LAPD Needs to Rethink Job Stress

Laura Gerritsen, LAPD officer and life partner with LAPD Officer Spree DeSha who died in the Metrolink crash last week, cries after the funeral on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, at Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels. (Photo: Tina Burch)

LAPD officer Laura Gerritsen mourns death of fellow officer and life partner Spree DeSha who died in the Metrolink crash in 2008. (Photo: Tina Burch)

Every role we fill in life comes with stressors: getting married, having children, going to school, getting and keeping a job and then coping with its interminable demands. Nevertheless, there are indeed certain jobs that are more stressful and cause more physical and mental damage than others: the positions held by police officers, firefighters, teachers, and electrical workers—to name the most obvious. We can no longer be oblivious to the reality of their lives. We must acknowledge that stress is a very real part of life and affects every aspect of it.

There are numerous factors that create stress: how we view ourselves, how the community at-large views us, how we accept the various roles we must simultaneously fill, the kind of respect and admiration we receive, how well we are able to balance work with family and other parts of our lives.

Since there are a number of variables, let me concentrate on just one occupation and how stress affects our police officers whose job is, after all, “to protect and to serve.” Years ago, the street cop (always male at the time) was your friend. You knew each other. He was there to help and protect and rescue. They joined the force with the genuine desire to help, to ameliorate conditions, and be admired for their services. They could earn a decent living which could provide for themselves and their families—wives could look after children; there would be money to send their children to college.

Today, police officers are too often viewed quite differently. Because there are some bad apples (as there always are in any profession) who have engaged in corrupt and sometimes even criminal activity themselves, LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers) are commonly viewed askance, with suspicion, mistrust, and even hate. Too frequently, when a crime is committed, there are “no witnesses” to assist in bringing down the offender—how frustrating when men and women have put their lives on the line and face danger at every turn only to get little or no help from the very people they have sworn to shield from abuse.

Grievously, research has discovered that “it is common for citizens to resent interventions by LEOs and react with hostility, contempt, and sometimes even physical violence.” Consequently, an ambivalence, detachment, and lack of empathy often emerges on the part of the officer toward the many who in some way or other are involved in or touched by criminal activity. These feelings sometimes manifest themselves through signs of insensitivity, authoritarian control, harassment, and excessive force—the things we see on TV. We tend to forget that these videos are not reflective of the entire force–police departments that do not deserve being branded with a bad name and a black eye.

Where does that leave the officer who came to the force with commitment and dedication?

Their erratic schedules make a harmonious home-life almost a myth—no time for spouse or children. Not enough earnings to make ends meet. Wives or husbands have to work in order to pay the bills. Guilt, guilt over how they thought life would be—a feeling of betrayal over how unpleasant and disconcerting the realities are. Too much pressure on the job and then added, unintentional yet discomfiting anxieties over the needs of family and friends. Righteous memories cloak their thoughts, reminding them of why they had chosen to become police officers in the first place—very admirable then, yet now their aspirations have been replaced by deep feelings of depression and desperation, the unexpected reality of an alienated existence. That is not how it was supposed to be. … Join the force! Earn a great salary. Make a difference! What happened?!

It is interesting how LEOs experience similar stages in stress-coping that the bereaved experience as they try to manage their own losses—denial, anger, panic, guilt, depression, loneliness, and ultimately acceptance. Since these concepts also pertain to officer experiences, the following conclusions (which have all been thoroughly studied) have been made:

  • They enter the Department as idealists, eagerly and perhaps naïvely wanting to make a difference in their desire to make a positive mark on the communities they are guarding.
  • Over the next 5 years, a smothering form of cynicism kicks in. They begin to despair.
  • Burdened by too many failures and frustrations to achieve their original, commendable goals, they begin to become resentful and even hostile.
  • Resigned that they have no authentic alternatives, they become detached, losing their idealism, and ultimately simply accepting the system with all its faults and defects.

When Society paints all officers with the same ugly brush, the results are devastating! LEOs discover that they are working in a profession that not only produces the highest level of depression and self-doubt but also the highest divorce rates [because of officer- and/or partner-related dysfunction] and the highest rate of suicide (consider soldiers and even dentists).

