- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

“I’ve been through that,” the police officer said. By “that” the officer means the stress and frustration of a police-involved shooting. But officers say varying degrees of stress touch every aspect of policing from the moment their shift begins.

Talking about stress — and even frustration — often brings unease to police officers. Some of the officers interviewed for this report were comfortable enough to discuss stress. Some insisted on anonymity.

The officer involved in the shooting said it occurred in 1993. The suspect fired, and to preserve his own life and limb, the officer returned fire. The suspect died, but the case didn’t end with his death. The stress factors multiplied.

There was an internal affairs investigation. Tensions mounted as the officer grew concerned about how others viewed the fatal shooting. He was questioned by the commonwealth’s attorney. There was a grand jury investigation. There also was civil litigation, which the officer said weighed heavily on his mind.

“Obviously, people question ‘Were the right tactics used?’ ” the officer said. “I had daydreams for six months after it happened — reliving it over and over again.”

He said that once he was cleared in the shooting, the burden was lifted. However, he also said he had to be seen and discharged by the department’s psychologist before he could return to work.

Law enforcement officers face danger on a daily basis, and many experience more threats in one shift than the average person may experience in a lifetime. They must always be on high alert, ready to react and respond instantly to crises, crime and life-threatening situations.

The inherent dangers of the job, along with the high degree of responsibility of their tasks, can cause anger, frustration and stress among law enforcement officers.

“You see the seamy side of life a lot more than people are aware of,” said Jerry “Doc” Semper, an eight-year veteran of the New York police force who serves as a special assistant to Glenn F. Ivey, state’s attorney for Prince George’s County. “It takes its toll on you. People don’t understand what you have to do. Police run toward problems, while others run away from them.”

Statistics tell part of the story.

One law enforcement officer is killed in America every 53 hours, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s Web site. There were 133 law enforcement deaths in 2008, 53 of which were felonious deaths; the other 80 were accidental. In 2007, there were more than 60,000 assaults on law enforcement officers.

“Officers regularly train for deadly encounters. A large part of this training is mental preparedness and training oneself to be alert,” Lt. Patil said. “This mind-set of alertness can cause increased levels of stress. How we conduct ourselves is a fine line between professionalism, courtesy and staying safe.”

Ginger Hayes, a psychologist with the Montgomery County police who has 26 years in the field, said police officers can become cynical and distrustful.

“Critical incidents can cause officers to be exposed to the worse experiences of mankind, and they can undo some people and hit their vulnerability,” Ms. Hayes said.

Various experiences and situations can lead to high levels of stress for law enforcement officers, including traffic stops, domestic-violence calls, the hours of a shift, internal policies and judiciary sentencing, officers said.

Lt. Patil acknowledged that certain levels of interaction with the public can be stressful because, at times, officers can be verbally abused by the public or even physically assaulted.

“People don’t want to do it, but everyone wants to be the first to critique it,” said Lt. Patil.

“Because of the front-line nature of the job, patrol officers become witness to the absolute worst human nature has to offer, day in and day out,” said a Prince George’s officer in the early stages of his career. “This would wear on the nerves of even the hardest person. And our emotions are constantly up and down.”

For officers who have families, work can be particularly stressful. Officers also said they are greatly affected when responding to calls involving crimes against children, especially if the crime leads to the death of a child.

“We see death on a daily basis,” said a 23-year veteran in Arlington. “It hits home when you have children of your own.”

A U.S. Capitol Police officer agreed that shift work can be stressful.

“Everyone reacts differently to it. Some have a higher threshold,” said the officer. “I’m a big proponent of leaving work at work. I’m good at what I do, but that is the career part of my life. For your mental health, it’s good to step out of the shoes. You bond with colleagues eight to ten hours a day. We all have the same mentality, but we know to put it down at the end of a day.”

“We are parents, Realtors, lawyers; we are everything,” said a Prince George’s officer who has been on the force for more than five years. “They are expecting us to be everything.”

“People forget that police officers are people,” said Lt. Patil. “They have good days and bad days.”

• Karen L. Bune, a consultant with the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime and Office of Juvenile Justice programs, is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and Marymount University.

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