Issues in Small Town Policing: Understanding Stress

By Lindsey, Dennis; Kelly, Sean | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Issues in Small Town Policing: Understanding Stress


Lindsey, Dennis, Kelly, Sean, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


"It is not socially acceptable for law enforcement officers to show emotion ... it is a sign of weakness ... a loss of control ... and we are trained and programmed to not lose control under any circumstances. It is inbred into us in the academy, probationary training, and all aspects of law enforcement that if we can't handle the stress, we need to get out." (1)

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Between 1976 and 1999, more than 1,800 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty. (2) The average of 78 dead officers each year is devastating. (3) All law enforcement professionals would do anything to prevent a fellow officer from suffering a violent, premature death. And, yet, in 2000, approximately 400 police officers committed suicide. (4) Even sadder, those deaths represent the ones reported as police officer suicides. How many other officers have died at their own hand due to the stress of "the job"?

To put this in sharper focus, 87 percent of police departments in the United States have 25 or fewer officers; (5) hence, the loss of those 400 represents all of the 25 sworn officers in 16 police departments. Moreover, suicide in law enforcement is three times greater than the national average. (6) Between 1950 and 1990, the number of police officer suicides doubled. (7) These grievous statistics reveal the tragic toll that stress takes on those in the law enforcement profession--a toll that officers themselves may not fully realize. After all, who protects the protectors? Who defends the defenders? Who cares for the caretakers? (8)

The Price of Policing

Today, many police departments engage in extraordinary efforts to select qualified officers. They measure candidate fitness through written examinations, oral interviews, physical fitness batteries, extensive background investigations, polygraph examinations, and psychological testing. By the time an agency selects a candidate, it has spent a great deal of money to determine if that new officer is physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, and ethically fit to do the job. In some cases, an agency may spend as much as $100,000 to recruit, select, and train one police officer in the first year.

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For a small police department, $100,000 (or any amount) represents a substantial investment and an enormous portion of its budget. This investment is not trivial, but one that often appears at risk of being squandered. For example, if it costs an agency $50,000 each year for the wages and benefits for one officer, then, for 10 years, the officer would cost the agency $500,000. That amount does not take into account increases in salary and benefits, tuition-based training costs, and other factors. An accurate figure may be closer to $600,000 over that 10-year period. If the agency has not taken the steps to recognize and reduce stress for that officer and the worst case scenario--suicide--comes to fruition, the monetary cost to replace that officer with another of similar training and experience comes to $1.2 million. What community has that kind of money? But, more important, what about the emotional cost? No one can fix a dollar amount on the welling of emotion, the additional stress, and the devastation felt by the agency's officers, their families, and, most of all, the family of the officer stressed to the point of committing suicide.

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The Physiology of Stress

Regardless of agency size or service area, all law enforcement officers are subject to gross amounts of stress from nearly the moment they enter the profession. Most have been trained to recognize the source of external stressors at work, such as police-involved shootings, violent crime investigations, and physical injury. But, what most law enforcement officers do not understand is the enormous destructive, if not deadly, physiological (internal) effect of stress on the human body. …

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