Blue Lives Matter
Officer Darren Wilson was proud to pin the badge of the Ferguson Police Department to his dress blues, but since he discharged his Sig P229 pistol on August 9, 2014, the badge reminds him that he mortally wounded a teenager in the line of duty. A nationwide study conducted from 2008-2012 by Pamela Kulbarsh, a psychiatric nurse for over 25 years and a member of San Diego’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, found that nearly 150,000 officers have experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, not to mention the officers who, because of the stigma of appearing weak, have yet to come forward with their symptoms. But when police officers decide to confront their physiological troubles, Kulbarsh found that the men in blue are being deprived of a stable support system to help guide them in the right direction. For years, we have ignored the calls for help from the guardians of our safety who have pledged to protect our nation.
Police whose lives are often at risk may fear for their safety even from suspects whose guns are unloaded or who brandish what looks like a weapon. The fact that they were not in mortal danger in no way diminishes their reasonable fear. Are police officer’s wrong to shoot “an unarmed suspect” or are they within their rights to neutralize a suspect whose intention was to harm? On the night of August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department was on patrol when he received a call about a robbery and physical dispute between an 18 year old male and a Ferguson Market clerk. A nationwide study conducted in 2013 by USA.com found that the average crime rate in Ferguson, Missouri, is 2,6885.38, which trumps the Missouri crime rate of 1,858.24 and the national average crime rate of 1,669.05. Officer Wilson spotted Michael Brown walking down the street wearing a hoodie, a red hat and yellow socks that matched the offenders description. Michael Brown’s hands were in his pockets, which perhaps gave the illusion (from a police officer’s perspective) that he could be holstering a weapon. The high crime rate alone was enough to justify officer Wilson’s feelings of uneasiness. Officer Wilson had to acknowledge that there was already a physical altercation with the Ferguson Market Clerk, so his defensiveness is valid. When officer Darren Wilson confronted Brown, Brown reached through the window of the police car, disrespecting the barrier that separates Brown from officer Wilson. Darren Wilson pleads that Michael Brown reached for his hosteled weapon forcing him to fire through Brown’s hand, which signifies the heightened severity of the situation. Because Brown’s physical gesture posed a direct threat to the safety of Darren Wilson, officer Wilson got out of his car to pursue Brown and shot him six times. While six shots seems inexcusable, we can relate to his heightened sense of perceived danger. Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown because Brown appeared to have an apparent intent to cause harm. The fact that he may not have a weapon in no way diminishes officer Wilson’s fear for his life. One of the central questions in the case of Michael Brown that was argued is whether officer Darren Wilson’s response to a situation that calls for instantaneous reactions could hold him accountable. The decision made by officer Wilson reflects an officer’s moral instinct to protect the public at any time and place that the peace is threatened.
As we learn from Chris Mooney in “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men,” we are not “born with racial prejudices. We may never even have been taught them. Rather, prejudice draws on many of the same tools that help our minds figure out what’s good and what’s bad. In evolutionary terms, it’s efficient to quickly classify a grizzly bear as dangerous. The trouble comes when the brain uses similar processes to form negative views about groups of people.” A study conducted by Lewis Loflin, a former U.S. Army and military officer , in 2012 found that of the total 2,029 arrests made in Ferguson, Missouri, 558 were white/hispanic and 1,471 were black. It is entirely possible that officer Wilson reacted to many cues in addition to the race of Michael Brown. It has been argued that the six shots to Michael Brown’s body was both excessive and unnecessary. Perhaps police officers learn to be suspicious of individuals that the general public do not fear. Officer Wilson could have developed reflexes that we don’t have, causing him to react faster or with more force than we would.
Police officers lives are often threatened. They have an obligation to respect the rights of suspects. They also have a (sometimes conflicting) right to defend themselves against mortal danger. Under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, American law enforcement personnel is partially protected from investigation and prosecution arising from conduct during official performance of their duties, and provides them with privileges based on due process additional to those normally provided to other citizens. But police officers are not fully protected. This leaves them vulnerable to due process for a natural instinct. The stress from a shooting is sometimes overwhelming as an officer may feel betrayed by the department he/she serves. In addition, an officer faces administrative and legal proceeding which could result in termination, criminal charges or even being sued. Michael Brown posed a threat to officer Wilson by neglecting to respect the barrier that separates the inside of the car from the outside of the car, while attempting to retrieve officer Wilson’s gun. As we learned from Sunil Dutta, an advocate for police safety and 17-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, in “Column defending cops in Ferguson sparks online fury,” people should “not challenge law enforcement — save that for lodging a complaint later. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you.” We need to acknowledge that police officers are well trained to recognize threats and are also experts at defusing them or avoiding confrontations that might turn deadly or dangerous. If people simply cooperated with police officers, there would be fewer arrests and less violence as a result.
