjoyable. Fighting back includes the deliberate adoption and implementation of stress reduction techniques and the vigilance of the law enforcement community to protect its members from the effects of negative stress as vigorously as officers protect society from lawlessness.


(1.) Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field (New York, NY: Delacorte Press, 1973), 3-4.

(2.) Edward A. Charlesworth and Ronald G. Nathan, Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1984).

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, quoted in Margaret Miner and Hugh Rawson, The New International Dictionary of Quotations, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: A Signet Book, 1994), 111.

(5.) Supra note 1, 1-2.

(6.) Robin Gershon, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Public Health Implication of Law Enforcement Stress, video presentation, March 23, 1999.

(7.) A presentation at a national conference on police suicide held at the FBI Academy in September 1999 indicated that police officers are three to four times more likely to kill themselves than to be killed in the line of duty. Given the predisposition to suicide that a few officers harbor, there seems to be a real potential for violence in the workplace of a police station by an officer who turns from suicidal to homicidal thoughts. See U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Suicide and Law Enforcement (Washington, DC, 2001).

(8.) American Psychiatric Glossary, 6th ed., s.v. "somatization."

(9.) Presentation given by Deborah ProthrowStith, M.D., FBI Academy, October 15, 1991.

(10.) National Crime Prevention Institute, Understanding Crime Prevention (Stoneham, MA: Butterworth, 1986), 2.

(11.) Interview of Morton Bard, Ph.D., in Because You Need to Know, prod. Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, July 5, 1988, video.

(12.) Supra note 8.

(13.) Supra note 8.

(14.) Supra note 2.

(15.) Patricia Carrington, How to Relax (New York, NY: Warner Audio Publishing, 1985).

(16.) For additional information, see Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York, NY: Fawcett Columbine Trade paper ed., 1996).

(17.) Plato, The Republic, retrieved from, on June 18, 2001.

(18.) Joseph A. Harpold, "A Medical Model for Community Police," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 2000, 26.

(19.) Ibid, 27.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Edward A. Charlesworth and Ronald G. Nathan, Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide To Wellness (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1984).

Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York, NY: Fawcett Columbine Trade paper ed., 1996).

Gary Aumiller, Keeping It Simple (Holbrook, MA: Adams Publishing, 1995).

Stephen R. Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990); Principle Centered Leadership (New York, NY: Summit Books, 1991); and First Things First (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

Gary Smalley, Loving Each Other For Better and For Best (New York, NY: Inspirational Press, 1993).

Larry Dossey, Healing Words (New York, NY: Harper Collins Paper Backs, 1993).

Depak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws Of Success (San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing, 1993).

Jeffrey T. Mitchell and George S. Everly, Jr., Critical Incident Stress Management: The Basic Course Workbook, 2nd edition (Ellicott City, MD: International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, 1998).

Katherine W. Ellison and John L. Genz, Stress and the Police Officer (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1983).
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Article Details
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Author:Feemster, Samuel L.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Previous Article:Sheriff Michael Crocker of the Traill County, North Dakota, Sheriff's Department responded to a domestic complaint. (The Bulletin Notes).
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