Coping with the Career: A Review of Acquired Life Patterns of Veteran Officers

Article excerpt

Research and literature have helped to identify that police work can prove more emotionally dangerous than physically threatening. (1) "Police officers are susceptible to many job related stressors that have both immediate and long-term physiological and psychological consequences." (2) Officers certainly have experienced depression, anxiety disorders, chemical dependence, suicidal ideation, and burnout.

In fact, data have indicated that officers who continue to experience stress following a critical incident were more likely to resign or to commit suicide. (3) Such findings have demonstrated the urgent need for a comprehensive approach to counseling law enforcement officers.

To this end, the author conducted a study to acquire new and additional understanding of the experience of being a law enforcement officer, with particular attention to personal wellness and spirituality. His research focused on gaining these insights from veteran officers about how their work, with all of the unique problems and challenges, affected their personal lives from a perspective of belief systems and sense of wellness.

Two basic questions prompted this research. How is a law enforcement officer's spirituality and belief system affected by continuous exposure to crime, danger, violence, and suffering? And, does a state of spiritual wellness assist veteran officers in coping with the stress in their lives and, if so, how?


The author used a qualitative phenomenological methodology with participant observation. Nine sworn veteran law enforcement officers (with 6 or more years of service) participated in the research. The author spent approximately 35 to 40 hours with each officer over the course of 6 to 8 months, observing and discussing issues during ride-along patrols or at other meetings. (4) Three research questions generally guided these discussions and observations.

1) What does the continuous exposure to crime, danger, violence, and suffering do to the coping and wellness of law enforcement officers?

2) Does a state of spiritual wellness assist police officers in coping with the stress in their lives and, if so, how?

3) What interventions are suggested by an analysis of the data to provide a holistic approach to counseling officers?

For the purpose of his study, the author defined spirituality as "the capacity of all people to possess--and know that they possess--beliefs, values, and convictions that give meaning and purpose to life." (5) The literature on this topic has indicated that a body of knowledge relates spirituality as one component of overall wellness and a resource for coping with life issues. For example, Bollinger felt that spiritual needs were the deepest of all human needs and that when a person's spirituality is addressed, it can facilitate the development of a meaningful identity (6) In addition, one officer reported in Meredith's work that often it is others who have been close to the officer who note that a change in behavior, disposition, and mental state has taken place. (7)

Law enforcement officers are known as a population that often exhibits some particular and debilitating physical and emotional symptoms, such as cynicism, alienation, and emotional numbing. Therefore, the relevant question is, Are some of the emotional and personal distress and effective coping demonstrated by veteran law enforcement officers related to spiritual issues?


In his research, the author summarized some of the issues identified as both useful and distressful under nine life patterns: desacralization, alienation, affiliation, unique life experiences, searching and yearning, search for excitement, preserving integrity, affirmation, and reformation and renewal. The participating officers identified and agreed that they demonstrated these patterns in their thinking, emotions, and behavior. …