Police Compassion Fatigue
By Konstantinos Papazoglou, Ph.D., Steven Marans, M.S.W., Ph.D., Tracie Keesee, Ph.D., and Brian Chopko, Ph.D.
If surveyed, many people probably would state that police work mainly entails performing routine duties and answering questions for the public. However, the reality proves much more complex and varied.
Officers respond to the scenes of heinous crimes and bring order to chaos, restoring a sense of safety and security in the presence of violence or catastrophe. In this regard, police can be more than law enforcers in their communities.1
Additionally, myriad situations require them to provide emotional support to persons impacted by crime (e.g., abused children; battered women; victims of robbery, assault, rape) or survivors of natural disasters and other catastrophic events. These distraught individuals often respond unpredictably. Here, officers serve as caregivers or “compassionate warriors.”2
Their unique role in helping to mitigate human suffering renders officers uniquely positioned to recognize and identify individuals traumatized by overwhelming events. When victims experience chaotic and horrendous incidents, police officers represent the most reliable and prominent sources of order, information, and support at the scene.3
Considering these demanding roles, officers can experience adverse effects over time. To this end, agencies should take measures to support personnel and bolster their efforts to help victims cope and recover.4
Impact on Officers
As coined, the term compassion fatigue describes the costs that accrue in frontline personnel as a result of caring for those who suffer. Based on this perspective, it develops due to a combination of prolonged exposure to traumatized victims and the inability to emotionally disengage from their suffering.5
However, based on their professional and research experience with law enforcement agencies, the authors suggest that police compassion fatigue should not only refer to officers’ inability to disengage from horrific events they encounter. Alternatively, some officers who repeatedly confront violent and tragic circumstances may become emotionally detached or numb.
Within the context of police work, compassion fatigue relates to officers’ powerful desire to help or save traumatized victims and to perform their duties in a manner that makes such individuals feel better and safe. Nonetheless, this type of motivation in many cases is limited, especially when officers respond to situations where victims already suffer from the emotional havoc wrought by their horrendous experience. When ill-equipped to deal with the acute reactions of victims and witnesses, officers often may doubt their ability to mitigate the suffering of those involved in these incidents.
The current scientific literature abounds with studies that explore experiences of compassion fatigue among officers and other caregiving personnel. Most suggest that compassion fatigue affects a significant number of such professionals.6 In a recent empirical study involving a large sample of police officers from the United States and Canada, 23 percent—or 230 in a department of 1,000—reported high levels of compassion fatigue.7
Significantly, research has shown that compassion fatigue can have an incapacitating impact on frontline professionals’ well-being, decision-making ability in critical situations, and overall job performance.8 In addition, it may negatively affect their cognitive processes (e.g., dissociation, lack of concentration), emotions (e.g., irritability, sense of helplessness and hopelessness), and behavioral patterns (e.g., hypervigilance, physical exhaustion).9 Further, compassion fatigue may adversely impact officers’ relationships with family and friends because its effects cannot be left at work and may disrupt the adaptive transition from shift work to family environment.10
Compassion fatigue more likely will occur if officers remain unaware or ignore the presence of its cues and continue to perform their duties without getting help from available resources, such as supervisors, peer-support groups, or clinical practitioners. If police officers or their supervisors continue to ignore the signs, symptoms of compassion fatigue can accumulate over time, ultimately leading to debilitating effects on officers’ health and well-being.
Dr. Papazoglou, a former police captain with the Hellenic National Police in Athens, Greece, is a postdoctoral scholar at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, and has collaborated as an expert with law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Dr. Marans is Harris Professor of child psychoanalysis, a professor of psychiatry, and the director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
Dr. Keesee, former deputy commissioner for the New York, New York, Police Department, is vice president of Law Enforcement and Social Justice Initiatives for the Center for Policing Equity.
Dr. Chopko is an associate professor of criminology and justice studies at Kent State University at Stark in North Canton, Ohio.
For instance, officers serving in child exploitation units may experience symptoms of compassion fatigue, such as feeling emotionally overwhelmed or having a lack of concentration, as a result of providing abused children with long-term support during investigations.
In other cases, compassion fatigue may produce signs that an officer may not notice. For example, what officers experience in the line of duty regarding victims’ suffering may lead to emotional numbness or isolation. These “underground” emotions may reemerge in multiple problematic ways for officers’ health and well-being, including isolation from family, alcohol abuse, and difficulty controlling frustration and anger during interactions with others.
