Police Blues: Rising Stress Puts Officers at Risk

When police psychologists and law enforcement talk among themselves, they often conclude the same thing: Police morale is at an all-time low. In particular, many Black officers feel caught in the agonizing bind of being “too Black to be blue” and “too blue to be Black.”

“We see that on a national scale, police are under tremendous stress and strain,” says David Black, PhD, a psychologist in Rancho Cordova, CA, who has worked extensively with law enforcement agencies around the country. “People who have been in the profession for a long time — 30, 40 years — will tell you that they’ve never seen it more difficult.”

Ellen Kirschman, PhD, a San Francisco Bay Area police psychologist with 40 years in the field, says, “I lived through the ’60s when police and military were really reviled. But I think this is worse.”

George Floyd’s Murder

Widespread mental distress among the ranks concerns Mark DiBona, a retired police sergeant near Orlando, FL, who has spent several years working with programs to improve police mental health. He started reaching out to other officers after the unrelenting stresses of police work contributed to his own suicide attempt.

Officers’ mental well-being tanked after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the massive nationwide protests that followed, according to DiBona and other experts. There’s a broad sense that the public has turned against them.

DiBona chafes when others assume that he condoned former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s use of force in Floyd’s death, simply because of DiBona’s law enforcement background. Chauvin was convicted in April of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

Like the numerous officers who testified during the trial, including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, DiBona criticized Chauvin’s actions, particularly when Chauvin is seen on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck.

“I’ll tell you this — the God-honest truth — with my 33 years on the job, I was absolutely appalled when I saw that video. It was just wrong in so many ways,” DiBona told WebMD before the Chauvin trial began. “What just creeped me out was that look on his face of no compassion. It was like a poker face. He was just emotionless.”

“When Floyd is yelling and screaming, ‘I can’t breathe,’ that waves a flag,” DiBona says. “Somebody that’s in your custody, you’re responsible for them physically. They’re not free to leave, obviously, so you take over their well-being. You have to protect them. To see that, it was just horrific that he just leaned on him with his knee.”

“That one officer — Officer Chauvin — changed policing 100%. It caused total chaos in this country,” he says. “When you see gross negligence, an officer making a bad arrest, acting unprofessionally, we’re all painted by the same brush.”

The U.S. has more than 800,000 police officers and detectives, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The public tends to view all cops as a singular, monolithic body,” Kirschman says. “To each other, they see their differences. They have many differences. They don’t want to work with the bad-apple cop. They don’t want to work with a cop who’s too aggressive. They don’t want to work with a cop who is unreliable. They don’t want to work with a cop they think won’t have their back or is frightened or has bad practices or will escalate a situation unnecessarily.”

Given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding policing, many officers have become disheartened enough to leave, experts say.

“You see it at all levels of the profession,” Black says. “You see chiefs taking early retirements, and at the very opposite end of the spectrum, you see people pulling out of the hiring process and pursuing other careers.”

As a police psychologist, he used to hear officers say they would encourage their children to go into law enforcement.

“And now, I’ve noticed a big shift where most law enforcement I speak to seem to say, ‘I wouldn’t encourage my adult child to pursue this profession,’” Black says.

Black Officers Caught Between Two Worlds

“You have no idea how hard it is to put a uniform on in this day and age, with everything that’s going on,” said Clyde Kerr III, a 43-year-old Black sheriff’s deputy in Lafayette Parish, LA. He expressed his disillusionment and despair in a video that he posted online shortly before taking his life on Feb 1. He said that he was angry, too, over the police killings of Black people.

“I’ve had enough of all of this nonsense, serving a system that doesn’t give a damn about me or people like me,” Kerr said in the video, shaking his head in resignation. “This killing that’s going on, especially by the police — which I am — I can’t abide by this no more.”

He listed the names of the dead: Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.

“This is a very big deal. This is a tipping point. We are losing the public’s trust,” he said. “This is my protest against police brutality and everything that comes along with it in this broken, wicked, worldly system that does not give a damn about people.’

Kerr had concealed his anguish so well that his suicide surprised many of those who knew him.

