COMBAT STRESS IN LAW ENFORCEMENT?

Combat in law enforcement can be sudden, intense and life threatening however, does “combat stress” exist in Law Enforcement? The stresses of combat experienced by officers can be substantial. Commanding officers of an officer exposed to a traumatic incident are duty bound to anticipate, recognize and evaluate an officer’s ability to perform his job when exposed to combat stress. Command officers must first understand this human dimension and anticipate an officer’s reactions to stressful conditions for the welfare of their officers.

 

Law enforcement must first recognize the possibility that “combat stress” even exists in our profession. Combat stress usually is a term associated with military veterans fighting a war. Here is a classic definition of combat stress as provided from the Department of defense.

 

~Combat Stress: The expected and predictable emotional, intellectual, physical, and/or behavioral reactions of service members who have been exposed to stressful events in war or military operations other than war. Combat stress reactions vary in quality and severity as a function of operational conditions, such as intensity, duration, rules of engagement, leadership, effective communication, unit morale, unit cohesion, and perceived importance of the mission.

 

(Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, U.S. Department of Defense 2005.)

 

 

Police officers are exposed to dangerous situations on various levels and duration dependent on assignment, and working conditions however, at some point most police officers are exposed to some type of traumatic incident. I think we can all agree that responding to a domestic call is stressful. We have been conditioned to respond to these runs in the highest state of situational awareness our minds will allow. It’s not a far reach that big city & suburban officers respond to unpredictable and dangerous domestic calls every day. When we effect arrests and resolve these situations our emotions fluctuate from a stressful peak, which keeps our situational awareness in its clearest form, to a less stressful and more relaxed tempo. This type of exposure to stress moving through your emotional, intellectual, physical, and behavioral reactions, is in my opinion, similar to the military’s “combat stress” the difference being, law enforcements exposure to combat stress isn’t on a military battlefield it can come from the many and various types of police calls for service we deal with on a daily basis.

 

I am not a medical professional nor do I profess to be an expert in any form on this subject. However, I have spent enough time on this job, and seen everything under the sun that cops deal with on a regular basis to recognize the parallels that exist in how the military prepares for and treats combat stress. This is where we as police trainers, commanding officers and even partners can learn from our military comrades to possibly prevent an officer from falling victim to combat stress, which can ultimately lead to Depression and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

 

As we all know cops are reluctant to admit they have fell victim to stress. Men and women of law enforcement sometimes will hide and suppress their fears, anxiety and stress which can lead to a dangerous mindset while working the streets.

 

Police trainers and command officers must thoroughly condition their officers to deal with combat stress before incidents occur, during these stressful incidents and after any traumatic event that your men and women respond too. Traumatic incidents don’t just apply to domestic calls that I mentioned previously. Law enforcement responds to and deals with traumatic calls every day. A traumatic event may include responding to a child that drowned in a swimming pool, an infant that died in a crib while sleeping, a CPR run on a young father as his family watches you give CPR expecting the Super Man cop to save the man and even though you did all you could he still dies. How many fatal accidents have you been to where teenage girls are mangled beyond recognition? Have you ever been assaulted on a patrol run or traffic stop? How many homicides have you responded to or investigated? Have you ever been shot at or ambushed? How many autopsies have you attended of not just adults but children also? I think you get my point now, how do cops not suffer from combat stress, if you we do this day in and day out? Why does the military have a system in place for preventing, recognizing, and treating combat stress and many law enforcement agencies don’t?

 

We have all gone home after our shifts after dealing with the previously mentioned traumatic incidents, only to act is if nothing even happened on our tour that day. We are expected as fathers, husbands, wife’s, and citizens to go to Johnny’s soccer practice, to see a movie with a girlfriend, attend a family BBQ and every other daily function without any emotion or reaction to what we have just dealt with on the previous tour of duty. The fact is many police agencies only send officers to see a counselor or therapist only after an “officer involved shooting” or an officer’s death. Somehow we are expected to navigate through all the other traumatic incidents as a matter of routine. That philosophy is where we fall short in law enforcement in keeping the welfare of our officers.

 

SIGNS OF COMBAT STRESS IN YOURSELF & OTHERS

 

There are some obvious signs of stress that may help you recognize in yourself and others so that an early detection is made in hopes of minimizing the effects of stress.

 

Physical signs of stress:

  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to move muscles
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to concentrate

 Emotional signs of stress:

  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Irritability
  • Moodiness
  • Nervousness
  • Pessimism
  • Tension

Signs of stress in others:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Excitability
  • Negativism
  • Restlessness
  • Speech disorder
  • Trembling
  • Apathy

SIGNS OF STRESS IN POLICE UNITS

 

Command officer should be mindful that stress can affect your entire unit, shift or precinct. That doesn’t mean that your unit or officers have a major problem it simply means that you are duty bound to attempt to minimize the stress to ensure a productive and safe working environment.

 

Signs of stress in your unit:

  • Excessive sick calls
  • Bickering amongst the unit or shift
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Lack of cohesion
  • Failure to follow orders
  • Insubordination
  • Lack of productivity
  • Sensitivity

“Combat stress causes battle fatigue. Battle fatigue is the broad umbrella label for the physical, mental and emotional signs that result naturally from facing danger or from performing dangerous missions under difficult conditions.”

(Army Field Manual 6-22 and FM 6-22.5)

 

Battle fatigue is a simple condition which is not medical or a psychiatric illness.