A study conducted by Police One showing the reaction time of a police officer when faced with different scenarios. The test subjects were 24 male volunteers recruited from an active-shooter training class at a regional SWAT conference. Each officer, equipped with a Glock training pistol, was to progress through 10 rooms in an abandoned school where an officer was to confront a suspect with a similar pistol at a distance of 10 feet. According to prior instruction, one-fifth of the suspects followed the officer’s order to surrender peacefully, whereas the rest, designated as attackers, were told to try to shoot the officer at any time they chose. Analysis showed that the suspects on average were able to fire in just 0.38 second after initial movement of their gun. Officers fired back in an average of 0.39 second after the suspect’s movement began. The officer and suspect effectively shot at similar times. Why should an officer be held responsible for a natural instinct? These numbers validate police officer’s rights to react in the way they do to certain situations. Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown’s hand out of pure response to the altercation. While the next six shots seems inexcusable, we can understand officer Wilson’s perceived sense of danger and excessive reaction to a potential violent situation. Effectively, it is either kill or be killed.
Police officers, as a highly scrutinized group, should not be held responsible for a potential threat to their well-being and others around them. The burden we place on police officers, to protect the safety of everyone they encounter, is incompatible with their human instinct to protect themselves from danger. When we scrutinize their actions without considering how often they place themselves in danger on our behalf, we impose an unjust burden on them. The threats they recognize, that we might not, are mitigating circumstances.
On May 30, 1991, John Balcerzak, a police officer of the Milwaukee Police Department, discovered Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old, wandering the street naked and bleeding from his rectum. Jeffery Dahmer, an unknown serial killer at the time, told police that Sinthasomphone was his 19-year-old boyfriend, and that they had an argument while drinking. Dahmer acted embarrassed about the situation and insisted that the child return home with him. Officer Balcerzak willingly handed over the child and escorted them back to Dahmer’s apartment, while neglecting to take the child’s wounds into consideration. When they arrived back at the apartment, Dahmer showed the officers two polaroid photos that he had taken of Konerak in his underwear. Once officer Balcerzak saw proof that they were lovers, he told Dahmer to take good care of him. Later that night, Dahmer killed and dismembered Sinthasomphone, keeping his skull as a souvenir. Not only did Officer Balcerzak witness the suffering of a child, he let the criminal walk away. Police officers lives are constantly threatened, but to watch a victim visibly suffer and then watch the criminal get off must have been psychologically unbearable. Officer Balcerzak did not receive the necessary counseling for the guilt he must have felt from handing over a boy to his torturer and executioner. Employee Assistance Programs have been developed to defuse high levels of stress in law enforcement. But the truth is, police officers whose lives are under constant stress do not receive the necessary assistance to help them cope with their physiological complications. A study conducted in 2002 by David Klinger, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Senior Fellow at the Police Foundation in Washington, DC., surveyed 80 police officers who’ve dealt with 10 or more murder cases throughout their careers. Of the 80 police officers surveyed, 48% still experience trouble sleeping and an outstanding 83% have recurrent thoughts or feelings. An unhealthy mindset as a police officer has an adverse effect on behavior, emotion and performance. The lack of counseling in law enforcement has directly impeded efficiency levels in law enforcement.
The pressures of law enforcement have led to high blood pressure, insomnia, increased levels of destructive stress hormones, heart problems, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and suicide. A study conducted by Badge of Life in 2016 found that there are about 17 suicides per 100,000 officers who graduate from the academy compared to a mere 7.5 per 100,000 suicides among 4-year college students whose lives are impacted by astronomical college tuitions and societal pressures to acquire a degree. Support and therapy could help mitigate the mental health damage caused by this type of trauma. Police officers deserve all the help we can give them to regain their original selves. Officers are constantly exposed to dangerous situations by virtue of their job, but the system to help police officers cope with their stress is woefully inadequate. It is inexcusable how many lives have been damaged and/or taken from the lack of support for people who sacrifice their lives on a day-to-day basis to keep us safe.
The common problem lies in the lack of trust that police officers have in their Employee Assistance Programs. Police officers do not feel a personal connection with their therapists; they would rather talk to someone in their line of duty. The attitude seems to be related to past experience and concern about not being understood by a superior when stress-related behaviors develop. Gary Allmers, a detective in the Bergen County Prosecutors Office, said, “There is a lack of understanding in these programs to help officers cope with their problems. We do not want to sit down and talk to a therapist who cannot relate to our situation. We need to talk to someone, perhaps a retired officer, about the common stressors in law enforcement. There is good intention, but we need someone who has been in our shoes before. I feel alone most of the time, which scares me quite frankly.” To a civilian, it may seem that officers would be more comfortable confessing their anxieties and second-guessing to a civilian, not another uniform. How can bruised officers receive counseling from other officers who were indoctrinated into the same “suck it up” culture? But the truth is, police officers become less macho when they retire. Employee Assistance Programs should consist of retired officers who have dealt with similar problems in their line of duty. Police officers, the guardians of our safety, should never feel alone. We need to meet police officers half way and stop supplying them with mediocre support systems. If one cop is saying a therapist is not enough, imagine the officer’s who have yet to come forward about their symptoms.
