Police recruits, who are being trained to become officers, will go through months of intensive training. Despite an individual’s background in military, college, or criminal justice programs, recruits must complete police training. Countless hours are spent in the classroom studying law and police procedures. Days are spent on the range shooting guns. Thousands of rounds of ammunition are shot by each recruit as they become competent enough to wield their gun on the streets. More days are spent behind the wheel of a car driving through cones, backwards and forwards. High speed driving through turns and corners, braking and accelerating, pursuing instructors. Then they must learn ground fighting techniques, hitting and punching instructors in padded suits.
All this preparation is important for being able to professionally and competently perform the job of a police officer. It is also important for surviving the streets.
Officer safety is a big part of the way police officers do their jobs. Danger is a mandated part of the job; we don’t have the luxury of running away from gunmen. So, of course “officer safety” is relative. If our safety was primary, we would flee with everyone else. So officer safety is really about mitigating danger.
But there’s one important danger we aren’t mitigating. For all our training and preparation, we’re neglecting a serious threat to the lives of police officers.
In 2007, more than 130 police officers died in the line of duty. Some of those deaths were accidental, some were due to car crashes, and some were murders. But according to the Badge of Life, nearly 150 officers die every year in a way that has been ignored and brushed under the rug: suicide.
Police officers face the worst symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their jobs. We are assaulted, injured, and hospitalized. We watch children die and see people’s loved ones torn apart and mutilated in car accidents. We witness our fellow officers killed and injured. All these things will bring on PTSD in many officers. The symptoms can be hopelessness, despair, flashbacks, suicide attempts, nightmares, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and terror. This disorder can be the result of a critical incident such as seeing a partner slain and then killing his attacker. Or it can simply result from the cumulative experience of living the job’s horrors for years.
The Badge of Life is an organization committed to getting police officers the help they need, before suicide becomes an issue. Executive director Andrew O’hara retired as a sergeant from the California Highway Patrol, having served from March 1969 to March 1993. His last day on the job was spent staring at the barrel of his gun and it resulted in him retiring on disability for mental health. Like O’hara, the other members of the organization consist of law enforcement officers in the United States and Canada who have suffered PTSD from a variety of job-induced traumas.
The Badge of Life is reaching out to police departments across North America, offering free materials to help officers. Its website points out that police departments offer yearly training and recertification in shooting duty guns. Police departments also mandate periodic physical exams, defensive tactics refreshers, and driving refreshers. Police officers recertify often in the use of pepper spray, batons, Tazers, and handcuffs. Yet there is no mental health checkup for officers. The Badge of Life’s plan adds a yearly mental health checkup.
Officers begin by learning the importance of self care by discussing their previous year’s experiences and reactions with a mental health professional. In doing so at least once annually, officers develop strengths and coping mechanisms that will enable them to better deal with the often overwhelming stresses and trauma of their work.
Departments encourage continued physical fitness. Now it’s time to encourage emotional fitness, too.
The annual, voluntary mental health check (MHC) takes the focus away from “just suicide” and begins targeting “mental health for all police officers.” It is preventive self care at its best for one of the world’s highest stress occupations.
The Badge of Life recommends exposure to MHCs for recruits as a foundation for mental health at the beginning of one’s career. Although much of its focus is on recruit training and changing attitudes at the beginning of law enforcement careers, there is also material for veteran officers. Often, veterans may be dealing with PTSD and not even realize it. The annual MHC can identify problems and help them.
The Badge of Life offers advice for selecting a therapist, what to say to them, and what role departments can take in encouraging this. This organization advocates an important change in the current law enforcement attitudes. Suicide is a serious issue for police officers and everyone seems eager to ignore it. But ignoring this issue will only make it worse. Adopting the The Badge of Life’s recommendations will almost certainly save lives and improve the mental well being of police officers everywhere.
Links: The Badge of Life
The author, Tom Mealey has been serving as a police officer since 2000. He is also an instructor and field training officer. In 2008 he lost a friend, and fellow officer, to suicide.
Permission is granted to reprint this article with attribution to the author, OfficerResource.com and a link to the original source here. -Xiphos