(Army Field Manual 6-22 and FM 6-22.5)

 

REPUTATION PRESERVATION

 

We all know that stress in officers can lead to withdrawal from society, drug and alcohol abuse, marital problems and disciplinary issues on the job. However, a factor that isn’t often addressed among the command staff is the fact that a stressed cop can have a negative and adverse reaction on a dangerous call for service, which can endanger the officer and/or his or her coworkers.

 

When an officer knows he or she is being watched by peers and command officers from a high stress incident in which they were involved, these fears and anxieties can play like a looped film reel over and over in the officer’s mind, creating fear, anxiety and a complex. When this occurs an officer can feel as if he or she needs to prove themselves to anybody they fear are judging them. That’s when real problems for that officer can begin.

 

Police officers have a tendency to value their peer’s opinions and may overcompensate to save their reputation. These officers under this spell of “reputation preservation” may become heavy handed, quick to anger and lose trust in their peers. That becomes a danger to the effected officer, fellow cops and the general public. This stage requires immediate attention from command officers. Supervisors must take quick action once they observe this behavior; as a matter of fact you are duty bound to do so and if you don’t, it may be you in a civil trial defending your lack of actions when that stressed officer does something wrong.

 

PEER SUPPORT

 

Cops are very similar to soldiers in the sense that peer acceptance is vital to the officers reputation as a good street cop. Recognize this factor and use it to your advantage when dealing with combat stress in your officers.

 

~ ideology, patriotism, or fighting for the cause were not major factors in combat motivation for World War II soldiers. Cohesion, or the emotional bonds between soldiers, appeared to be the primary factor in combat motivation.

 

(Samuel A. Stouffer, et al., The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath,

Volume II, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949, p. 107)

 

Sometimes the best medicine for a stressed cop is “Peer support” from fellow officers and the officers command staff. This concept is proven through military research, dating back to World War II, as to be very effective in managing a soldier’s combat stress and motivating him to stay in combat.

 

~ when the individual’s immediate group, and its supporting formations, met his basic organic needs, offered him affection and esteem from both officers and comrades, supplied him with a sense of power and adequately regulated his relations with authority, the element of self-concern in battle, which would lead to disruption of the effective functioning of his primary group, was minimized.

 

(Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz, “Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II,” Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 12, Summer 1948, p. 28)

 

PREVENTION IS KEY

 

The military has some effective countermeasures to confront combat stress and to reduce psychological breakdown in combat which can be very useful in law enforcement. These countermeasures that apply to law enforcement are:

  • Admit that fear exists when in combat.
  • Ensure communication lines are open between leaders and subordinates.
  • Do not assume unnecessary risks.
  • Provide good, caring leadership.

(Army Field Manual 6-22 and FM 6-22.5)

 

Police command officers can reduce stress by leading by inspiration and not intimidation, recognize and initiate stress management programs, provide positive feedback that is real and not hot air.

 

During my career it has been taboo to speak with an officer that is under stress from a traumatic incident. I have no idea how or where this concept started but the trend in law enforcement has been for some time now to have officers participate in critical stress debriefs with their fellow comrades that were involved in a traumatic incident, under the watchful eye of a licensed practioner. That is a great practice but most often departments only do that for officer involved shootings and the death of an officer. This is where good trainers and great commanders can separate themselves from the rest. Combat stress, in my military and law enforcement experience applies to the many stressful situations that I mentioned previously. The Army requires their field commanders to participate in the soldiers stress management and we in law enforcement need to do the same and stop the mind set of looking the other way and not engaging the officer. We can only stand to improve our profession if we adapt the military command priority of “the troops come first” philosophy instead of a operating as a civilian style of management.

 

When training rookie swat cops I can at times see the fear in some officers. This is a critical point for that officers swat career. I will pull that officer to the side and look him straight in the eye, and tell him that the fear he is feeling is normal, and we all have it, and what makes a great swat cop is his ability to harness that fear and use its energy to dial in his situational awareness, placing him on top of the tactical bubble. Most often that little speech will reduce the anxiety and stress and the officers confidence will soar.

 

Here are some tips to help manage combat stress in situations that are “routine” (hate that term), less critical or where department policies normally require a visit to the department’s mental health physician:

  1. Concern yourself with your officers welfare
  2. Instill confidence in your officers abilities and work performance
  3. Ensure your officer is getting plenty of sleep and rest
  4. Learn the signs of stress in yourself and your officers
  5. Be mindful of external factors such as marital problems
  6. Train your officers to cope with combat stress
  7. Teach your officers to recognize combat stress
  8. Ensure that your officers face combat stress and not to fear it

 

HAVE NO FEAR

 

Providing realistic stressful training will help your officer’s inner strength to face fear during combat situations with the will to persevere. Be mindful that training can’t totally prepare your officers for combat stress so be prepared to take official action when needed as your department policy mandates.

 

As a police commander try not to look at yourself as a civilian supervisor whom is always looking at performance but as a “leader of men and women”. Develop the attitude that “the troops come first”.

 

Great commanders and police trainers recognize that fear is overcome by understanding the situation and acting with foresight and purpose to overcome it. Strong leaders will gain their officers trust and loyalty when it’s obvious to the officers that their commander is truly concerned for their welfare. Once the commander gains this trust and loyalty then he or she will be successful in reducing fears and ultimately reducing combat stress.

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