Coping with the Career: A Review of Acquired Life Patterns of Veteran Officers
By Gary L. Patton, Ph.D.
Research and literature have helped to identify that police work can prove more emotionally dangerous than physically threatening.1 “Police officers are susceptible to many job related stressors that have both immediate and long-term physiological and psychological consequences.”2 Officers certainly have experienced depression, anxiety disorders, chemical dependence, suicidal ideation, and burnout. In fact, data have indicated that officers who continue to experience stress following a critical incident were more likely to resign or to commit suicide.3 Such findings have demonstrated the urgent need for a comprehensive approach to counseling law enforcement officers.
To this end, the author conducted a study to acquire new and additional understanding of the experience of being a law enforcement officer, with particular attention to personal wellness and spirituality. His research focused on gaining these insights from veteran officers about how their work, with all of the unique problems and challenges, affected their personal lives from a perspective of belief systems and sense of wellness.
Two basic questions prompted this research. How is a law enforcement officer’s spirituality and belief system affected by continuous exposure to crime, danger, violence, and suffering? And, does a state of spiritual wellness assist veteran officers in coping with the stress in their lives and, if so, how?
METHODOLOGY AND PURPOSE
The author used a qualitative phenomenological methodology with participant observation. Nine sworn veteran law enforcement officers (with 6 or more years of service) participated in the research. The author spent approximately 35 to 40 hours with each officer over the course of 6 to 8 months, observing and discussing issues during ride-along patrols or at other meetings.4 Three research questions generally guided these discussions and observations.
- What does the continuous exposure to crime, danger, violence, and suffering do to the coping and wellness of law enforcement officers?
- Does a state of spiritual wellness assist police officers in coping with the stress in their lives and, if so, how?
- What interventions are suggested by an analysis of the data to provide a holistic approach to counseling officers?
For the purpose of his study, the author defined spirituality as “the capacity of all people to possess—and know that they possess—beliefs, values, and convictions that give meaning and purpose to life.”5 The literature on this topic has indicated that a body of knowledge relates spirituality as one component of overall wellness and a resource for coping with life issues. For example, Bollinger felt that spiritual needs were the deepest of all human needs and that when a person’s spirituality is addressed, it can facilitate the development of a meaningful identity.6 In addition, one officer reported in Meredith’s work that often it is others who have been close to the officer who note that a change in behavior, disposition, and mental state has taken place.7
Dr. Patton, a licensed professional counselor, is a chaplain with the FBI and the Huntington, West Virginia, Police Department and an associate professor in the School of Professional Counseling at Lindsey Wilson College.
Law enforcement officers are known as a population that often exhibits some particular and debilitating physical and emotional symptoms, such as cynicism, alienation, and emotional numbing. Therefore, the relevant question is, Are some of the emotional and personal distress and effective coping demonstrated by veteran law enforcement officers related to spiritual issues?
In his research, the author summarized some of the issues identified as both useful and distressful under nine life patterns: desacralization, alienation, affiliation, unique life experiences, searching and yearning, search for excitement, preserving integrity, affirmation, and reformation and renewal. The participating officers identified and agreed that they demonstrated these patterns in their thinking, emotions, and behavior.
In the experience of desacralization, people lose contact with the aspects of their lives that they previously had considered sacred and special. In effect, their previously cherished and sacred dreams, hopes, and plans become common and questionable.8 In the process of desacralization, people tend to lose their sense of wonder, and life becomes somewhat common and ordinary. The process can continue to a point where the person exhibits detrimental changes in previously cherished and honored beliefs and convictions.
Given the sense of disappointment and disillusionment that law enforcement officers frequently encounter in their work, it is reasonable to conclude that they seem to experience a loss of some of the special reasons and motivations that they had set out to fulfill and experience. For example, they routinely see human suffering and the effects of crime and human cruelty, and justice sometimes is not administered as immediately or thoroughly as they would have expected or hoped.
Certainly, officers encounter times of high drama and intense excitement, yet they do not spend a shift racing from one call to another as some people assume. When this repeated experience of waiting and watching is linked with the times of heightened adrenaline, officers feel like they ride an emotional roller coaster. While they can get excited and dismayed, they frequently deal with the events they encounter with a sense of apathy. The officers in the author’s research indicated that they would not be able to cope if they “took their work too serious” or let themselves feel too much.
Another aspect of desacralization is the sense of futility that officers often feel. They deal with many of the same people on a frequent basis, which prevents them from realizing a sense of completion and finality in their work. Such numerous encounters with people who exhibit dysfunctional problems or criminal conduct have prompted some officers to express that they sometimes wonder whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem.
It appears that these officers have learned not to let themselves experience intense emotions, either pleasant or unpleasant, very often. Boredom and monotony are apparent in the officers’ lives and can result in a sense of apathy that helps keep their feelings from going too high or too low as they learn not to care as much as they did.
