Balancing Act: Maintaining Wellness In Police Work
The phone rang. The weekend had been busy with call outs. This time the dispatcher was talking so fast I couldn’t quite comprehend the information coming out of a deep sleep. It took about 20 minutes to get to the station. As I unlocked the door to my office, the patrol sergeant came up to me, “This is a bad one, detective.” He briefed me on the kidnapping case as I sat down to take notes. The victim had been transported to the police department after she had escaped her perpetrator and was rescued by civilians. Patrol had already captured video, started processing the victim’s car, and were combing the streets for the suspect. The sergeant introduced me to the victim who was in one of the interview rooms.
I listened intently to her statement as I recorded every word via video and audio technology. I jotted down some notes but I didn’t interrupt her as she described being kidnapped at knife point from a convenience store. The suspect forced her into the car. He drove her up the mountain and repeatedly sexually assaulted her while her two year old was present. At the same time I was handing the victim Kleenex, she continued to speak disclosing every detail. Her words brought vivid images to my mind and I felt as if I was there. This wasn’t a Hollywood movie or a flat description in a newspaper. It was smells, touches, and sounds. No one can really be prepared to comprehend the magnitude of a victim’s fear, physiological responses, and emotional scarring until they hear it first hand at the time of an incident.
Simultaneously, I was preparing a list of investigation procedures and search warrants to compile. My mind was all over the place moving forward to apprehend this suspect, but I was also sucked into her story. It was difficult to keep my composure. Not many victims were that strong to fight a man and plea for her child’s safety and in the end-succeeding in escape. Perhaps it was internal motherly instinct and a will to survive that saved her and her child’s life.
In the two hours it took to capture the details of the incident, patrol had located a man who matched the description. He was sitting in an interview room waiting for my interrogation. I watched him as he fidgeted, recognizing the effects of methamphetamine. He was disheveled and smelled like he had not showered in days. His body odor filtered through the walls into the hallway.
The victim had picked him out of a photo lineup, however, she requested to see him behind the one way glass after the fact. I obliged. How could I not? She sobbed and broke down. Maybe I had made a mistake. The victim advocate escorted the woman out to a waiting room where she was given information about the next procedure. A patrol officer transported her to the hospital where medical personnel took a bio kit to preserve any DNA evidence and attend to her and her child’s medical needs. Sometime later, the ER doc called my office with evidentiary information for my investigation.
Returning to the interview rooms, I stared at the suspect through the one way glass for a couple minutes before entering the room. I had remained behind at the station to interrogate the suspect. He was somewhat cooperative but told an elaborate lie despite video evidence against him. Suspects often do. In fact, police usually expect lies.
We danced around words for about two hours. Some patrol officers watched the interview through the glass or the video monitor. They felt a personal attachment to the case. In my experience, some cases penetrated through your protective barriers when you were working emotionally charged incidents. It had been a vigorous suspect pursuit and victim rescue with a small child involved which affected the on duty patrol team and adjoining town agencies.
The interview and interrogation did not yield a full confession, but some admissions. It was enough. We all knew we had the right man based upon his statements, the victim’s disclosure, witness statements, and additional physical evidence. I obtained a search warrant for his clothing, DNA, and any other evidence on him related to the crimes of kidnapping and sexual assault. Once the search warrant was executed, he was transported to jail. The DNA evidence would later link him to the case as well.
It was about 2:00 AM. The preliminary hearing would be in the afternoon. Writing the affidavit to hold him was painful because it had to be meticulous with no errors. Normally, I would be worn out, but my mind would not rest until the arrest was properly closed. This was pushing me through as I was into the case about 5 hours. Copious amounts of follow up still remained, but it would be scheduled later in the day. The details of the case and the randomness of the victim would raise attention to the media. I went over in my mind the questions I had to prepare to answer at the press briefing.
My final stop was delivering a copy of the charging affidavit to the county detention sergeant and finding my way home for some rest. Whenever I reached home, I usually plopped right back into bed. This time, I went into the other room and found my four year old sleeping. Nothing was more precious and innocent than a sleeping baby, especially since she was mine. I curled up next to her and vowed to always protect her from bad guys.
Two hours later the phone rang with another felony sexual assault. After kissing my daughter’s forehead, I again made my way to the police station. After getting the statement from the victim, I called out another detective to assist as my mind was becoming Jell-O. The day was plagued with mental and physical exhaustion coupled with sleep deprivation. This was one day in the life of a detective. Imagine the career long impact on a police officer investigating multiple cases involving emotional agony and personal injury.