Eventually, compassion fatigue—often exacerbated by organizational stressors and a lack of appreciation from the community—may render officers more susceptible to severe mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and burnout.11 Further, public criticism and perhaps unfair coverage of police work in the media may erode their sense of community support and professional pride. In turn, this impacts their feelings of well-being and places them at greater risk for harm when they encounter horrendous events and assist victims.
Additionally, failure to recover from traumatic stress after responding to calls for service involving violent and catastrophic incidents can place officers at higher risk for enduring not only behavioral symptoms but chronic physical health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.12
Gratification from Service
Police officers’ key role in critical incidents constitutes a protective factor in helping victims avoid poor long-term outcomes.13 These personnel may simultaneously play a crucial part in advancing victims’ recovery from traumatic experiences while more broadly contributing to the strengthening of relationships between police agencies and communities.14
In this context, compassion satisfaction refers to the gratification that officers derive from helping those who suffer.15 In one study, almost 31 percent of police officers reported high levels of compassion satisfaction.16 However, research also has shown that a considerable number do not appear to value the importance of their contributions.17 Therefore, while these officers still serve their communities, their inability to view their work as significant increases the likelihood that they will approach their duties perfunctorily.
Sometimes, officers may suppress their emotions or disengage while focusing their attention solely on investigative aspects of the incident. Perhaps they fail to appreciate the value of additional, trauma-informed approaches that may prove critically helpful to victims and witnesses and strengthen officers’ contributions to the investigation itself.
Research has indicated that officers and other frontline professionals who experience compassion satisfaction feel a greater sense of success and increased motivation because they can appreciate the value that their services add to the community and the lives of individuals.18 In addition, other studies have concluded that police officers with high levels of compassion satisfaction tend to show greater job performance, more commitment to their duties, and higher levels of self-perceived well-being.19
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research has revealed that compassion satisfaction is negatively associated with compassion fatigue—that is, an increase in one appears to correlate with a decrease in the other.20 Possibly, compassion fatigue symptoms (e.g., feeling overwhelmed, hypervigilant, irritable) may preclude officers from experiencing compassion satisfaction.
Although this topic requires more investigation, it seems clear that officers with high levels of compassion satisfaction can appreciate the importance of their services despite exposure to overwhelming experiences and care for trauma victims. In addition, the negative association between compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction indicates that using various techniques to strengthen compassion satisfaction can mitigate or entirely neutralize the virulent experience of compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
Affected judgment and clarity of thinking
Impacted decision-making in critical situations
Ineffective overall job performance
Low professional pride
Poor job satisfaction
Skepticism toward the public and agency
Lack of concentration
Blame of self and others
Other maladaptive thinking
Personal relationship issues
“Officers respond to the scenes of heinous crimes and bring order to chaos, restoring a sense of safety and security in the presence of violence or catastrophe.”
Recommendations and Implications
The authors recommend several sources of help in preventing or combating compassion fatigue’s impact on police officers’ health, well-being, and occupational performance.
Researchers have discussed and identified various self-care techniques that officers can use to help deal with compassion fatigue.21 As such, clinical practitioners could teach officers certain practical and easily applied measures for mitigating compassion fatigue’s effects.
These techniques also could become part of early career training for police cadets and new officers. Equipping new officers in this manner will help them avoid compassion fatigue’s deleterious effects on their future health and well-being. Moreover, because compassion fatigue appears positively associated with years of service, such methods would benefit veteran officers as well.
Although beyond the scope of this article, the authors note a number of effective techniques, including emotional regulation, controlled breathing, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, gratitude exercises, journaling, and identifying and changing problematic thinking.22 To this end, clinical practitioners can collaborate with law enforcement trainers, union representatives, and high-ranking administrative staff to incorporate self-care strategies into police training to support officers in managing compassion fatigue.
Clinicians familiar with policing can play a vital role in helping officers improve their levels of compassion satisfaction. One way is to partner with upper-level administrators to develop programs that identify and celebrate the successes of the department’s officers.
For instance, briefing or debriefing sessions often focus primarily on facts and any issues that may have emerged during the previous shift. However, clinical practitioners, as part of ongoing partnerships and based on their training and familiarity with law enforcement, could attend these meetings and work with officers and their supervisors to identify and focus on positive incidents that occurred, such as achievements, moments of gratitude, and pleasant social interactions.
Because police officers appear to view these types of acts as routine aspects of their work (e.g., helping an elder cross the street, appreciating a civilian’s gesture to thank them), they may not take the time to reflect upon and feel grateful for the services they provide for their communities.
Additionally, partnerships between police officers and clinical practitioners have proven successful in the context of treatment and referral of crime victims. For example, one of the authors has developed partnership policy programs between clinical practitioners and officers from a local police department to improve the quality of responses to child abuse and domestic violence calls.23 Similar partnerships between police officers and clinicians may be developed to support officers’ handling of their own police-related stress and trauma.