As a result, officers live with frequent and prolonged exposure to situations that people outside of law enforcement do not encounter. Through these experiences and attempts to cope with them, it is understandable that officers acknowledge that their belief systems become altered to accommodate the world realities they see and respond to. Consequently, people and practices once highly valued and sacred to officers may become less so as a result of coping with a world where they regard few things as special. Further, even if officers try to keep people, places, and experiences maintained as sacred, given the losses that occur in the profession, they wonder whether they can retain them permanently. Because many of the participating officers indicated that being a police officer became their primary way of identifying themselves, the sense of desacralization was how they came to see themselves as well.
“In the experience of desacralization, people lose contact with the aspects of their lives that they had previously considered sacred and special.”
Law enforcement officers believe that in all ways it is dangerous to trust people too much. The extent of danger certainly applies to their physical safety but also to what people will want from them. The officers in the author’s study spoke about people wanting favors from them and to become acquainted with them to get some benefit by “knowing a policeman.” It became evident that the officers expect people to take advantage of them or lie to them. In every aspect of relating to others, officers develop a suspicious nature.
One officer commented, “We are raised to believe that other people are telling us the truth until we discover otherwise. As police officers, we learn to believe that everybody is lying until we find a reason to believe otherwise.” This pattern is consistent with the findings of Lockard and Niederhoffer as they addressed cynicism among law enforcement professionals.9 They demonstrated through statistical analysis that police officers became increasingly cynical with length of service, but this cynicism eventually leveled off. This begs the question, Is this leveling off an improvement in their cynicism or the beginning of a sense of apathy and indifference?
Because officers experience a change in their perspective of other people, they also begin to respond to them in different ways. Some of these include being emotionally distant, cynical, and very reserved or cautious in their interactions.
Alienation is regarded as an issue of spiritual distress because it is related to the spiritual concept of belonging, as in the absence of belonging. Therefore, it is important to note that another pattern revealed in the author’s study is the need for affiliation. His research identified that officers experience a substantial degree of loneliness. It is critical to discuss this in conjunction with the data that suggest officers also have a need for acceptance and a desire to reconnect with others. Not only did the officers recognize how much time they spent alone in their patrol cars but they also talked about how “most people do not like us very much.” Obviously, officers recognize a definite disrespect from many citizens. Along with this lack of respect comes a vivid awareness that they often are not appreciated.
Human beings have innate needs for socialization and connection with other people. Indications from various stages in life reveal that healthy emotional, intellectual, and even physical functioning include aspects of relating to other individuals.
In 1989, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) began to investigate the relationship between early child care experiences and children’s developmental outcomes.10 The researchers focused on measuring facets of children’s development, including social, emotional, intellectual, language development, behavioral problems and adjustment, and physical health as related to how they were cared for. With data based on more than 1,300 children from various ethnicities, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds between 1991 and 2008, the researchers found academic and obedience problems among children who received the poorest child care during their first 4.5 years of life. These conditions were noted to continue into adolescence.
Because law enforcement officers have a sense of alienation from others, they find their belonging needs met among each other. Data from veteran officers reveal comments based on a sense of conviction about the “blue line,” a demarcation between those who are police officers and those who are not. Officers are convinced that nobody can understand them as they understand themselves. Research has shown that officers demonstrated, both by behavior and comments, that part of their affiliation with each other was because they have shared unique experiences in life that few other people can appreciate fully.
Unfortunately, at times, the blue line can cause those people closely related to officers also to experience alienation. For example, officers commonly discussed times when they chose to spend substantial portions of their off-duty hours with other officers, rather than their immediate families.
Unique Life Experiences
Three consistent and recurring themes in the law enforcement profession involved concerns about compromise, threats, and enticements. People wanting and expecting favors or special treatment, having to make decisions that potentially violate their sense of integrity, and the possibility of reprisal constitute profound issues that officers must address on an ongoing basis.
Evidently, officers encounter experiences and events that civilians either never face or, at least, rarely do. A prevailing view in the literature holds that officers experience a high incidence of burnout.11 However, Robinette proposed that instead of burnout, many officers demonstrate a complex state of unresponsiveness.12 Data from the stories the officers told supported that their experiences are uncommon due either to the type, unpredictability, and chaos of the situation or the degree of damage or death. Rather than identifying the state of unresponsiveness demonstrated by the officers as burnout, the researcher concluded from the data that the needs they represent are related more to disruption in their spiritual lives and personal belief systems.
Law enforcement officers live in a world where death, while not a constant threat, is an ever-present possibility. Each of these participants told stories of dangerous situations that could have resulted in death due to either accident or assault. Living with the awareness and presence of danger creates stress that threatens the officer on and off duty. According to their explanation, officers are taught levels of readiness for action, ranging from a completely relaxed state—not often experienced unless they are outside the realm where they work—to being involved in a situation where injury or death is possible. Between these two extreme states are the positions of being ready for the possibility of danger and remaining alert to the realization of imminent danger. The participating officers shared that they seldom—if ever—live in a state of relaxation and complete sense of calmness. Certainly, such a unique life experience has profound and lasting effects on officers’ bodies, minds, and spirits. These concerns are heightened by the fact of the frequency, intensity, and duration of the uncommon life experiences encountered in law enforcement.