But his death drew attention to the distress that many Black law enforcement officers have felt in the tumultuous year after Floyd’s murder. Police psychologists say that while they haven’t heard Black officers reporting more suicidal thoughts, they’ve definitely seen more come in for counseling.

Some have considered quitting their jobs. “I think with the George Floyd incident, that just brought it to a head for some Black officers,” says Trina Hall, PhD, a police psychologist with the Dallas Police Department. “There’s an uneasy feeling that many of them have felt for a while.”

“Officers of color are saying, ‘I’m too Black to be blue and too blue to be Black,” Kirschman says. “They get it from both sides, and that’s really too much. The job is stressful enough as it is.”

Hall, who is Black, says that she’s spoken with other police psychologists of color at various agencies. “We’re all seeing pretty much the same thing.” Among Black officers, “there is an increase in stress for many of them. It’s almost like being in two worlds.”

One psychologist labeled it as similar to biculturalism, she says. “You have the culture of blue — the police culture — and then you have your own African American identity and culture. They feel like they are almost torn between two worlds.”

The result: “It’s constantly having to be on guard, constantly having to defend either their culture as an African American or defending their culture as a police officer,” Hall says. “They’re in this constant defensive mode.”

Many were shaken by Floyd’s murder. “The George Floyd issue was really a watershed moment,” says Adrienne Bradford, PhD, an African American police psychologist in Atlanta. “They thought it was wrong. To watch their brother in blue, per se, do something like this — I really saw that the brutal nature of that impacted the psyches of many of the officers.”

For some, Floyd’s death stirred up memories of racism that they’ve squelched for fear of retaliation from their departments, Bradford says. “The other interesting piece that I think folks also should be talking about is the racism that underlies this field, right? In other agencies that I’ve worked with in the Southeast, it made these officers think about the racism that they had endured to become officers, especially in predominantly white organizations. It kind of opened up their emotional wounds.”

But Black officers have also faced backlash from their own families and communities. In the Dallas Police Department, many have longstanding local ties, Hall says. “Many of our officers are actually from the Dallas area, and many of them want to work in the community that they grew up in.”

Even though there is a history of Black communities mistrusting police, these officers had hoped to be positive influences. Their motivation, according to Hall: “I became a police officer because I want to do well for my community.”

Black officers have faced not only community antagonism, but also ultimatums from family members. Previously, relatives might have felt ambivalent about the officers’ career choice, Bradford says, but now, some have voiced firm opposition. “Their families were adamantly saying to them last summer, ‘You’re going to need to make a choice. I don’t want you to do this anymore,’” she says.

Often, family members urged them to quit out of fears for their safety, officers told Bradford. “Many of the younger children would cry when their fathers and mothers had to go to work,” she says. Families worried, too, that the officers’ identities could be shared publicly or that others might find out about the police officers and confront or ostracize their families in social settings. Some white officers’ families wanted them to quit, too, Bradford says.

Nationwide, the 2020 protests were wrenching for police families, including African American ones, in other ways. “Officers had teenage children and older children who were involved in the protests,” Bradford says. “And so their fathers are working on one side of the protest, and their children are marching with the other side.”

During such protests, as well as the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Black officers were taunted and called racial slurs. In one highly publicized account, Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who is Black, feared for his life and was repeatedly called the n-word as he fought with the rioters for hours. Exhausted and pained after the fighting ended, Dunn sat down in the Capitol Rotunda and sobbed: “Is this America?”

The Emotional Costs

Within days after the riot, Jeffrey Smith, 35, and Howard Liebengood, 51, two white police officers in D.C., killed themselves. Their families have said that their deaths were related to the stresses of their work, including responding to the Capitol siege..

During a single week in early March, two officers from the Chicago Police Department died by suicide, the latest in a string of police suicides plaguing the city.

These are the nightmare scenarios that haunt those working to improve police mental health. In the U.S., more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. According to the nonprofit Blue Help, which tracks police suicides nationally, 172 officers died by suicide in 2020, although the actual number might be higher. In contrast, 133 died in the line of duty in 2020, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Blue Help reports that in 2021, 60 officers across the country have already died by suicide.