“Eventually, compassion fatigue…may render officers more susceptible to severe mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and burnout.”
High-ranking administrators can promote a focus on compassion satisfaction by inviting supervisory police officers to report any successes or positive interactions involving their officers to command staff and communicate these more broadly to the department. This approach would give officers the opportunity to share the value of their work with their supervisors and peers throughout the organization. It also would help them to appreciate their accomplishments—even the minor ones—while receiving the acknowledgement and support of the command structure, which, in turn, would establish an important departmental tone and set of values.
Because community clubs and organizations often form partnerships with local police departments, they can help foster compassion satisfaction by sharing their stories of officers’ accomplishments and expressing their appreciation of them. This feedback can help officers gain a grounded perspective of how their work plays a vital role in maintaining peace and order within the community. The New York, New York, Police Department (NYPD) has one such community participation program.24
Police organizations should put emphasis on the value of increased training for law enforcement professionals related to dealing with children and families impacted by traumatizing events.25 A toolkit developed by Dr. Steven Marans and his team at the Yale University School of Medicine, Child Study Center, offers an exemplary and tangible way of increasing police knowledge and enhancing responses to children and families exposed to violence and other tragic incidents. Thus, it helps officers achieve greater confidence, a sense of effectiveness, and professional satisfaction.26
The issue of compassion fatigue, which affects a significant number of officers, has multiple implications for police personnel. Thus, it demands the attention of law enforcement administrators, clinical practitioners, and policy makers.
Researchers have suggested that education, self-care training, and workplace policies can help foster compassion satisfaction while significantly decreasing or eliminating compassion fatigue symptoms.27 Further study of police compassion fatigue is imperative because the findings will support the development of evidence-based training curricula and workplace policy programs that will promote compassion satisfaction and prevent or treat compassion fatigue among police officers. The development of such programs would yield results that will benefit officers, their families, and the community.
“Further study of police compassion fatigue…will support the development of evidence-based training curricula and workplace policy programs that will promote compassion satisfaction and prevent or treat compassion fatigue among police officers.”
Dr. Papazoglou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Dr. Marans at email@example.com, Dr. Keesee at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Dr. Chopko at email@example.com.
1 Steven Marans et al., The Police-Mental Health Partnership: A Community-Based Response to Urban Violence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); and International Association of Chiefs of Police and Yale Child Study Center, Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence: A Toolkit for Law Enforcement (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017), accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/2018-08/CEVToolkit.pdf.
2 Brian Chopko, “Walk in Balance: Training Crisis Intervention Team Police Officers as Compassionate Warriors,” Journal of Creativity in Mental Health 6, no. 4 (2011): 315–328, accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254360367_Walk_in_Balance_Training_Crisis_Intervention_Team_Police_Officers_as_Compassionate_Warriors; and Christiane Manzella and Konstantinos Papazoglou, “Training Police Trainees About Ways to Manage Trauma and Loss,” International Journal of Mental Health Promotion 16, no. 2 (2014): 103–116, accessed September 12, 2019, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14623730.2014.903609.
3 Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence.
4 Steven Marans, Deborah Smolover, and Hilary Hahn, “Responding to Child Trauma: Theory, Programs, and Policy,” in Handbook of Juvenile Forensic Psychology and Psychiatry, ed. Elena L. Grigorenko (Boston, MA: Springer, 2012), 453–466; and Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence.
5 Charles R Figley, ed., Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized (New York, NY: Routledge, 1995).
6 For instance, see Konstantinos Papazoglou, Mari Koskelainen, and Natalie Stuewe, “Examining the Relationship Between Personality Traits, Compassion Satisfaction, and Compassion Fatigue Among Police Officers,” Sage 9, no. 1 (January 2019), accessed September 12, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244018825190; Judith P. Andersen, Konstantinos Papazoglou, and Peter Collins, “Association of Authoritarianism, Compassion Fatigue, and Compassion Satisfaction Among Police Officers in North America: An Exploration,” International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences 13, no. 2 (July-December 2018), accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332912472_Association_of_Authoritarianism_Compassion_Fatigue_and_Compassion_Satisfaction
_among_Police_Officers_in_North_America_An_Exploration; Judith P. Andersen and Konstantinos Papazoglou, “Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction Among Police Officers: An Understudied Topic,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience 17, no. 3 (2015): 661–663, accessed September 12, 2019, https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/73469/3/compassion_fatigue.pdf; and Thomas J. Covey et al., “The Effects of Exposure to Traumatic Stressors on Inhibitory Control in Police Officers: A Dense Electrode Array Study Using a Go/NoGo Continuous Performance Task,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 87, no. 3 (2013): 363–375, accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236080056_The_Effects_of_Exposure_to_Traumatic_Stressors_on_Inhibitory_Control_in_Police_O
7 Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe; and Andersen, Papazoglou, and Collins.
