Cop Killer: PTSD and Its Effect on Police Officers

PTSD Cop

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.

See Also: “3 Viruses That Can Kill Morale in a Police Department”



14 Comments

  1. I have been a cop for over 27 years now. About 6 years ago I was involved in a incident where one of my fellow officers, one of my guys I was responsible was killed in the line of duty, the incident resulted in a horrendous shootout where both the bad guys wound up dead. I actually returned to work three days later. I went on business as usual best I could and didn’t think it affected me to the point it did. About six months later I suffered a minor stroke. Luckily it did little to no damage and I was able to return to work with no lasting effects. After what seemed like a never ending series of the tests, the specialists, neurologists could not find any physical reason for the stroke. i was then diagnosed with PTSD and the stroke was blamed on the stress and lack of sleep I was suffering from. Long story short after almost seven months of therapy, yes I said it, therapy and a trip to a co-workers retreat hosted by COPS, I was declared PTSD free. Don’t know if it ever completely goes away, but I now sleep at night and have not had any further incidents. The thing is I never told anyone at work or friends about the therapy. I kept it between my wife and I. All I can say is if you are suffering, find someone to talk to and consider profesional help. We aren’t always as strong as we think we are. I made the decision I wanted to be around for my family a little bit longer, you should too.

  2. 2 words Rob: Cumulative PTSD.
    Glad you got the therapy you needed and are doing better now. If not for you, then at least for your family.
    I was just talking to my LT last night about an incident that had just happened to one of his guys. He transported a bleeding man who had attempted suicide, in the back of his patrol vehicle. He was close to the scene when the call came in and instead of waiting for the ambulance, he decided to just try to get him over to the hospital himself. The guy had shot himself with a .22 in his stomach. The bullet had traveled around and ripped through his gut and organs. He died as soon as they got to the hospital and they were getting him to a gurney.
    This officer is also a military vet and his brother committed suicide last year. He was a mess, just like the back of his patrol vehicle. Fortunately this PD has a good CISM team and after he afmitted to not being ok, they made sure to get someone to talk to him and get him home.

  3. Dispatchers can suffer from PTSD too. After working in streets for 10 years, I now work in Emergency Communications. I had seen first hand that Dispatchers on the dark side of the mic suffering from PTSD in scilence with little help. One of my good friends was working the radio during an officer fatally and was out work for five months. She has not been the same since.

  4. I first started having problems after a SIDS death during which I administered CPR on the 8 month old baby boy. My own son was 6 months old at the time. The baby didn’t make it. All I could see at night was his green eye staring up at me as I did CPR. While I shouldn’t have, I felt guilty for not saving him. From there it just sort of snow balled with death calls where children found their parents, then to shooting and stabbing calls with atrocious results. I felt like a complete wuss for having a tough time decompressing after work. After all, my co-workers didn’t seem to be having the same problems. On top of this, I recall an officer who was under IA for suicidal statements. The chief sent out an all department email saying how the officer wasn’t allowed inside the department. So instead of knowing that my coworker was getting help, I was made aware that he was being treated like a criminal. I ended up getting diagnosed with anxiety after experiencing chest pains. I was injured on duty and went through the workers comp process. Worst experience of my life dealing with them. The anxiety took over my life and I ended up formulating a plan to kill myself. Before I did it, I felt like I owed it to my family (and myself) to talk to a counselor. It was great to admit what I wouldn’t to anyone else. She referred me to a shrink, who in turn diagnosed me as anxiety w/panic attacks, major depression, and cumulative PTSD. I tried a couple of meds until one worked. I’m medically retired now. Not having work stress, dealing with workers comp, and having the meds (as well as meditation) turned me 180 degrees. Guys and gals, if you’re thinking about ending it, just try to get professional help, anonymously even. I can speak from first hand that it’s worth a crack at it.

  5. I have to admit, I do not understand PTSD. Don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely believe PTSD exist in police work and have seen several colleagues struggle through it. I don’t understand PTSD because of how I’m wired. In my nearly 20 years in Law Enforcement I have worked assignments in Patrol, Traffic Homicide and Homicide.