“Law enforcement, without question, is one of the most dangerous professions psychologically in the world,” says Ron Clark, a registered nurse, licensed therapist, and retired state trooper in Connecticut.

“The stress and unrelenting trauma take a terrible toll,” Black says. “What you see over time is increasing rates of depression. You also see high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.” Some research suggests that 7% to 19% of active-duty police have PTSD related to their work. In a 2013 study of 359 officers in Buffalo, NY, the prevalence of PTSD was 15% in men and 18% in women.

“Depression and PTSD are both predictors of suicidal thinking. We see high rates of suicidal thinking in the law enforcement profession. We also see high rates of suicide,” Black says.

It’s unclear whether depression or other problems might have contributed to Kerr’s suicide. But in his video, he lamented the pressures of police work. “The general public doesn’t know what we go through,” he said.

Police are exposed repeatedly to the bleakest aspects of society, he said. “And then they’re expected to keep a stiff chin like it’s not affecting them. It’s affecting your psyche. I’m telling you: You cannot be exposed to that and not expect it to manifest itself in some way. Nobody calls the police when they’re having a good day. It’s the truth, right? Domestics, got robbed, something like that — you need somebody in a uniform.”

When police respond to a crisis, it might be only one of several that day, he said. “Your bad day — that might be the first call on my shift. I might have another maybe half-dozen of those.”

DiBona now understands how the effects of police work can add up, but he didn’t always. The trauma from his job, long held back, flooded forth after a night that changed his life. A frantic mother had pulled up to his police cruiser as he was parked near a fire station. She got out of the car and cried that her baby had stopped breathing. The firefighters were out on a call, so DiBona performed CPR, to no avail. The baby succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome.

His inability to save the infant plunged him into deep despair. He started having nightmares about the child. “The guilt that I had, that I could not save that baby — it was just absolutely horrible. I’ve seen so much in my career. The crashes, the homicides, the sexual abuse, the domestic violence. I did everything I could to save that baby, and the fact that it didn’t work affected me in so many different ways. It led to a suicide attempt. When it comes to dealing with children, it just takes it to a whole different level.”

For police officers, “Anything involving children is really a lot harder to adjust to and to recover from,” Kirschman says.

The infant’s death forced DiBona to acknowledge the emotional costs of his job. “That was the tip of the iceberg. That opened my eyes to realize that OK, I’m only human and I am going to see things that I don’t want to see and things that are going to bother me.”

Officers start off as some of the most resilient people in society, Black says. “Most of us wouldn’t sign up for a job that requires us to wear a bulletproof vest and run toward shots fired and put ourselves constantly in harm’s way.”

“When they sign up for the job and start the job, they tend to have low rates of mental health issues. They tend to be specimens of psychological health. They’re psychologically screened before they enter the profession,” he says.

But that mental balance can erode over time. “Here, we have the untenable position where we’ve got these very resilient, very tough, very courageous people that sign up and are accepted to work in law enforcement. Because of that resilience that enables them to do this job to begin with, they often endure vastly more trauma and stress over time than most people would,” Black says.

Reluctance to Get Help

And yet cops are typically reluctant to seek help, according to psychologists. Officers see themselves as problem solvers, not as people with problems.

Many cops worry about lack of confidentiality if they seek mental health treatment or that they might be deemed incapable of doing their job. In a profession where officers must depend on each other, none want to be viewed as unreliable.

In his video, Kerr had appeared worried about being seen as unstable or undependable. “Call me what you want, try to discredit me.” Then he looked directly into the camera. “I have been a stellar, stellar deputy.”

When officers struggle emotionally, they often try to cope through unhealthy methods such as excessive drinking, thanks to an ingrained culture of stoicism. “Historically, many of the older officers have had the philosophy, ‘Oh, just suck it up,’” Bradford says. “Sucking it up is not a good thing to say to people anymore. … When I first started in law enforcement many years ago, you were taught to be strong and silent, and people really suffered just an unbelievable amount. I do think our messaging has to change in law enforcement, that it is OK to get help.”

