Cop Killer: PTSD and Its Effect on Police Officers


The American Cop is at war

On a regular basis officers are sent to calls with individuals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It only makes sense with many returning soldiers from our decade long wars on terror in the Middle East.

We have come a long way in understanding and treating those military members suffering from PTSD.

The stigma that comes with this condition has also slowly eroded. PTSD is more readily accepted and is better understood by the American public.

The same cannot be said for the American Cop.

PTSD has become increasingly more common in police officers.  Not unlike our front line troops serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the American Cop serves in what some would consider the most violent country on Earth.

Don’t think so?

A co-worker of mine, who also happens to be an Army Reservist, recently made a comment on social media that jarred me.

My fellow officer made the comment that he feels far safer in Afghanistan than he does as a cop in the city where we both work.

Let that sink in for a moment.

It has become accepted, as it should, soldiers returning from combat would need time to readjust after the conflict and that some would experience PTSD.

This is not necessarily the case for police officers.

Police officers, in many ways, must deal with some of the same atrocities and horrors that befall their military counterparts. This is not to say that one experiences more trauma than the other.

Cops see bad shit

Law enforcement is a highly stressful and dangerous occupation.  New cops arrive in this profession with an eagerness that is almost unrivaled in any other job.

The seduction of becoming a cop and serving the greater good enables the rookie patrolman to overlook the inherent dangers that he or she may face.

Over time, the same rookie cop begins to change as he or she encounters and manages crisis after crisis on the streets. They become readily accepted by the senior and veteran officers and slowly develop an “us against the world” mentality.

See Also: “Letting Go: Why Some Cops Stay Longer Than They Should”

As they become fully immersed in the police culture, the old life they had prior to becoming a police officer begins to fade away.

PTSD isn’t like catching the flu or a virus that comes on quickly.

It sneaks up on cops over time. Each fight, pursuit, rape, stabbing, shooting, murder, suicide, dead baby call that a cop deals with over their career takes a toll on the officer.

Some cops are better at forgetting these calls and moving on.

Over the course of a career, cops are exposed to horrific events that are not easily forgotten or just ignored.

This long term, over time stress has also been referred to as Cumulative PTSD.

Cops are tough

Many police officers fear that admitting to PTSD will make them appear weak. That isn’t the only reason they avoid talking about it.  They also fear getting fired or passed over for promotion and labeled as a “weak” officer by their peers.

By their very nature, cops view themselves as tough minded individuals.

They have to.

Street survival and officer safety are priority one and are instilled at every level of the cops training. To survive is to be tough.

Nothing beats a tough guy.

Why PTSD is killing cops

There is a certain level of bravado and “old school” ideology that refuses to recognize the disorder.

Cops are masters at hiding their emotions.

They will often bury that side of their psyche that may have been damaged by a particular event.  An officer need not be involved in a deadly force incident to develop PTSD.

I know this all too well.

Several years ago I was assigned to investigate the death of a six year old girl. Like the professional cop that I was, I was all business. I went through all of the typical investigative steps and determined that their was no foul play involved.

The girl had recently fallen ill and had been taken to her primary doctor the previous day. Tests revealed that she had the Flu.

The parents were told to give her plenty of fluids and let the virus run its course.

That evening they kissed their daughter good night and told her she would start feeling better soon.

The next morning she was found unresponsive by her mother.

She was dead.

The autopsy showed the cause of death to be the Influenza Virus.

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To understand PTSD, one must be careful not to presume that traumatic events and stress effect everyone the same. I always prided myself as the cop who could take anything. The blood, guts, brains. Anything.

For some reason, this case got to me. Real bad. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I obsessed over it.

She was a beautiful little girl who died- from- the- Flu! I struggled to square her death with my view of justice and whats right with the world.

It was eating me up inside.

And nobody knew about it.

I would eventually stop obsessing over this case. It took some time but I finally did make my peace with God. Some officers are still stuck in their obsession over an event or series of atrocities they have witnessed over a career.

Some officers may have even thought of ending their own life.

What can be done? 

What can law enforcement professionals do to support those cops at risk for PTSD?

Some agencies have taken a proactive approach and have initiated training early in the officers career. The new cops, along with their family members, are made aware of the psychological toll that the job can bring.

I have seen an upward trend in police agencies making an effort to recognize the problem. Most have mandatory critical incident debriefs following a traumatic event.

We still need to do more.

My sister-in-law, a former psychologist for the the AFP (Australian Federal Police), is appalled at the level of care that officers in the states receive. Australia and other European countries provide on-going, systematic psychological services for their cops.

I also need to do a better job .

If one of my officers feels uncomfortable talking to me about a problem, or needs help, then I have failed. I believe we can all start by being less self absorbed and more in tuned to our brothers and sisters.

Another thing we can do is educate ourselves on the problem and stop pretending that cops are not affected by the calls they respond to.

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