What is also sad and even horrifying is that police departments promote the stereotype—“that only the weak suffer from stress-related symptoms.” Thus officers hide their psychological issues and the very real physical pain with which they are tortured—produced by the variety of stressors they have experienced. They get little empathy, sympathy, or individualized attention from co-workers or bosses who don’t want to admit or recognize just how pervasive these symptoms are and how deleterious they are to job performance. “Hey, buddy—you are on your own. Suck it up or leave.” Thus, the LEOs continue to hide from themselves and their comrades-in-arms, their constant feelings of inadequacy, let alone their feelings of unworthiness, and the belief that they are a discredit to the force because of those emotions.

On top of that is a perplexing but genuine conundrum that officers face. They have been taught to disregard their natural instincts, to be paranoid instruments of department policy. They have to forfeit their ability to use discretion when arresting people (often young men of minority backgrounds) who have not really committed a serious infraction—perhaps only the so-called victimless crime—and thus the LEO is forced to make a choice that can ruin a young offender’s life forever. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt.

A mitigating factor that affects our own LAPD and County Sheriffs is where they often choose to reside. Many live in the more conservative Simi, Oxnard, and Valencia communities in an attempt to separate where they work from where they live. Since they are thus able to “surround” themselves with fellow officers, they can experience a greater sense of wholeness, diminishing their chronic sense of abandonment and alienation.

An exacerbating factor, on the other hand, is their irregular, often 18-hour, shifts that not only disturb their circadian rhythms that are so necessary for good health, but can also immobilize and/or plant doubt regarding an officer’s reactions and decision-making in potentially dangerous circumstances. One just cannot work at one’s optimum when fatigue is a constant in the picture.

Officers live in fear every day of their lives. In many neighborhoods they have become targets by the maladjusted. They are constantly on the alert, looking over their shoulders, and second-guessing themselves. When they respond to a call and appear at a house or a car door, they don’t know if they are going to be blown away (and at the same time, family invariably is at the back of their minds as to how the spouse and children will be able to manage without their fathers or mothers—factors that can affect their need for spontaneous responses).

If they have been injured or have otherwise been exposed to traumatic experiences (viewing gruesome deaths, seeing partners get killed, witnessing the results of child rape), they are hit with what the returning soldier feels—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Society needs to look at their situations differently and demand that help be afforded to all those who suffer from the consequences of their jobs.

It certainly would be effective to mandate regular psychological counselling and regular health check-ups in order to determine the mental and physical health of all officers. The results would promote a greater loyalty to the department and dedication to the job, let alone a longevity that is desirable because of what long-term experience can mean—mentoring of and interacting with fellow officers that produce a greater sense of camaraderie and loyalty which, in turn, creates a more productive and effective police force.

As one officer stated (someone who had received counselling just in time to save himself but too late to save his marriage), “We need to branch out as human beings and realize that there is a whole separate world out there waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.” He continues, The department needs “to get away from the macho idealism that counselling is only for the weak.”

An officer’s life seems to be schizophrenic. At one point they serve the police department and the community, restrained by laws that often restrict their ability to capture the culprit and a righteous verdict. At the same time, another role that must be filled is that of gentle and understanding companion, listening to problems that cannot be fixed and being reminded of all that was not accomplished on the job. Then there are the children, making demands on time that cannot be met– going to practices and games and parents’ night at school, giving advice, being a good listener—the list goes on.

It becomes obvious that the job cannot be the be-all and end-all of an officer’s life. There must be balance—time needs to be allotted for job, family, friends, recreation. The employer (no matter who that is) must provide that kind of accommodation. We cannot expect the best out of our officers if we do not provide the best for them.

Remember the returning Viet Nam veterans who never got a parade but encountered the relentless, unforgiving voices that jeered them? We witness among us so many of these volunteer or drafted soldiers who thought they were doing right by the country which sent them thousands of miles away to perform a thankless task. It is these people that are on the streets today—disabled, mentally ill, homeless, sick—and still we do little for them. We cannot and must not allow this to happen to our law enforcers.

We must not repeat the dark history of recent foreign wars. It is incumbent upon us to consider and then meet the needs not only of police officers but of all those who put their lives on the line to serve us. We must demand reform in department procedure and require no less of ourselves as we interact with those selfless people who work and live among us!

Rosemary Jenkins
CityWatchLA

Published by the LA Progressive on February 25, 2014
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About Rosemary Jenkins

Rosemary Jenkins is Chair, Northeast Valley Green Alliance; Secretary, Pro-Active Democrats; Chair, AD 39, LA County Democratic Party, and a freelance writer.