Crossing the Thin Blue Line: A Review of the Prevalence, Causes, and Outcomes of Police Burnout

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ABSTRACT

This review examines the incidence, causes, and outcomes of burnout in police officers. Relative to other professionals who interact with the public, police officers tend to have low levels of emotional exhaustion but high levels of depersonalization and diminished professional accomplishment (Schaefeli & Enzmann, 1998). The causes of police burnout can be explained in terms of person-job mismatches in areas such as: workload, control of resources, rewards, fairness, community, and values (Maslach & Leiter, 1997). For the most part, these mismatches stem from a lack of valued material and social resources that are needed to address work-role demands (Hobfoll & Freedy, 1993). A mismatch in values, however, stems from deep-seated differences between "street cop" and "management cop" cultures in police organizations (Ianni & Reuss-Ianni, 1983). Empirical evidence indicates that police burnout results in decreased job performance, increased withdrawal behaviours, and symptoms of ill-health. Moreover, burnout has spillover effects outside of work and crossover influences on the spouses of police officers.

Policing has long been recognized as a high stress occupation. This is apparent from a casual perusal of the weekly reports of police activities and cases found in the urban regions of Canada. For example, during a four week period from Dec. 27, 2005--Jan. 24, 2006 in the greater Toronto area, there were 121 media reports of police activities (as summarized in the website www.torontopolice.on.ca/newsreleases/, Jan. 24, 2006). The activities included both negative and positive events such as: finding and recovering missing persons, warrant searches for and apprehending criminal suspects, investigations of various misdemeanours such as domestic abuse/conflict and petty larceny, investigations of felonies such as drug-dealing, homicides and arson, involvement in charity and crime-awareness programs, and participation in recognition and awards ceremonies. Over half of the 121 reported activities involved either searching for, arresting, or charging suspects of indictable offences or searching and finding missing persons. Dealing with life-threatening criminal acts such as homicides, attempted murders and shootings, although capturing much of the public's attention, were less frequent (11% of the activities).

These varied activities, both positive and negative, exact enormous physical and emotional demands and are largely beyond the predictability and control of police officers (Stansfield, 1996), as they investigate and resolve such cases with limited time and resources. Although some aspects of policing, such as traffic enforcement, may seem to be mundane from a media standpoint, the accumulation of such daily hassles and their psychological costs to the officers and their families cannot be underestimated. The foregoing, coupled with an increased scrutiny and mistrust of the police service, especially among ethnic communities, and the need to do more with less, have heightened cynicism among police officers and chiefs alike (Anson, Mann, & Sherman, 1986; Regoli, Crank, & Culbertson, 1989).

It is under such trying conditions that research has brought to light some of the major causes and consequences of police stress (see e.g., Farmer; 1990; Hawkins, 2001; Malloy & Mays, 1984; Stansfield, 1996). For example, Malloy and May's (1984) review examined two assertions concerning police stress: (1) that law enforcement officers experience higher levels of stress than members of other professionals who interact with the public, and (2) that stress leads to medical problems, such as coronary heart disease, and family disturbances. In a detailed review of studies linking police stress to psychiatric and physiological symptoms of various diseases, Farmer (1990) concluded that psychological strain in the form of burnout was a prominent outcome of police stress. Both Farmer (1990) and Stansfield (1996) found that stressors (i. …