    While working Traffic Homicide, I’ve responded to and investigated countless fatal car, truck, train and airplane crashes. I have worked everything from a toddler backed over and killed by his father, to an impaired driver who hit a friend and colleague head on killing him.

    While working Homicide, we investigated all Officer Involved Shootings, suicides, suspicious or unattended deaths and of course homicides. I have worked a 6 month old baby getting her video baby monitor cord wrapped around her neck strangling her to the suicides of former colleagues.

    Personally, I’ve been in a shooting and two major on-duty car crashes, the first one i was tapped in a burning Crown Vic, and after the second i reacquired 5 surgeries and 12 months of physical therapy to walk and return to full duty.

    Despite all i have experienced throughout my career i have been able to process what happened and move on with no ill affects. Yet when a close friend of mine, who was on our SWAT team, was in a shooting I watched him free fall to the point he lost his career and family before he got the help he needed. And I tried to be there for him the whole time, but you can not help someone if they don’t think they help.

    I truly don’t understand is how PTSD affects some and not others. But, I am always willing to help a brother or sister in crisis, I’ve given my phone number out to many local officers and I answer my phone anytime day or night. I’ve even gone out a 3 am to pick someone up and drive them to get the help they needed…All without any judgment… I have found that my experiences have helped me be a better listener to those who have reached out to me for help

  6. Any officer with PTSD issues should consider looking into EMDR therapy. Its a special therapy targeted at treating the effects of trauma on the body. It unclogs the clog in your brain that comes from the traumatic incident(s)…It saved my career after being diagnosed with PTSD after a officer involved shooting i surely thought they would medically retire me. I tried EMDR therapy and I got better and was able to return to work better then before. Anyone on the job having issues or a co worker just remember these 4 letters E M D R therapy… Trust me I know and can attest to the effectiveness of this in getting your life back and your job back!!!! Stay safe….

  7. I didn’t understand it either until it affected me. I was a Marine before I was a cop and I felt strongly that if you can’t handle it, find another job. It was a very young and immature attitude. Mine crept up on me slowly until I had to walk away from law enforcement. There are specific things I can point to as the source, but it was more of a cumulative thing. I think we shouldn’t characterize some officers as weaker or stronger. I know officers that were physically strong as bears and would run into blazing gunfire if they had to. Yet, something triggered in them and I wouldn’t call it weakness. I struggled myself with how could I be able to do things that were heroic on one hand, and yet have difficulty processing others.

    Curtis

  8. I can vouch for the EMDR therapy. I underwent it at a cops co-workers retreat about 3 years after my shooting incident. It helped a ton. When it was first proposed to me, I thought it sounded like some kind of voodoo and was convinced it would not work on me. Did it anyway and I was pleasantly surprised by the results.

  9. From one Sarge to another – thank you for this article. As a profession, we have to do a better job taking care of our officers psychological health. We loose too many good officers to PTSD along with the toll it takes on hour families. I received some counseling several years ago over two young sisters that we lost one night in a house fire. I was first on scene and they were trapped upstairs. We gave them a fighting chance but they only made it 24 hours. This happened early in my career and is one of the many that haunt me. I would not admit it for years but finally sought treatment after the insistence of my understanding wife who had to put me back together countless times. I still struggle at times but have coping mechanisms to deal now. Keep up with spreading the word Sarge. From a 30 year and still active duty veteran. Be Safe Brother.

  10. Proper treatment for ptsd can be life saving for sure. It’s a physical problem, which few people understand. But you can learn how to train your brain and gain tools that are so liberating and life-changing in all aspects of life, not just work.

  11. It has nothing to do with strength. And that sure as hell is not the way to put it. It is about how people process things differently and about the experiences we have had. I have been in law enforcement for 24 years. I have been on almost every call imaginable. Except for 2 years as an organized crime unit detective if have been a beat cop. I have been struggling for close to 2 years now . I do not think anyone would ever claim I was weak. This is about your mind saying enough is enough.

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