Searching and Yearning
The human quest for meaning and purpose in life is expressed in the terms of a pattern of personal searching and yearning that the literature has identified as related to spirituality.13 In different terms, researchers have addressed the tendency humans have to question their experiences and to wonder about how present situations fit into their destiny and desires. They concluded that it is an aspect of spirituality to have the ability and the urge to search for meaning and purpose in the events of life.
In the author’s study with veteran law enforcement officers, themes emerged that appeared to be related to what Frankl referred to as “metaclinical problems,” the distress that people feel when faced with experiences that force them to deal with questions about life and suffering.14 They concluded that it is an aspect of spirituality to have the ability and the urge to search for meaning and purpose in the events of life. In addition, the author found that the consensus among the officers participating in his study was that if anything was going to continue to be disruptive to them professionally and personally, it would be situations involving the death and suffering of children.
Search for Excitement
“Alienation is regarded as an issue of spiritual distress because it is related to the spiritual concept of belonging, as in the absence of belonging.”
While the need for excitement and to some degree a willingness to take risks is part of what attracts people to law enforcement, it also seems that these urges are what keeps officers going when they become veterans. This pattern is consistent with the work of Reiser who stated that law enforcement recruits have been noted to need action and recognition.15
In conversations with law enforcement officers, it is common to hear discussions of the need and desire for excitement. Officers in the author’s research indicated that not only was it their duty but their desire to be involved in dangerous and risky situations. He heard the officers discuss their disappointment at missing an exciting event while off duty or on a particularly slow shift.
The author’s research revealed that the participating officers continued to maintain a strong conviction for justice well into veteran status. Both in conversation and behavior, the author noted that these veteran officers held to a strong sense of right and wrong. Accordingly, these participants would stir to action when they perceived something to be unfair or unjust. This is significant given that it could appear to be inconsistent with the other patterns previously noted.
An interesting observation of this sense of keeping their integrity occurred in situations where a “true victim” was at risk or actually harmed. Despite previously identified patterns of alienation and desacralization, the veteran officers in this study could easily relate to a sense of compassion for vulnerable people who experienced harm. The author particularly noted this in calls involving children and the elderly.
The pattern of preserving integrity also is specific to the honor of their badge and sense of duty. Even after prolonged exposure to crime, danger, suffering, and violence, these veteran officers strongly identified with the pride and honor of duty and service to maintain justice and a sense of order in society. The participants in this study, while having to relate to some people not regarded as honorable, appeared to value a distinction between these individuals and the suspects and criminals they had to contend with.
Even with a realization that the exposure to crime, danger, suffering, and violence has predicated some losses and changes in their lives from a spiritual and belief perspective, the participating officers also affirmed that they viewed their role in law enforcement from a sense of calling. That is, they did not view it as just a job they chose but as a profession that requires a sense of purpose and conviction to do well. They often explained this by saying, “Some people are not cut out for this work.” Despite long and sometimes irregular hours, low pay scales, and the scrutiny of the public on their decisions, these veteran officers believed that eventually their efforts would make a difference.
Reformation and Renewal
Finally, these veteran law enforcement officers recognized a need to find some fulfillment in the very environment that often caused them to experience profound disillusionment. This approach of finding fulfillment in life is easily associated with a spiritual quest for meaning and purpose in life. Some of the participants in this study discussed the need for peace and joy in life and to find some sense of contentment. Some officers talked about how the environment of law enforcement gave them time alone when they could think and reflect on their work, their future, and their relationships. The participants also stated that they found a sense of hope and renewal by realizing that their work may have prevented a tragedy or wrong from happening or possibly helped to correct something. In various terms, the law enforcement officers participating in this research conveyed the hope that at some point, they will have made a difference through their work. This proves consistent with the idea that law enforcement is a profession that people are called to and that in that calling, some transforming experience leads to work being fulfilling and meaningful. Again, these are aspects of living often associated with the spiritual dimension of life.
The patterns identified through the author’s research may not be generalizable to all people in the law enforcement profession. However, they can provide a place to begin to understand the context of law enforcement careers and to supply some understanding about how continued exposure to crime, danger, suffering, and violence affect the lives of those who serve as sworn officers of the law.
The author offers two general recommendations. First, because some identifiable life patterns are named in relation to serving in a law enforcement capacity, it could be effective to begin to address these patterns in academies and training programs as people enter the field of law enforcement. Second, given that these patterns are created through a continued exposure to crime, danger, suffering, and violence, interventions for officers struggling with these life patterns can be more efficacious by relating assistance to these specific patterns. This contrasts with the concept of attempting to assist officers by simply letting them talk. While that also can be useful, sometimes the officers themselves may be talking without fully recognizing the specific issues troubling them. If identifiable patterns can be named in conversation, then officers and those helping them can be more intentional about the kind of assistance and training provided.
Overall, the information furnished by veteran law enforcement officers provides a new approach to assisting the entire profession of those sworn to serve the citizens of the United States. By identifying specific life processes, more research and innovation can be implemented to enhance healthy life patterns and to assist with those that confound wellness and spiritual vitality.
“The pattern of preserving integrity also is specific to the honor of their badge and sense of duty.”