Death Work: Police, Trauma, and the Psychology of Survival

Death Work: Police, Trauma, and the Psychology of Survival

Death Work: Police, Trauma, and the Psychology of Survival

Death Work: Police, Trauma, and the Psychology of Survival


Contemporary urban police officers are routinely exposed to the death of others, as well as to frequent and profound encounters with their own mortality. Here, Vincent Henry draws on two disparate bodies of theory and research - policing and the psychology of human responses to death - to illuminate how officers and their subculture are shaped by exposures to death. Through extensive field observation and structured interviews with NYPD officers, Henry defines and distinguishesthe range and types of exposures to death in four "task environments": the rookie cop, patrol sergeant, homicide detective, and crime scene technician. He differentiates the officers' experience from others involved in death work, such as doctors, soldiers, and rescue workers, by exploring theirsingular occupational culture - the potential for violent death, the ritual of police funerals, strong in-group solidarity. Ultimately, the book reveals patterns of psychological transformation and social consequences of police encounters with death. Henry identifies common themes, including psychic numbing, the death imprint image, suspicion of counterfeit nurturance, death guilt, and the quest to make meaning. With a foreword by Robert Jay Lifton and a chapter devoted to the local policeresponse to the World Trade Center attacks, Death Work will be of interest to psychologists and criminal justice experts, as well as police officers eager to gain insight into their unique relationship to death.


Truly innovative work causes one to ask: why didn't someone think of that before? The response has to do both with the illumination the work provides and its stark appropriateness—its necessity—for the world we live in. With Vincent Henry's Death Work, that appropriateness and necessity became painfully evident with the attacks of 9/11. From that moment, Henry's work took on an eerie practicality, as he movingly describes in the last chapter of this book.

Death Work is about the police officer (or in the more affectionate intradepartmental usage, “cop”) as survivor—as one for whom death is a presence in everyday work. The special value of Henry's study derives from his interview method. Rather than make abstract assumptions or simply summarize others' findings, Henry went out and talked to his fellow cops—not simply as a friendly insider (though he was surely that) but as a trained psychological interviewer who could find order and meaning in the riveting words of those he talked to.

Henry's work sustains an exquisite balance between the highly specific and the universal. Nothing could be more specific, more concrete, than the deathhaunted experiences of police officers—whether taking the form of disturbing corpses, fallen partners, or their own near demise. But the significance of his findings extends to all who work in what historian Michael Lesy has called the “forbidden zone” or “zone of death”—a zone that envelops not only police officers but firefighters and rescue workers of all kinds, military personnel, doctors and health workers (especially in hospices), undertakers, prison staff on “death row,” and those working in meatpacking or “slaughterhouse” industries.

Ultimately—and most important—Henry is exploring nothing less than the larger struggle with dying and killing. One can view the police officers he interviewed as “point men”—a kind of advance guard—in that struggle. Their encounters with especially grotesque forms of death challenge anyone's claim to mastery of this insoluble human dilemma.

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