Some psychologists have seen signs of more help-seeking. For example, during this past year, Hall saw larger numbers of police coming in for counseling, including Black officers.

“Even though I am an African American psychologist,” she says, “they’re very skeptical in the beginning because culturally, we keep a lot of stuff inside. Culturally, we rely on our spiritual base to get us through everything. Many times, when they come in, they’ll tell me, ‘Well, I didn’t even know what I was going to come in and talk to you about. But now, I’ve been here for over an hour, and when can we schedule our next appointment?’”

After his suicide attempt, DiBona was diagnosed with depression and PTSD and sought counseling. The first counselors he spoke with didn’t understand police culture, he says. Eventually, he found a counselor who helped him to heal, a therapist who had once been in law enforcement herself.

Cultural competence is important, Black says. “When psychologists and therapists aren’t familiar with law enforcement work, police wind up coming into the session and educating the therapist, and that’s wrong. It’s the therapist’s job to be there to support the patient, not vice versa.”

“We need more psychologists of color in this field,” Kirschman says. “There’s a lot of renewed interest now in what’s referred to as doubly marginalized officers, being Black and blue. “Some police departments, especially larger ones, might have their own counselors or provide help through chaplains or peer support programs. In Atlanta, more officers have reached out for peer support in the past year, according to Bradford.

“Peers have been selected across the department, and an officer can reach out to a peer 24/7 with any issues,” she says. “You really get to talk with someone who understands what your issue is.”

Nick Greco says that in Chicago, officers have called or texted him informally to express that “life is not worth living.” Greco works as a trainer with the Chicago Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team, which responds to community members with mental illnesses. When depressed officers reach out, he says, he steers them into treatment. “Mental health is just like physical health. We don’t want to throw good officers away. A lot of officers have gotten the help they needed and gone back to the job.”

The Future

After George Floyd’s death, police psychologists are identifying the urgent problems.

Bradford believes some millennial officers will need attention after the intensity of the past year. They worked long, difficult hours during the pandemic and then the protests.

“In law enforcement now, a lot of our boomers are retiring,” she says. Those seasoned veterans have dealt with protests before, ranging from the 1992 Los Angeles riots to abortion-rights demonstrations. “I’ve seen officers work with protesters in the past. For me, what was interesting was to see these younger millennial officers have to face what was going on.”

“For many of them, they just were not prepared,” Bradford says. “I think we really need to look at these millennial officers. I think some of them are really struggling.”

Psychologists are also focusing on efforts to help Black officers.

In June, Kirschman will take part in a seminar in which police psychologists will discuss this issue.

“The major issue that is troubling me and my colleagues is the scourge of white racism among law enforcement officers,” she says. “It’s always been there. Has it grown? Is it worse? Are these people becoming more active? Are they hooking up with these wild conspiracy theorist QAnon folks? And what if anything can psychologists do about this?

“How do we support officers of color?” Kirschman says. “What do we do about racism? How do we handle our own feelings about this?”

After Floyd’s murder, Bradford says, she has witnessed stronger interest within law enforcement to tackle racism.

“I’ve had more white people say to me this year — and many of them have been in public safety for many years, 20-30 years — that the George Floyd incident was really a watershed moment for them. They really began to realize how racism impacts public safety. Many of them have come to me and actually asked, ‘What can I do?’ And I’ve never seen an outpouring like this. Ever.”

Psychologists and former officers are considering more ways to address depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide among the ranks of law enforcement. Informed by his own struggles, DiBona has joined with Clark and Greco to launch a new outreach program, “Protecting the Guardian,” which focuses on officer wellness and suicide prevention.

Even though Kerr’s suicide was imminent, he advocated in his video for more police mental health care, perhaps a routine semiannual or quarterly mental health checkup, not only one psychological evaluation during the hiring process. “It needs to happen, and the stigma that’s surrounding it needs to be lifted, too,” he said.

Kerr didn’t mention whether he sought care, but he made a final plea: “We need help. People need help,” he said. “It’s OK to say you need help.”

Published in WebMD.com, 2021
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All Content Copyright Katherine Kam, 2024