Therapists in Blue?: Police Officers Spend More Time Being Psychologists Than Sharpshooters

By Fay, Joel | Family Therapy Networker, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

Therapists in Blue?: Police Officers Spend More Time Being Psychologists Than Sharpshooters


Fay, Joel, Family Therapy Networker


Sunday morning:

As a police officer, I've been trained to expect the unexpected, block out automatic emotional reactions and stick to hard-edged procedural rules in an emergency. But that doesn't mean that in this line of work some occasions don't embed themselves permanently in my consciousness, like livid scars that refuse to fade.

Six months ago, while I was on patrol, I got a call from the dispatcher to proceed to a certain address--the way most police episodes begin--with little information and no idea what might happen when I got there. A man had called the police because he was worried about his girlfriend, who had not returned home after work, and he asked us to check her office. When I arrived at the woman's office building, I found her car parked outside and the light on in her office, although there was no response to phone calls or knocks on the door. I located a ladder, climbed the two stories to her window and saw her--sitting on the floor, gagged, bound hand and foot, and crying. Sitting next to her on the floor, about three feet from me, was a guy with  two guns--her ex-boyfriend, I later found out, who had been stalking her. He held one gun to her head and the other he aimed, point blank, at my face. I see the round end of that gun barrel now, close enough to touch, and remember that infinitely long, infinitesimally short split second looking at him looking at me. Even now, I am amazed by the lack of conscious fear I felt in that moment, the lack of any feeling at all--just a kind of sharp, neutral attention.

Although I don't remember what happened immediately after, I know I climbed down the ladder and ran to the north side of the building, where I set up a perimeter while advising the police dispatcher about the incident. About two minutes later, the suspect left the victim's office in an escape attempt and climbed onto the roof directly above me. When he saw me, I shouted, "Don't shoot!" and tried to talk him into dropping his weapons and surrendering peacefully. When he didn't respond, I moved to a more protected position. The suspect climbed onto a flat area of the roof, leaned back against the wall and, firing the two handguns simultaneously, killed himself. I will never know why he didn't shoot me.

Every day when I go to work, both my family and I know there is a possibility of my facing a situation like that again. We have developed rituals to help us handle the uncertainty and fear that all families of police officers experience. Just before I leave, they call out, "Be safe," and I always respond, "Don't worry, I will." It's how we try to make a game out of the fear. I am careful never to leave for work angry; I give everyone a hug and a kiss and say "I love you" one more time.  Just in case, I want my family to have that as a last memory.

I have always been fascinated by why people become violent and how to help victims of violence. Finally, several years ago, I decided to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, while continuing to work full time as a police officer. Many people have told me that they see these two professions as diametrically opposed, but police officers must practice "street" psychology every day. We regularly convince people to give up their freedom without resistance, and, caught in the middle of family fights, we must find ways to calm down people who are agitated, at least temporarily. I have found that good police work resembles good therapy. Allowing people to maintain their self-respect while finding options means that, most of the time, they won't have to fight you. In fact, police officers spend a lot more time being psychologists than being sharpshooters.

In my psychology studies, I have been drawn to the work of narrative therapists Michael White and David Epston, especially to their belief that people are the experts within their own experience, and their emphasis on techniques like "externalization" to challenge the dominant "problem-saturated" stories. …

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