8 Andersen and Papazoglou; and Covey et al.
9 Brian E. Bride, Melissa Radey, and Charles R. Figley, “Measuring Compassion Fatigue,” Clinical Social Work Journal 35, no. 3 (August 2007): 155-163, accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226997803_Measuring_Compassion_Fatigue; and Figley, Compassion Fatigue.
10 Charles R. Figley, ed., Burnout in Families: The Systemic Costs of Caring (New York, NY: CRC Press, 1997); and Konstantinos Papazoglou, “Managing Effective Transitions: Presenting the Different Shades of Police Life and the Pivotal Role of Mental Health Care Providers in Promoting Officers’ Wellbeing,” International Journal of Medical and Health Sciences 5, no. 3 (2016): 121–122, accessed September 12, 2109, https://www.ijmhs.net/journals-aid-331.html.
11 Andersen and Papazoglou; and John M. Violanti and Anne Gehrke, “Police Trauma Encounters: Precursors of Compassion Fatigue,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 6, no. 2 (2004): 75–80, accessed September 12, 2019, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15298078.
12 Vincent J Felitti, “The Relation Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead,” Permanente Journal 6, no. 1 (2002): 44–47, accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6220625/; Vincent J. Felitti and Robert F. Anda, “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Medical Disease, Psychiatric Disorders, and Sexual Behavior: Implications for Healthcare,” in The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The Hidden Epidemic, ed. Ruth A. Lanius, Eric Vermetten, and Clare Pain (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 77–87; and John M. Violanti, “Dying for Work: Stress and Health in Policing,” Gazette 72, no. 1 (2010): 20–21.
13 Caroline Akers and Catherine Kaukinen, “The Police Reporting Behavior of Intimate Partner Violence Victims,” Journal of Family Violence 24, no. 3 (2009): 159–171, accessed September 12, 2019, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10896-008-9213-4; Paul Michael Garrett, “Talking Child Protection: The Police and Social Workers ‘Working Together,’” Journal of Social Work 4, no. 1 (2004): 77–97, accessed September 12, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1468017304042422; Marans, Smolover, and Hahn; and Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence.
14 Akers and Kaukinen; Manzella and Papazoglou; and Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence.
15 Beth H. Stamm, “Measuring Compassion Satisfaction as Well as Fatigue: Developmental History of the Compassion Satisfaction and Fatigue Test,” in Treating Compassion Fatigue, ed. Charles R. Figley (New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 108.
16 Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe; and Andersen, Papazoglou, and Collins.
17 Andersen, Papazoglou, and Collins.
18 Ibid; and Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe.
19 For instance, see Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe; Andersen, Papazoglou, and Collins; Andersen and Papazoglou; and Covey et al.
20 Chopko; Manzella and Papazoglou; and Figley, Compassion Fatigue.
21 Figley, Compassion Fatigue.
22 For additional information, see Marans et al.; Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence; and Marans, Smolover, and Hahn.
23 Marans et al.; Carla Smith Stover et al., “Factors Associated with Engagement in a Police-Advocacy Home-Visit Intervention to Prevent Domestic Violence,” Violence Against Women 14, no. 12 (2008): 1430–1450, accessed September 13, 2019, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1077801208327019; and Carla Smith Stover, Gina Poole, and Steven Marans, “The Domestic Violence Home-Visit Intervention: Impact on Police-Reported Incidents of Repeat Violence Over 12 Months,” Violence and Victims 24, no. 5 (October 2009): 591–606, accessed September 13, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/38031891_The_Domestic_Violence_Home-Visit_Intervention_Impact_on_Police-Reported_Incidents_of_Repeat_Violence_Over_12_Months.
24 For additional information, see “Community Affairs Programs,” New York City Police Department, accessed September 13, 2019, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/nypd/bureaus/administrative/programs.page.
25 Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence.
26 International Association of Chiefs of Police and Yale Child Study Center, Enhancing Police Responses to Children Exposed to Violence: A Toolkit for Law Enforcement (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017), accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/2018-08/CEVToolkit.pdf.
27 Melissa Radey and Charles R. Figley, “The Social Psychology of Compassion,” Clinical Social Work Journal 35, no. 3 (2007): 207–214, accessed September 13, 2019, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-00184-008.