Both suspects were convicted: one for life and one for decades. I would run into the victims occasionally at the grocery stores or around town somewhere. Even though it was a big city, it was small. Both were polite, but I don’t think they wanted to acknowledge me most times. I probably reminded them of their emotional scars or perhaps they thought I would talk about the day we first had police contact. None of those scenarios would be something I would bring up because I just wanted to treat them like people, not past victims. They probably didn’t know what to expect and avoidance was the easiest choice. However, that is the awkward relationship police often have with the public.
As fate would have it, I often ran into the kidnapping victim for the first two years after the suspect’s conviction. She was trying to be strong, but I could see she was extremely alert of her surroundings, scanning around her. I believed the behavior was automatic after the incident and she was now sensitive for her safety. The little blond child next to her drew most of my attention. She had grown into a beautiful toddler. Her mother politely introduced me to her daughter, but just as she started to utter “detective”, I interjected, “Kathryn.” The encounter was awkward and uncomfortable but I felt her burdens reignite because over the years, I carried them somewhere. That was the last time we made personal contact even though we collided frequently in public. The other sitings were the familiar nods you give someone in passing. It was a hard lesson that as a detective although you are on their side-trying to work for justice-you were always an eerie reminder of a tragic event.
Police officers are plagued with emotional cases which bombard their psyche daily. Most of the incidents and aftermath they witness, the public cannot fathom. To name a few pressures-officers experience high demands, face dynamic and dangerous situations, human misery, and investigate various manners and causes of death. So what happens? Many police officers over time become “jaded” and have compartmentalized their experiences in order to depersonalize events. It is a survival mechanism. Hidden beneath the uniform are often internal problems associated with all aspects of police work including the dangerous nature and the toll the career takes on a person. For instance the following issues can arise but the problems are not limited to:
2. Gastrointestinal disorders/weight gain/weight loss/eating disorders/obesity/diabetes
3. Fatigue/chronic fatigue
4. Sleep disorders/sleep apnea
5. Relationship issues
6. Sexual dysfunction or lack of sex drive
7. Drinking problems/substance abuse
8. Heart problems, high blood pressure, hypertension
9. Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome
10. Suicide ideation/suicide
Over the years, law enforcement organizations have recognized the need for access to mental health, medical, and fitness professionals/facilities for officers. Not only are these services important, it is crucial for self-recognition when they are required. Officers often plod on without realizing their well-being is in jeopardy. Supervisors also shrug the importance believing their crew members will overcome any issue plaguing their mental or physical health because cops are “tough”. In fact, many believe they are impermeable.
Because police endure high and intense amounts of daily stressors, it is vital their health is kept a priority. Internal and external support systems are necessary for an officer to find a life balance. There are several strategies which can build on a person’s wellness and guard against the negative impacts of the profession. Hobbies outside of work, physical fitness, good eating habits, restful sleep, and vacation are significant in maintaining a good balance. Leadership excellence from police administrators is key to incorporate mental and physical wellness as an organizational practice and intrinsic component in the management of a police force.
Physical fitness is essential in preventing long term health conditions and providing mental clarity. It is also cost effective for an organization to invest in the front end by providing resources and facilities to officers. Many people don’t give physical fitness enough weight and additionally ignore proper nutrition. Not only is police work physically demanding, it is mandatory to keep a certain level of fitness for those dire times. The overall benefits of being physically fit can trickle over to an officer’s mental well-being. Making the resources available and allotting the time to train, seek mental health and medical services, and maintain a designated level of physical fitness should be standard operational procedures in all law enforcement establishments.
But what about mental health? How do you permeate an officer’s pride and inability to admit the importance of one’s psyche? Setting the tone from the top down is the cornerstone for giving wellness organizational value. Management recognizes the challenges officers face on a daily basis, even if the individuals push on, often ignoring their own symptoms. Many federal, state, county and municipalities have community partnerships with mental health providers for their employees. Police administration must provide these services (some with anonymity) as well as recognize the danger signs within their departmental members. Peer to peer support also aids in providing a safe workplace and keeping mental health in check. Encouraging officers to be involved in charity events, hobbies, community projects, and competitive sports are just a few ideas stemming out of the police culture to help them maintain a healthy balance with the fun factor added in.
Progressive change is a constant in law enforcement in order to keep up with the dynamic social changes in our society. Leadership emerges from all levels in police agencies to build a more congruent and effective organization. The well-being of all officers is paramount in establishing their ability to perform their duties and safeguards them, the public, and other fellow officers. All members of a law enforcement organization have to be accountable for themselves and the wellness and safety of others.