Employee Assistance Programs in law enforcement are also not mandatory. Police officers are given the option to seek help. But the truth is, the largest barrier to effective treatments and support systems is the culture that exists among police officers. There is an imposed willpower in law enforcement that requires officers to restrain from their emotions and feelings of pain. Police officers commonly face internal stressors, such as administrative stress, that include long hours, lack of support, overtime, no room for advancement, and family complications. External stressors are correlated with outside factors such as the attitude of the general public, daily exposure to trauma, negativity, and uneasiness when dealing with challenging and dangerous situations. Yet, police officers are expected to make that emotional switch and focus on another case, regardless of what they may be experiencing at the time. In a predominantly male culture emphasizing toughness and a shrug-it-off, suck-it-up mentality, officers are forced to keep their feelings to themselves and resort to unhealthy methods of coping, which result in negative outcomes (such as alcohol abuse, risk-taking behaviors, etc.). Police officers, who do not come forward because of the stigma of appearing weak, are putting themselves at risk for serious physiological complications. These programs are seemingly noneffective if they are not mandated in police departments.
Cops that suppress their natural instincts during conflict and “deal with the consequences” later only makes sense that there’s a benefit to the suppression in the first place. Law enforcement is both physically and mentally demanding, but sloppy emotions like empathy, understanding, sharing in, and caring about someone’s emotions can get in the way of effective emergency policing. In 2014, officer Joe Winters, a deputy in the King County Sheriff’s Office, was called in response to a woman’s behavior, which residents deemed disruptive, in a city park in western Washington. When he arrived, officer Winters noticed a woman, who appeared to be homeless, laying on a bench shivering in thirty degree weather. The woman claimed that she purchased the bench and refused to leave. Officer Winters did not give into her false claims, but felt an underlying sense of compassion for the woman. Instead of forcibly removing her from the park, he gave her a blanket and sat with her for hours. Officer Winters inability to restrain from his emotions prevented him from performing his duty. Therefore, cops, unlike officer Winters, are rewarded for being able to distance themselves from their feelings.
Police officers are also more at risk for alcohol abuse than the general public, as a result of their stress levels. When police officer’s actually accumulate astronomical amounts of pressure in their field of duty, alcohol seems like a reasonable solution to their problems. The most remote cause for alcohol abuse in law enforcement lies in alcohol’s ability to alter levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that take officers away from their line of duty and into a mindless bliss. Why not drink alcohol as a temporary relief to help cope with a murder case? Vicki Lindsay, a professor of Criminology and Penology at the University of Southern Mississippi, conducted a study of police officer’s in urban communities and found that of the 375 officers surveyed, 11% of male officers and 16% of female officers reported alcohol use levels deemed “at-risk” by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as opposed to a mere 4.7% alcohol use, ages 18-64, in educational services. Alcohol provides an outlet for police officers because they refuse to seek treatment for their anxieties or symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Problems that develop (such as alcohol dependency) are usually the result of a police officer’s, because of the stigma of appearing weak, reluctance to seek help. Mike Violette, an executive director of the Colorado State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, emphasized that it was “difficult enough to have officer’s come forward who have this problem. There is an ‘I can handle it’ attitude that cops have.” A way to minimize the help police officers are offered, they quickly and completely indulge in a night of binge drinking that allow for them to drown the nagging memories months of talk therapy only dull.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms pave the way for additional stressors such as murderous hours, rank stagnation and managerial apathy. Lethargy is dangerous in law enforcement because it eats away at the productivity, ethics and effectiveness of an officer. Police officers become no longer willing to uphold the duties entrusted to them when they took the oath. Mark Bond, professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University, said,” What many officers might not be aware of is the long-term effects of chronic fatigue and the relationship between stress and fatigue. Not getting enough rest and not eating properly in order to fuel the body can increase the effects of fatigue. Being fatigued on-duty causes many issues, such as poor decision making and other cognitive task difficulties.” The lack of counseling in law enforcement directly impacts a police officer’s performance and effectiveness in their field of duty. Police officers need and deserve our help to regain their mental health.
Law enforcement needs to eliminate the stigma surrounding the culture of law enforcement regarding the harsh judgment of police officers who seek professional help for mental health concerns. The problem is completely internal to the department. It is critical that officers learn healthy coping strategies to minimize stress on a regular basis, rather than attempt to mask stress with alcohol or other unhealthy behaviors. We cannot limit our efforts to educate the protectors of our well-being. We must provide contemporaneous trauma support.
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